COLOSSIANS #34: THE BEAUTY OF TRUST

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Dancing takes a certain kind of surrender and willingness from one partner, and attentiveness and gentle guidance from the other. . So it is with men and women. Both sacrificial love and trusting submission teach us to be like Jesus, to show the world what Jesus is like. The heart of submission is both humility and trust. When you submit to someone, you are entrusting yourself to that person.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 34

COLOSSIANS #34: THE BEAUTY OF TRUST. COLOSSIANS 3:18-19

This our third message on Colossians 3:18-19. If you have not read the other two, please go back and do so before you read this one. In this day and age, we need a great deal of background and information to discuss issues regarding women and men.

We have so far learned that the Bible teaches us that God created male and female genders for a purpose, and that purpose is to reflect God’s image in the way that male and female relate to one another. This time, we will consider Paul’s instructions to wives:

18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (ESV, Colossians 3:18-19)

I have to admit, verse 18 makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately for those who don’t like it, this is not the only verse that says something like that. There are seven different passages in the New Testament that specifically teach about male-female relationships, and all they all have the same consistent message. A lot of people claim that these types of verses were written as instructions to obeyed only in the context of the chauvinistic first century culture. In this view, they are just there to tell people to fit in with the culture around them. Of course, the idea of conforming your behavior to ungodly culture is the exact opposite of everything else in the Bible. There are other big problems with that idea. Dozens of books have been written to try and interpret these sorts of verses in some way or another that makes them inoffensive to 21st century Western culture. I’ve read probably eight of those books, plus numerous articles. From the standpoint of solid biblical scholarship, they are horrifying.

I don’t have time here to go into all the reasons that we must take these verses seriously. I have actually, literally, written a book about this subject. It is called In God’s Image, and it is available in print or ebook from Amazon. I will only say that all of the ways of “getting rid of” these verses, or avoiding their plain meaning, lead us logically to dismiss not just these verses, but the entire bible also. I wish it wasn’t that way, but there it is.

I’ll say one more thing about this. I think almost anyone who read my previous message on Colossians (message #33) would approve of it, and perhaps even feel very strongly that men really need to hear the command to love sacrificially.  But if we get rid of “wives submit to your husbands,” we also have to get rid of “husbands, love your wives sacrificially.” We saw last time that that the command to husbands is deeply bound up with how Christ loves the church. In that word, there are beautiful parallels calling men to live for others rather than themselves. There are compelling pictures of how Jesus loves his people. Go back and read that message, and see if it would really be worth getting rid of all that that command means.

We have already seen the context of the “wives submit” verse here in Colossians. It comes as part of the section where we live new, different lives here on earth because we know that our real life is hidden with Christ in God. After dealing with some of what that means, Paul writes:

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

So, the way we relate as male and female is part of doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. It is part of putting off the old way of life, and living the new way, in dependence upon Jesus, with our real treasure in heaven. This is anything but an instruction to fit in with the culture. It is obviously an instruction of how to live out our new lives with Jesus. So, rather than making this meaningless, let’s see if we can also find something good and helpful in Colossians 3:18, which is, after all, part of God’s Word.

In the first place, let’s make sure not to misuse “wives submit to your husbands.” This does not mean that wives should tolerate any form of abuse. Your husband does not have the right to hurt you physically, or make you do something you don’t want to do. You should not tolerate emotional or verbal abuse, either. These verses do not give your husband the right to tell you what to do, or to arrange how you spend all your time. These verses do not say: “Your husband is the dictator of your life.” Unfortunately, some men have abused these verses that way, but they will have to give an account of themselves before God himself, and I would never want to trade places with them, come judgment day. We must always keep in mind God’s instructions for husbands. If husbands love their wives sacrificially, as the Lord tells them to, there will be no abuse, nor even misuse of “wives submit to your husbands.”

One problem we have in applying these verses is that in our culture, the word “submission” is not very positive. We think of it as something degrading or humiliating. But that is just our culture, at this time in history. There are cultures in the world even today where people think of submission as a positive thing. Just as people in our culture think it is positive to act in ways that are kind and loving, so people in certain cultures think it is positive to show respect and submission. Those folks are eager for the chance to show that they are submissive and respectful, just as we might be eager to show that we are loving, caring people. So, when you hear “submission,” and think “yuck,” understand that such an attitude is neither necessary, nor universally correct. Maybe there is an opportunity here to broaden your wisdom and understanding, and learn from other cultures.

Another thing we need to get correct is the understanding that submission has nothing to do with equality, or inequality. We all have to submit to lawful instructions from police officers. Does that mean that all police offers are better than everyone else? Does it mean they are more valuable, or smarter, than all of the rest of us? Does it mean there is fundamental inequality between us and the police? Of course not. But the police have certain responsibilities that the rest of us do not, and it helps everyone if we cooperate with them.

Biblical submission has nothing to do with equality. But it does have to do with the fact that men are given some responsibilities that are not given to women (as in the police officer analogy, above). There’s something very interesting about the first sin, recorded in Genesis 3. Eve is the one who listens to the serpent. She is the one who takes the fruit and eats it, and then she is the one who entices Adam to do the same thing. Even so, it is Adam who is held primarily responsible for the fall of human beings into sin. God holds Adam accountable first, before Eve, and then pronounces the judgment on him last. He begins and ends with Adam. The New Testament writers affirm this idea. The New Testament clearly blames Adam, not Eve, for sin entering the world (1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 5:12-19). How can this be? How can it be Adam’s fault, if Eve was the first one to actually listen to the serpent, and then take and eat the fruit?

The reason is given in Ephesians 5:22-24:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV, Eph 5:22-24)

When it says the husband is head of the wife, part of what that means is that the husband is responsible for the leadership and direction of the couple, and their family. He will be held responsible even if he refuses to accept it. Adam tried to blame Eve, in Genesis 3, but God didn’t buy it. Adam was supposed to protect Eve from the temptation of the serpent, and lead her. Instead, he stood by and said not a word while his wife was corrupted. He avoided his responsibility. Adam was blamed for failing to lead. So too, men will be held responsible for loving their wives sacrificially, and part of that loving also means gently pointing them toward God.

So wives, bear in mind, your husband will be held responsible in some way, even if you insist on doing it your way. It seems only fair that you allow him to have the final say in decisions for which he will be held accountable. This doesn’t mean every little decision, like where to go out to eat, or what brand of cat food to buy. But recognize that your husband has a responsibility that you don’t have.

Just as Jesus is the example of love for husbands, so Jesus is also the example of submission for wives. Jesus submitted himself to the Father, and came to earth in humility, depending upon the Father, rather than his own resources. From this we can see that the heart of submission is both humility and trust. When you submit to someone, you are entrusting yourself to that person.

As we did last time, I want us to consider a passage that teaches at greater length on this same issue. Peter, when he speaks to this issue of husbands and wives, starts with the example of Jesus, in 1 Peter 2:21-25:

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 (ESV, Peter 2:21-25)

He goes on:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1-6)

So Peter says the example for wives in submission is Jesus. And one important thing about Jesus is that he entrusted himself to God. So wives are to entrust themselves to God, in part, by trusting God’s work through their husbands. Peter gives Sarah (wife of Abraham) as an example of what he means. Abraham felt called by God to leave their home and family and travel to a place neither of them had ever been, a place that God did not even clearly specify. What did Sarah do? She said yes. She did so, not necessarily because she thought Abraham knew what he was doing. But Sarah trusted what God was doing, and so she went along. Abraham made some questionable decisions later on. Sarah went along with it, trusting that even though Abraham might be making a mistake, God was still in control, and she could rely on God to protect her.

Sarah was also a woman who spoke her mind. On several occasions, the Bible records that she made her views known very clearly to Abraham. But once she had clearly spoken her mind, she trusted herself to God, trusting that God could and would be with her, even in her marriage to this imperfect man, Abraham. And God honored Sarah for this sort of trust. His promise of a child was not just to Abraham, but to Abraham and Sarah. When Abraham had a child without Sarah, God said, “No. My promised child will come through Sarah too, not just Abraham.”

So when you submit, you are not saying, “My husband is the perfect man who never makes any mistakes.” You are saying, “I am entrusting myself to God, and to the work of God in and through my husband.” It is a call to trust God.

Men often need to be motivated to step in and move forward. They don’t enjoy being criticized, and so many men would prefer their wives to take over and do everything. That way, they (the men) will be able to relax, and avoid all sense of blame and responsibility. Nagging has rarely had the power to correct this attitude in men. But what if, instead of telling him to do it, instead of nagging him about it, you communicate clearly that since he is the husband, you will trust him to take care of it? Offer your opinion, expertise and assistance, of course, but make sure he knows that that the buck stops with him. Give your love and support, but don’t let him pawn off his responsibility on to you. Trust is a powerful motivator.

Another part of godly submission is this: the two of you belong together. You, as an individual, are not just living your own, pursuing your own hopes, dreams and goals. No, when you are married, you move together in the same direction. Wives should have clear, weighty influence upon the hopes, dreams and goals of the couple. They are, after all, half of the whole “oneness” created by marriage. But godly submission also means that wives, entrusting themselves to God, should remain open (perhaps more open than they would normally be) to the influence of their husbands as they build their lives together. Of course husbands and wives often have different interests and pursuits. That is normal and healthy. But when it comes to the big stuff, like what you value, and how you will raise children, and how you will pursue God’s work in your life: here, couples should be united as possible. The husband’s part in that unity is to love to the point of self-sacrifice. The wife’s part is to trust God and her husband to the point of godly submission.

I have often felt that this whole thing a bit like dancing. When both people try to lead in a dance, it doesn’t go very well.  The movement doesn’t flow with the music and everything is quite uncomfortable and jerky. When the dancing couple recognizes that, and one lets the other lead, both bodies begin to flow with the music.  One gives gentle cues, perhaps with a nudge to the back or by pressing lightly in one direction or another. It’s as if the two become one body, moving beautifully. I know some men might say, “I don’t know how to lead. I’d be happy for her to do it.” But God’s command to men is to step up and take responsibility, using your strength and initiative to love sacrificially. Some women may say, “I don’t want to be led. I want to be in control.” But God’s command to women is to learn to trust.

Dancing takes a certain kind of surrender and willingness from one partner, and attentiveness and gentle guidance from the other. So it is with men and women.

There is no guarantee, of course that your husband will love you sacrificially, the way he is supposed to. And there is no guarantee for men that their wives will love them by trusting, the way they are supposed to.

However, if you wives want to increase the likelihood that your man will try to love you sacrificially, try trusting him in biblical submission. If you husbands want to increase the possibility that your wife will trust you by supporting and encouraging your efforts, by respecting you, try loving her sacrificially.

In any case, that’s all we can do. Men you do not have the right to try and compel your wife to do what you want. That sort of thing is abuse, and is both sinful and illegal. What you do have the right and privilege to do is to love your wife sacrificially, and to trust God to be at work in your wife.

Women, you don’t have the right to try and compel your man to love you sacrificially. That sort of love can’t be forced, anyway, and if you try to get it through manipulation, you’ll find the result isn’t real love. What do you do  have the right and privilege to do is show your love for your husband by respecting him, and entrusting yourself to his loving leadership. There is no guarantee that your husband will do everything the way you want it done. There is no guarantee that he will respond to your warm invitation and your willing giving-up of control. But you also entrust yourself to the One who will never fail you.

Let me offer you a real life example of all of this.

Some dear friends of ours came over a while back to share a struggle they were having. I’ll call them Will and Jane (not their real names). Will felt very strongly called by God to do something (it wasn’t sinful or bad). It was something he wanted to do anyway, but he sincerely felt that God wanted it, too. The thing he wanted to do would have a significant impact on Jane and also the rest of the family. Jane wasn’t OK with it. Will and Jane agreed to pray about it for a while, and then after a while they came to us to discuss it. Jane had done her best to go along with Will’s proposed plan. She had prayed, and asked God to change her heart, but after six months, she still wasn’t OK with what Will wanted to do.

Now, how would you apply these verses today? Jane could have dug her feet in and said, “You have to love me sacrificially, so you can’t make me go along with this.” Will could have insisted and said, “You have to submit to me, and so you have to go along with this.”

But that approach is not at all what the Bible is trying to say. The Bible doesn’t tell Will: “Your wife has to submit.” It tells Will: “You love sacrificially.” The Bible doesn’t say to Jane: “Your husband has to give up everything for you.” No, it tells her to  express herself, and then to entrust herself to her husband’s love and God’s plan to work through and with her husband.

These Bible verses tell Jane to submit to her husband. So she explained to him very clearly exactly how she was feeling. She described how troubled she was about what Will wanted to do. And then she put herself in Will’s hands. She made it abundantly clear what her own position was, but when she had done so, she still left the decision to Will.

These Bible verses tell Will to love his wife. So, he explained why he felt so strongly about his position. He explained his process that led him to believe that God wanted him to do this. And then, when Jane couldn’t seem to change, he made the decision to love his wife sacrificially by not making her go along with something that she was not ready for.

Everything I’ve just told you is true. I didn’t give you details about what it was Will wanted to do, but it was nothing sinful. I didn’t give you their real names. But this really happened. This is a beautiful example of Sacrificial love and Loving Submission in action.

Jane gave us a beautiful picture of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. She really didn’t want to go the direction Will wanted to go. So she poured out her heart to Will. When she was done, she trusted him with what she had said, trusting that God would be at work in what Will decided.

Will gave us an example of Jesus loving his people sacrificially. He saw that he could not move forward without hurting Jane. So, he gave up his own desire to make sure she felt secure and loved.

Both sacrificial love and trusting submission teach us to be like Jesus, to show the world what Jesus is like. Would you trust him today by trying these things?

THIS WORLD IS NOT OUR HOME

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In this time of angry, partisan politics, it is vitally important that we Christians remember that this world is not our home. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, and our first allegiance is not to any earthly country, but to Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of those who belong to him. This fact should change the way we view and practice politics. Those among the capitol mob who thought they were doing God’s will are horrifically wrong.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download “This World is Not Our Home”

THIS WORLD IS NOT OUR HOME

SCRIPTURE REFERENCES: Colossians 3:1; Matthew 5:38-42; Romans 8:18-25; John 18:36; Matthew 26:52-53; Matthew 10:28-31; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

During my twenty-five years as an ordained pastor, I have almost never used my preaching to deliberately speak to current political events. The Bible addresses subjects that are important in politics, and I have always done my best to try to explain what the bible teaches on such issues when they arise in the text, along with some suggestions for ways we might apply the bible to how we think politically. But I have never (as far as I remember) used a sermon as a platform to say something about what was going on politically at the time.

Until now.

I believe that what I want to say should be said soon. I believe it is an important thing for me, as a Christian leader, to say. And, if you are reading this, it means that I believe that the Lord wants me to say it, that, in fact, the Lord wants to speak to you and me about something very important. If nothing else, this is a good reminder about setting our hearts on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1).

Let’s start with some background. When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, there was video from many places throughout the Muslim world showing people out in the streets, celebrating that heinous act of murder and destruction.

I really wanted to hear a lot of Muslim leaders condemning the terrorists specifically for being bad Muslims. I did not hear that. You can speculate however you want about why that condemnation was not widely heard. That’s not my main point.

Fast forward to the events of 6th January, 2021. I have read with dismay that many of those involved in the attack on the United States Capitol on the 6th of January, 2021 think that they are good Christians. Some of them carried signs and flags with Christian messages. Christian music was blaring throughout the area. Christians have been among some of the most vehement supporters of Donald Trump. As far as I have a part, I don’t want to fail to say this:

 Those who were involved in the capitol attack are bad Christians. Their actions have no connection to following Jesus Christ. The words of Jesus, and of the scriptures, condemn their actions. They are not beyond forgiveness. But what they did is not Christian, not justified, not justifiable. They have put a terrible blot of shame upon the name of the man who died for his enemies. I do not mean to sound as if I think I am better than them; I’m a sinner too. But I think Christian leaders need to say this very clearly: These were not Christian actions, and they can’t be justified, or considered OK in the light of the Christian faith. Anyone who thinks they did this for Jesus, or because of Christianity, is horrifically mistaken.

How can I say for sure that those who attacked the capitol are bad Christians (to the extent that they claim to be Christians)? Let’s hear from Jesus Christ himself:

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42, ESV)

Was the election truly stolen? I have no idea. Does my ignorance shock you? My short response is this: in the Kingdom of God it doesn’t really matter. In the kingdom of God American politics are really not that significant. Christianity thrived for almost eighteen centuries without the USA. Certainly, America has been a force for a lot of good and freedom in the world. But let’s not get confused. Christianity and Americanness are two entirely separate things. The majority of the Christians in the world are not American. You can be a very good Christian without being American. Being a Christian is not synonymous with being an American patriot, nor vice versa. And most importantly, America might need God, but God doesn’t need America. What I’m trying to say, is that even if America becomes the most evil nation ever to exist, God’s plans will not be thwarted.

And so, what if the election really was stolen? What then? The words of Jesus are clear:  Then do not resist the one who is evil. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Jesus’ words, not mine. We can’t claim to be his good followers while we disobey his teachings.

When I was in seminary there was a movement in theology that I felt was both wrong and dangerous. It was called liberation theology. The main idea behind it was that Jesus had come to bring political liberation to the oppressed. Therefore, the main point of Christianity, (according to liberation theology) was to work for the liberation of the poor, and the righting of injustice.

Liberation Theology was wrong, not because it fought injustice, but because it thought that was the point of being a Christian. Throughout its 2,000 year history, Christianity has indeed been the greatest force in the world to help the oppressed and to work for justice. If you aren’t Christian, that statement may surprise you, but it is true. Even many people today who are not Christians, and who work against injustice, may not realize that they are motivated by values that come from the teachings of Jesus.

Even so, Jesus also taught that his kingdom is not of this world, and the most important things are not to be found in this life. Jesus makes life worthwhile for his people even when we suffer unjustly, even if we never, in this mortal life, receive justice. The good that we can experience in the life to come is so overwhelmingly wonderful that Paul writes:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (ESV, Romans 8:18-25)

Clearly, our main hope is not in this life. Real Christians wait patiently for what we do not see – in other words, for our eternal hope. The sufferings we have in this life are not worth mentioning. If you can even legitimately call an allegedly stolen election “suffering,” it is not worth mentioning, let alone worth marching on the capitol, or taking it over. Our hope is not in Donald Trump, nor in any political leader that might arise in the future. Our hope is not even in an objective, fair election process.

I say again – anyone who claims that they did this because of their Christian faith does not understand what it means to be a Christian. As a Christian leader, a solemnly called and ordained teacher of the Bible, I call any Christians who were involved with the shameful events of January 6, 2021, to repent of your reckless, unchristian behavior, which gives a bad name to Jesus Christ. I beg other Christian leaders to make the same call.

When the locals brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Listen to what Jesus said:

36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world (ESV, John 18:36)

Jesus said if his kingdom was about this world, then yes, his followers would be fighting. But his kingdom is not primarily about this world, and therefore he stopped his followers from fighting. When Peter used his sword as they came to arrest Jesus, Jesus rebuked him for it:

52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (ESV, Matthew 26:52-53)

 Yes the values of God’s eternal kingdom lead us to peacefully seek justice for all, particularly the oppressed. Yes the kingdom values lead us to make this world a better place. But this world is not the point. This life is not “about” this life. Our real kingdom is waiting for us in eternity. Therefore, the followers of Jesus do not use violence to establish the kingdom. It would be pointless to do so, because that kingdom is already established in eternity. It is not a kingdom on this version of the earth.

What about our rights? Shouldn’t we fight if they come to take away our rights? Once again, let’s hear from Jesus himself:

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Arenʼt two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Fatherʼs will. 30 Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. 31 So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows. (ESV, Matthew 10:28-31)

I want to make sure we understand something. It is not wrong to defend our bodies or homes or loved ones from attack. But violence does not advance the kingdom of God. It is not the way that God achieves his agenda on this earth. In some extreme cases it may be unavoidable. But we are horribly wrong if we think violence is an acceptable way for us to bring about God’s purposes.

It is important to understand something about how Jesus was put to death. His enemies made him out (falsely) to be a revolutionary, someone who was leading people to rebel against the government at that time. Do you hear me? It was his enemies who tried to portray him that way. Those enemies tried to get Jesus to say something seditious when they brought up the matter of taxes.

17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 27:17)

Actually, the people paid taxes not only to Caesar, but also to Herod. Herod was a terrible despot, a dictator who crushed the people with taxes, and built lavish palaces for himself. Caesar, of course, was Tiberius, the Roman emperor at the time. He wasn’t the worst of the Caesars during the first century (for instance, not as bad as Nero, Caligula or Domitian) but he was neither fair, nor just, nor concerned for the welfare of the common people in his empire. He was a dictator who held absolute power. What do you think? Should we pay taxes to a pair of dictators who crushed the people without concern for life or freedom? Let’s see what Jesus says:

 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (ESV Matthew 22:18-21)

When he says “unto God the things that are  God’s” he is referring to the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. So he is saying, “yes, pay your taxes. Don’t worry about the government. Worry about your relationship with God.”

The apostle Peter wrote two letters. In Christian theology, the entire New Testament is considered to be the teaching of Jesus. It isn’t just the words in red (words spoken by Jesus, specifically) – we believe that all of the New Testament was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles did not invent things – they passed on the teachings of Jesus. So, what is the teaching of Jesus about government, passed on through Peter?

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (ESV, 1 Peter 2:13-17)

Who was this wonderful emperor that Peter wrote about, the one who was in charge at that time? It was almost certainly Nero, the man who was later responsible for Peter’s own death. There is evidence that Nero also had a party in which he lit up the grounds of his palace by setting Christians on fire.

By the way, there are some people who believe that this riot was actually started by far-left activists who were pretending to be Trump supporters, in order to give them a bad name. What if that is true? Go back to Peter’s instructions, and remember that when Rome was ravaged by fire, Nero and his officials falsely blamed Christians for it (this was his justification for burning Christians as human torches). Yet, Peter tells Christians to honor Nero and his government as far as possible, and the Holy Spirit preserved those instructions for us, even after Nero had done those unspeakable things.

Now, Peter did say, earlier in his life “We must obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29).” That statement was made when the authorities ordered he and John to stop telling people about Jesus. Peter understood godly disobedience. When the authorities try to prevent us from obeying Jesus, we must obey Jesus, and not the authorities. When they try to compel us to do what is sinful, or wrong then we must disobey.

Can anyone make a case that the capitol mob was somehow being prevented from obeying Jesus? I can’t. Can anyone make a case that somehow, the authorities were compelling them to sin, or disobey Jesus? Again, I think you would find that extremely tough sledding.

Godly disobedience is for when the government says we can’t worship Jesus, or tell others about him. It is for when people tell us we can’t have or read Bibles, or pray to Jesus. Also, godly disobedience is non-violent. We don’t attack. We don’t even defend. We merely refuse to do what is wrong, and continue to do what is right. What happened on January 6th, 2021 in Washington DC has nothing to do with godly disobedience. It is not Christian, and all true Christians ought to be broken and repentant that there were people present who thought they were true believers.

By the way, I am not concerned about any of the people in our churches and network. But I want us to be clear about this when we speak to others. I would like us to be a part of a chorus of strong Christian voices that rise up to condemn these actions as not-Christian. I want us to be part of a movement to stop the confusion between American patriotism and Christianity, particularly the kind of radical “patriotism” that resulted in the storming of the capitol.

I want us to call the church at large to remember that our greatest treasure is Jesus, and we can never lose Him, no matter what the government does or doesn’t do. I want us to remind our brothers and sisters that we live not for this life, but the one to come. The same restraint that teaches us to say “no” to sin for the joy that awaits us should teach us to be patient and at peace with whatever the political situation is at present. If Jesus and Peter could ignore the despotism under which they lived, surely we can handle a few years of control by a political party we don’t like.

By the way, just in case someone might dismiss my words with “He’s just another one of those Christian progressives,” let me set you straight. As far as Christianity goes, I believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible in the original documents, and there is a wealth of evidence that those original documents have been reliably preserved. That’s a solid, mainstream conservative position, and I hold it because I have studied the Bible for so long. Everything else I believe proceeds from my belief in the significance of the Bible. As far as politics go, I believe in limited central government, and am a passionate supporter of the first and second amendments in particular, and of the constitution in general. You might accurately call me an independent libertarian, though with some differences. A progressive I am not. But before, during and after any sort of politics, I am a Christian first, second, and always. My allegiance – and that of all who call themselves Christians – should be first to Jesus, and Jesus alone. No country, no political party or philosophy or system should ever be able to make us compromise what it means to follow Him.

I know many people are angry and upset about this election, and they feel like this is the beginning of the end. But truthfully, we should not be so shaken by something like earthly politics. In fact, Hebrews says:

28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful. (CSB, Hebrews 12:28)

I’m afraid many Christians have forgotten that our kingdom is not of this world, and nothing can shake it. Listen to the words of Paul:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, CSB)

We Christians are first, and foremost, citizens of heaven. Earthly citizenship cannot change that, and all earthly citizenship should be modified by the fact that we belong to Jesus first. Yes, our heavenly future motivates us to work for peace and justice here and now, but the way we go about that should reflect the fact that we are already secure in the kingdom of God.

Let the Holy Spirit apply these scriptures to your heart today.

THE BEAUTY OF MALE AND FEMALE, PART 2

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These instructions to men and women teach us to die to our own self-centeredness, and live for others. They also they point us to the incredible love and sacrifice of Jesus.

COLOSSIANS To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 33

Colossians #33  Col 3:18-19 PART B

Last time we looked at Colossians, we considered the fact that God created our genders deliberately, and with a purpose. The Bible teaches us how to work with that fact in loving each other and following Jesus. The latest science decisively confirms that human beings are gendered to the core. However, because we are all made in the image of God, gender is something even deeper than biology. Women and men are made to relate to one another in a way that shows the world something of the glory of God. This happens in all sorts of contexts, not just marriage.

By the way, I want to be sure we acknowledge and recognize that some people have difficulties in coming to terms with their biological gender. As Christians, we must have compassion and grace for people who have these difficulties. Our churches should be safe places for such folks, places where there will be no insults or cruel words. The facts of science and biology do not change the very real emotional struggles that some people have.

At the same time, as Christians, we should not compromise what the bible says. In the case of gender, science is also crystal clear. Our call is to speak the truth, but to do so in love. Simply agreeing with whatever anyone thinks is not loving– often that is actually cowardice. We are afraid of getting flak, or of being seen as hateful, or we want to be “on the right side of history.” But it is when we disagree with someone that true love can be shown. Jesus pointed out that naturally, anyone loves his friends. But real Christian love can occur when we care for people and respect them as human beings even when they disagree with us, even when they make choices that we think are wrong. Real love, deep love, always wants the best for others, even when those others may not recognize or agree with what “the best” means. So it is my ongoing hope and prayer that anyone at all would feel welcomed by our house churches, and also that in our house churches anyone at all would come face to face with the truth of the gospel, which is that we need to repent, turn away from all sin and self-centeredness, and surrender all to Jesus, receiving his grace and forgiveness.

The Bible claims to be God’s special revelation to humankind. It comes through human authors, but it originates with God. In short, it is God’s Word to us. One of the things the bible tells us is that all human beings have sinned, and our thoughts, attitudes and desires are often corrupted by sin. If this is true, it means that the bible will contradict and challenge some of our thoughts, attitudes and desires. Since every human culture was developed by sinful human beings, the Bible will challenge every culture at some point or another.

One of the most difficult things in understanding the Bible is learning to recognize our own cultural biases, and being willing to consider things that challenge our “normal” way of looking at the world.

The culture of Papua New Guinea when I was growing up was one that highly valued both debts and vengeance. The economy of that culture was based upon people owing each other favors, and sometimes people owing each other revenge. For that culture, accepting what the Bible says about forgiveness – especially forgiving and loving enemies – was challenging and difficult.

Texts like ours today in Colossians about men and women present a challenge to 21st Century Western culture. Our culture does not see gender the way the Bible teaches us to see it. In addition, our society encourages us to be highly sensitive about the possibility that someone or something is oppressing women (or, in fact, oppressing any one of several different categories of people). I’m not saying that is always a bad thing to be sensitive to this, but we should be aware of our own biases  when we read a text like this one. In case you think I am wrong, and you believe that our culture is more likely to oppress women than to be worried about oppressing them, let me give an example.

There has been a great deal of awareness raised about the fact that more men than women are involved in Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). More men than women get degrees in STEM fields, and work in those types of careers.

A few years ago the Microsoft Windows lock screen was used to raise awareness about the fact that the STEM fields are dominated by men. These days, scholarships, internships and opportunities abound for women interested in STEM education and careers. In addition to all that, there are vast numbers of organizations and foundations which exist to help women especially get both bachelor’s and graduate degrees in all fields. There is constant awareness-raising for women’s education.

However, the truth is, women have far outpaced men in education for more than forty years. Since 1980, far more women than men have gone to college and received degrees at all levels. Women dominate many different academic fields. On average, female college professors make more money than their male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience.

The average male high school senior reads at the same level as the average female eighth-grader. Grade school boys are disciplined and reprimanded more than twice as often as girls. Boys and men have fallen far behind in every academic area except STEM.

So, where are the organizations and foundations trying to create more opportunities for men in the arts and humanities? Where are the endowments for specifically male writers, or the scholarships for men to make up the gap in literature, or sociology or history? Where are the windows lockscreens agonizing over the fact that men don’t even go to college as often as women, let alone graduate with a degree?

I will say it again: our culture is primed to expect women to be oppressed. Am I saying that women are never oppressed? Of course not! But I am saying that when it comes to gender and sexuality, our culture has a chip on its collective shoulder. We are waiting to get angry about gender injustice, even in cases where the facts say there is no issue there. So, take a deep breath. Recognize that we may not be totally objective about gender issues. Try to be conscious of our cultural biases while we deal with these verses.

In order to avoid knocking the chip off our shoulder, I will deal first with what these verses are telling men to do and be. Again, however, I want to make sure that we recognize the cultural biases that make it necessary to take these verses out of order. For you women, as you read, look past these instructions to men, and recognize and remember the great love that Jesus has for you.

With that long introduction, let’s look at this verse, and then one that says the same thing, but with more detail. For our verse today, I provide my own translation:

You husbands, love your wives sacrificially, and do not cause them to be grieved, or make their lives bitter.

And then, the expanded instructions come from Ephesians 5:22-33:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (ESV, Ephesians 5:22-33)

The New Testament uses three different Greek words for love. There is eros (air-rohs), which is romantic/sexual love; phileo (fil-lay-oh), which is brotherly/friendship love; and agape (uh-gah-pay), which is self-sacrificing love. Husbands are told to agape their wives. Agape is the way God loves us. Jesus provided the ultimate example of agape when he suffered on the cross, died, and suffered hell on our behalf. He did not need to do any of it for himself. It cost him everything to love us this way. This, my dear brothers, is how we husbands must love our wives. We love, even when it costs us dearly, when it costs us our own comfort, our own desires, yes, even if it costs our own well-being.

We men are to sacrifice for our wives. We are to cherish them and nourish them physically, spiritually and emotionally. Jesus is not passive in the way he loves the church. He pursues us. He gently, but purposefully moves into our lives, giving us opportunities to trust him. So we too should relationally pursue our wives, purposefully seeking to deepen and strengthen our connection. As Jesus led through self-sacrifice and service, so we too are called to lead – not by commanding or controlling, but by serving like Jesus did.

Men are often consistent in pursuing their wives sexually, because that is something that we want. But we must also pursue a deep relational and emotional connection with our wives, to seek to meet their needs as diligently and consistently as we seek to meet our own.

Just in case we miss the point, let’s use some concrete examples. You are both tired from a hard day. You sit down together, with no energy, but someone needs to do something about supper. As a husband, loving your wife like Jesus loves the church, what is your response to this situation? I think most often it should be that you, called to love sacrificially, take responsibility for dinner. Now, that doesn’t rule out ordering pizza, but it should mean that you serve your wife by taking care of the thing that nobody wants to deal with.

Or suppose your wife feels the need to talk about something, even perhaps, just how her day went. You are tired, or there is something else you want to do, or maybe even the game is on. Sometimes sacrificial love means giving her time and attention when you really don’t feel like it. By the way it wouldn’t be wrong to ask her if you could have the conversation after the game you want to watch is over, but be sure she’s OK with that, and be sure to follow through.

Sacrificial love for your wife may mean that you get up and deal with your daughter’s nightmare, or the cat’s throw-up. It may mean that you take responsibility for caring for the house, or doing the finances. In our case, Kari wants to be part of handling the bills, but we discuss our finances and make decisions together, and it is understood that if she doesn’t want to work (and is willing to take a hit in our standard of living) she doesn’t have to.

Above all, sacrificial love means you men accept responsibility for your life together as husband and wife. Leaning on Jesus and all of his power, you do your best to make sure that your wife feels loved, safe, and secure, to the extent that you can. I can’t make Kari feel at peace with everything, but I can make sure that her lack of peace isn’t because of me. I can’t make her feel secure, but I can ensure that she isn’t insecure because of me.

One aspect for men of loving sacrificially is that this also encourages men to be actively involved. If we are supposed to love like Jesus, it means we ought to be pursuing our wives, and actively leading our families closer to Jesus. Obviously, we won’t do those things perfectly, but we are to try. Coming home, watching TV and offering up one-syllable responses to your wife’s conversation are not usually consistent with loving your wife sacrificially.

Too many men prefer not to take a stand, or take ownership. Sometimes, we’re afraid of messing up, and we think our wives probably know better than us anyway, so let them do it. But that is not legitimate sacrificial love. Sometimes we don’t really know what to do, and we forget to ask Jesus. Sometimes, we’re just plain lazy, and it’s easier to be passive than to try, and then fail anyway. It feels safe if we don’t have to lead. But we men don’t have that luxury. We are supposed to love our wives to such an extent that they are the ones who feel safe, because they know that we will care for them as much as we care for ourselves, we will love them, even if it means hardship for ourselves.

By the way, women, you don’t get to take these words and taunt your husband with them. These words are not here for you to say: “Hah! You are supposed to love me sacrificially, so here’s my honey-do list, and be sure not to wake me up from my nap when you’re done.” These words are spoken from the Lord to the men, and I think it is meant for men to struggle through what it means to apply them. Your turn will come next.

The biggest threat to any marriage (actually to any relationship at all) is the fact that all of us are deeply self-centered. We are focused on ourselves, on our own needs, what we want, and what it takes to get our wants and needs satisfied. The verses here are meant to destroy our self-centeredness. Men, you don’t get to be passive and coast through life doing as little as necessary. You don’t get to demand whatever you want from your wife. Neither do you get to check out, and ignore your responsibilities. Instead, you die to yourself by loving her sacrificially. You allow the Holy Spirit to put to death your self-centeredness by learning to love your wife selflessly. When you do that, you are doing your part to show the world the glory of God.

The model for men is Jesus Christ. Now of course, husbands, you will never be able to love your wives as well as Jesus loves all of us. However, Jesus invites you to lean on him, and allow Him to work through you and in you, so that you don’t love your wives from your own strength, but from all the resources that Jesus has. Ask him to help you, and lean on him as you love your wives.

For both men and women, our attention is supposed to be directed away from ourselves, and to Jesus. Like a perfect husband, he makes us, his people, secure. We know we are loved, and safe. He has provided all that is needed for forgiveness and a life of eternal joy in Him. He is patient with us, and He loves us, not because of what we do for him, but rather because he has decided to do so, and nothing will sway him from that commitment. He didn’t wait for us to come to come to him – he died for us while we were still enemies of God. Let’s remember God’s grace to us through Jesus, and thank him for it.

This is Not How it was Supposed to Be

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Sometimes it seems like so much is wrong, so many things are not the way they are supposed to be. It feels like the world is spinning in chaos, out of control. But God is still in charge. He is working out everything according to his plan, and that is good for all who love God. During that first Christmas, it seemed like nothing was working out the way it was supposed to. But God was powerfully working all things according to his plan.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Christmas 2020

Christmas 2020

This is not the way it was supposed to be. Not still. Not at Christmas. I don’t know when you’ll read this sermon, but you probably won’t hear it on Christmas Eve, gathered together in the same place with your church, the way it was supposed to be. Here in my church, we’re supposed to be gathered all in our big living room, a little crowded. The fire is supposed to be crackling, warm and orange with the smell of woodsmoke and winter. Candles and Christmas lights are supposed to illuminate the faces we have come to know and love. Our voices are supposed to rise in three dimensional sound all around us. We’re supposed to share stories and snacks and laughs as we hang around afterwards and talk.

Instead we’ll have Christmas Eve via Zoom. This, this looking at each other on a flat screen, tinny voices playing through computer speakers, never shaking a hand, never patting a shoulder, never hugging; this distance is not the way it was supposed to be.

It may surprise you to learn that Christian History is full of “this is not the way it was supposed to be’s.” Abraham and Sarah weren’t supposed to be so old, and they thought they were supposed to have more than one child. Jacob wasn’t supposed to marry Leah. Joseph wasn’t supposed to be sold as slave, and later he wasn’t supposed to be thrown in prison too – he deserved none of it. The people of Israel weren’t supposed to be slaves in Egypt. The twelve tribes weren’t supposed to be oppressed by the surrounding peoples. The shepherd boy wasn’t supposed to fight the giant warrior. The anointed King, David, wasn’t supposed to have to run for his life in the wilderness. The prophets weren’t supposed to be rejected.

I’m sure a lot of the people involved in the very first Christmas might have felt the same way. Let’s hear from some of them, and imagine how they might have been thinking:

(Zechariah and) Elizabeth: We were supposed to be parents. We would have a house full of laughing, running children. Little girls that I would teach to sew and cook and clean. Little boys that Zechariah would teach to care for the animals and the house. Boys and girls both that we would teach the Law and the Prophets. Instead, now we are old. It is a joy, I am sure, to have a child, even now, but we were supposed to be young and fit. We were supposed to run with our children, and take them on picnics, and journeys to the temple, and play. But now, our bones are old, and we need our rest. This is no time to have a child. This is not how it was supposed to be.

Joseph: This was not the way it was supposed to be. On my wedding night, I was to be the man of the hour, honored, celebrated. I was supposed to be serenaded by the wedding party outside my house. Then we were supposed to process through town singing songs and laughing and joking, and then we’d arrive at Mary’s house. She would come out, radiant, beautiful, perfect. We’d join hands and parade joyfully back to my house, the toast of the town, and then the feast. We would laugh and dance and eat until our stomachs and hearts were full to bursting. Then, we would go to the marriage bed, pure and uncomplicated, and consummate the joy of God’s gift of marriage.

Instead, we had to leave Nazareth under a cloud of shame. No procession, no singing, dancing or feasting, just contempt and disgust on the faces of our friends and families. Mary’s young body is already stretched and changed by a child, and I’ve never even so much as kissed her lips. Instead of a parade of laughter and joy and singing, we are on this journey of cold and hardship and not much to eat, going to a town I barely remember from my childhood, a town where no one knows us enough to take us in, a town where we can’t even find paid lodging at an inn.

And then this! This birth. Mary heard from the angel, and I heard from the angel, and at least we knew this child was to be special. This is God’s own king, the promised Messiah. But there is not even a cradle or bed for him. We have to make do with an animal’s feed stall. No kings or princes are here, only plain shepherds who are even worse off than ourselves. Surely this is not the way it was supposed to be.

We all have those moments: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This wasn’t supposed to happen. One of the most powerful scenes in Forrest Gump (my favorite movie of all time) is when Lieutenant Dan Taylor pulls Forrest out of bed in the middle of night. Taylor has just lost his legs in combat. He feels that his destiny has been stolen from him, and with that he has lost not only his legs, but everything that matters in life. He says in despair. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to me.” And later: “What am I going to do now?”

My own life feels like it has plenty of “this was not the way it was supposed to be” factors. I wasn’t supposed to be facing the rest of my life with grinding, unrelenting pain. My son wasn’t supposed to be diagnosed with a serious lifelong illness, nor another of my children with her physical struggles. Our church wasn’t supposed to do life together through a computer screen.

I’m sure each one of you could list all sorts of this is not the way it was supposed to be’s for your own lives. I can think of several big ones for some of you. Sometimes it seems like the whole of 2020 is one giant “this is now how it was supposed to be.”

The ultimate: “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be,” occurred almost two thousand years ago now. The God of the universe wasn’t supposed to come into the world, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to die, certainly he wasn’t supposed to die like that, because of injustice. He wasn’t supposed to be the victim of a cruel, tortuous murder.

Or was he?

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.
God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

(NLT, Ephesians 1:3-11, italic formatting added to some parts for emphasis)

So many things that seem like they weren’t supposed to happen, at least not like this. But God makes everything work out according to his plan. We are never outside of God’s reach. Even when everything screams at you that it was not supposed to be this way, God is at work.

It is good and healthy to leave room for grief and sadness about how it was supposed to be. It is not wrong to mourn the things that are lost, to be upset about the way things turned out. That’s one of the things I love the most about that scene from Forrest Gump. It gives the grief room to breathe, but sorrow is not the last word. When the grieving is done, we find that God is still at work. The world is not spinning away, flying by accident out of His reach. No. every moment that seemed like it wasn’t supposed to be that way turned out to be God working all things out according to his plan. He tells us himself that this is true:

28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. 29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

(NLT, Romans 8:28-30)

R.C. Lenski, the great Lutheran Bible scholar, has this to say about these verses:

So here the thought is simple and appropriate: God’s loving providence takes perfect care of those who love God. The idea is just as natural as that a father should keep his own beloved and loving children…

“All things are working together for good,” all of them without exception operate together to produce “good” in the sense of what is beneficial for God’s lovers. This includes every kind of painful experience in Christian lives, all those that press groans from our lips and make us groan inwardly in unuttered and unutterable distress. Some of the things that Paul has in mind he states in v. 38, 39. The Old Testament story of Joseph is a striking example of the mysterious and the wonderful way in which God makes the evil done to us eventuate for our good. Another instance is the story of the persecution precipitated by Saul. It scattered the great congregation at Jerusalem to distant parts, it seemed to be a calamity but served only for the good of the church by planting it in a hundred new places to flourish more than ever.

(Lenski’s commentary on the New Testament, Romans 8:28)

Maybe, just maybe, God is still in charge. Maybe, just maybe, when things go wrong, God is still working all things out according to his plan. Maybe, just maybe, the Bible is true when it tells us that God’s plan creates the best possible good for us.

God’s son was more innocent than the youngest, sweetest child. His life was more precious than all the children in the world together. He deserves more honor than all the heroes in history put together. Yet he was beaten, mocked, insulted, spit upon. He was whipped and nailed to one of the most horrific instruments of torture ever devised. Surely that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

But it was.

In that horrendous moment of shocking injustice and gruesome, violent, torture, God was working out all things according to his plan. It was surely the most appalling this is not the way it was supposed to be moments that ever occurred in history. And yet it was also the moment that God used defeat evil, to allow justice and love to exist peacefully together forever.

Return again to that scene on that cold night in Bethlehem. The son of God entering the world in an obscure town in an obscure country, not even recognized by the people right next door, let alone the powerful and influential people of the world.

If we humans were setting it up, there would have been a warm, bright room in a palace in the most important city in the world, and servants standing by, and a doctor and nurses and a host of people making sure everything went just right. But in reality, they didn’t even have a proper room. No bed, no clean sheets. It seemed they were abandoned and forgotten, alone.

But in all of it, God was working out everything according to his plan. What looked like a mistake, an oversight, a failure – was actually the unseen hand of God.

God is still at work. He is working out everything according to his plan, and for the good of his people. Much as we may feel it sometimes, we are not abandoned, not alone, not forgotten. From the distance of two-thousand years we can look back at Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and say, “Don’t sweat it. God is in control. I know it seems weird, but actually this is exactly the way it is supposed to be. I know you can’t see it or feel it at this exact moment, but you are right in the heart  of God’s plan.”

Perhaps we can see the faithful, powerful working of God that very first Christmas, and step back and say the same thing to ourselves, and to each other. It seems like it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It looks like we are alone and abandoned. But that has never stopped God. In fact, it is in the moments like this when he seems to work most powerfully.

All that was required for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph and Mary, was to trust God. He said he would do it. He assured them that he had a plan, and he would carry it out. That is all that is required of us, as well. Look back at that first Christmas, a birth that looked like it happened at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way, and learn to trust that nothing is beyond God’s reach. He is working out all things according to his plan. All that we need to do to be a part of that, it to trust Him. Will you do that right now? Take a moment of silence and tell him that you do trust him, and you will continue to trust him, with his help.

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #4: SECOND CHRISTMAS

Enjoy Christmas this year.  But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. The promise of second Christmas can sustain us and help us to be at peace and gracious to others, because we can trust the one who made the promise.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Advent Week 4

2 Peter 3:1-18.  Advent Week 4, 2020

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come?  I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story.  It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday.  In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun.  He needs it.  His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it.  Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed. 

As I have pointed out during the past few weeks, Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.”  He said he would return some day.  In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas.  We want the gifts we might get:  eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost.  Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting.  That sounds like a present we could really look forward to.  In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this.  I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas.  What if, when it comes, we are disappointed?  What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)?  I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories.  I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it.  The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful.  In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this:  will heaven really be all it cracked up to be?  I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so.  Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this:  will we really get the present we want?  Or will we be left out?  Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long?  Is the promise really for me?  Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18.  When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes.  No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more.  So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise.  They were excited, but also worried.  Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

1.  Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come.  Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back.  But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us.  A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa.  If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return.  It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever.  God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids.  But he has not forgotten or changed his promise.  He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15).  He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing.  So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him.  We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.

2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The  biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfilment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

3. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)”  Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above.  It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.

4.  The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly.  Too many people get the cart before the horse.  We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises.  No. It goes like this:  because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers.  We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him.  The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children.  Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents.  But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around.  They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return.  Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children.  The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this:  if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives.  Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant.  Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable.  God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others.  There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

5.  We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.  18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard.  We are not invincible.  We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin.  However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure.  He tells us to grow in grace.  What does that mean?  I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are.  Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent.  There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you.  Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you.  These verses are about the end of the world.  But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year.  But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #3: STAYING FILLED

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Sometimes it can feel like the Christian life might be a bit repetitive and boring. But we cannot live on continual excitement. We have to keep returning to get our spiritual fuel replenished, and sometimes that involves very ordinary, everyday sorts of things. Part of being ready for Jesus involves being faithful, day in, and day out. If we seek Him, he has the resources we need to remain faithful and ready.

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Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This the the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

Back in those days, weddings were a very big deal. Many people were bone-cracking poor, but a wedding gave them a genuine reason to celebrate. In addition, most people were likely to get a lot more food at weddings than they usually would. In some cases the feast would go on for seven days, so those who were lucky enough to partake, may have counted on a wedding to help them through hungry times. All in all you might say that folks looked forward to a wedding the way we might look forward to… Christmas. Interesting, right?

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. After that year was concluded, there was a procession, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (not exactly bridesmaids as we think of them, but close enough). The “bridesmaids” all carried lamps, or torches made from oil-soaked rags. Generally, these lights burned for about 15 minutes. When the bridegroom came, they formed a lighted procession around him, which traveled to the home of the bride. While they went along, others joined them, it became kind of a traveling party. They arrived at the Bride’s home, and she joined her husband, and from there, they all paraded joyfully back to the house of the groom. Immediately, the feast and week-long celebration began.

Jesus describes ten bridesmaids. They probably had their lamps lit in expectation of the bridegroom, because he says “they went out to meet the groom.” But he was delayed. Remember, this is a third world country, two-thousand years ago, before the invention of clocks or watches. Things happened when they happened. Usually, they happened on the correct day, but it was very hard to nail people down to specific times. Anyway, while they waited, either their lamps went out, or they eventually put them out. The groom was so long in coming that they fell asleep. When at last he came, they lit their lights again. Five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil, and their lights were replenished, and ready to burn for as long as was necessary again. But the five others had no light left. By the time they had found oil, it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

Jesus tells this story as part of his teaching about his eventual return to earth. Most parables are told just to make a few simple points, and this is no exception.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message is here simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the Ultimate Wedding Feast, the return of Jesus.

Often, when you start your spiritual life with Jesus, it is very exciting. It changes everything. Sometimes, we experience a renewal of our faith, and that is also very exhilarating. But we can’t live on excitement forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. At some point, the rubber meets the road. The bridesmaids were thinking, “I thought something was supposed to happen by now. This is dull, and boring.” It’s easy for us to begin to feel that way, spiritually.

However, we need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. Going to work, coming home, running errands, spending time in Christian Fellowship, serving others. It can feel like we get stuck in a rut, sometimes. And sometimes we do get in an unproductive rut. However, far more often, it is not a rut, it is just real life, and we need to be faithful, patient and persevering.

To make it through times like that, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we have seen somewhat recently, the apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

We know the basics, right? We need to be regularly reading, or listening to, the Bible. We need to be regularly connected with other Christians in genuine fellowship, and worship the Lord together with them. We need to allow the Lord to use our lives to serve others. Some of that is what feels like a rut, sometimes, but we cannot hope to keep our lamps full without these things.

There are other things that can be added to these to help us. I think these others things could be different for different people. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Desiirng God” by Jon Piper, or, “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, or “The Pursuit of God” by AW Tozer, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I have also found that the Lord often refills me through new music. I get refilled by being in nature, by thinking and writing.

Other folks get refilled in different ways – by exercising, or by making something with their hands, or writing poetry. For some it comes through times of concentrated prayer and fasting. Fasting is always good to try, if you are really stuck. Others, obviously, find it very useful to listen to sermons on the TV, radio, or the Internet. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

Finally the time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

ADVENT #2: THE SEASON

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
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The Lord wants his people in every generation to live as if he will return soon. This has a tremendously helpful focusing effect, clarifying what is important, and allowing us to live for what is best. We are to receive him into our own lives, and into the world in which we live.

Due to my medical issues we are reusing some advent sermons from a few years ago. This is advent week 2, for 2020.

Advent Week 2. Matthew 24:36-44

As you are probably aware, there are only eighteen shopping days left until Christmas. This is the season when we remember how God selflessly surrendered the powers of his divinity and came to us as a helpless human baby. We typically commemorate this by generously cursing the people who steal our parking places at the mall, and mediating peacefully on new credit card debt while we drift off to sleep.

Of course, there is something else we can do as the days lead up toward Christmas. We can spend the time and energy in expectation. We can focus on the coming of some really cool Christmas presents! Ha Ha! Just a little pastoral humor for you there. Actually, while the time leading up to Christmas can be a wonderful time of remembrance and focusing on Jesus’ birth, it is also a time that can help us think about Jesus’ next physical visit to our world – his triumphant return. In fact, that is the traditional purpose of the church season of Advent, which we are now in.

As we read in the Bible about the things that led up to the birth of Jesus, it becomes obvious that the people living at the time did not know exactly what was coming, but all the signs and prophecies pointed to this: God was going to act in History. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Anna and Simeon – all experienced things and remembered prophecies that encouraged them to get ready for the Lord to come to his people. None of them understood completely how it was all going to play out, but they believed and they acted in obedience and prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

Now, where are we today? Jesus has already come as a baby. He grew up. He sacrificed his innocent life for us. And he was raised from the dead, and left our world physically. It’s wonderful to remember that. It helps our faith. I also want to encourage us to also do what those faithful believers did before that all happened – to prepare for the coming of Jesus. In our case it is not his coming as a baby, but rather his coming into our lives personally, and of course, his triumphant return to earth. To help us do that I want to look at some things Jesus said before he left us. Please read Matthew 24:36-44 in your Bible.

This teaching of Jesus occurred during the week before he was crucified. Just prior to saying this, Jesus said that it will be possible to notice and consider “the signs of the times” that indicate his return is near. His next statement is this: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Now, I have met people who like to describe in detail what everything will be like just prior to the ending of world. I’ve met others who feel that they can guess with some degree of accuracy when it will come. I think, if we consider carefully what Jesus is saying here about his return, we will realize two things:

  • 1. It is possible to recognize the “season” just prior to Jesus’ triumphant physical return to earth.
  • 2. It is not possible to accurately predict specific details about the future, just prior to the return of Jesus, nor the exact time it will happen. Even Jesus himself did not know, prior to his leaving our world.

I think the Lord has set things up like this because he wants his followers to live in a state of continual expectation of his return. Look at this way: if we knew that Jesus would come back exactly at 9:00AM on November 2, 2027, I think we would all relax a bit and say, “well, I don’t have to bother about that for quite a while yet.” Let’s face it – some of us wouldn’t start to get ready for his return until 8:15 that morning. But if we look at this little passage, we can see that the point Jesus is making is that we should always be ready. The fact is this: it could be any day now. It could be today.

Jesus indicates that the season of his return can be recognized. Are we in that season? I think so. I recognize, however, that the apostle Paul thought so too. Fifteen hundred years later, and 500 years before now, Martin Luther thought he was living close to the end times. This doesn’t discourage me in the least, because I believe Jesus wants every generation of his followers to live as though his return is imminent. Some of the things that indicate to me that the season of Jesus return might be near are these: the formation of the Jewish nation in 1947; The dramatic increase in the number of lives lost through war in the twentieth century; the incredible spread of immorality and godlessness in the world. I think huge natural disasters like the tsunami a few years ago, and even the pandemic of 2020 are also significant.

But even if I am mistaken in one sense, consider this. It is entirely accurate to say that, for all intents and purposes, Jesus will return by the end of my lifetime. When you die, it has virtually same effect, for you, as if it was the end of time, and Jesus has returned. At the time of your death you will meet Jesus face to face. Your existence on the old earth will have ended for you. If you think this old world will keep spinning in space for another 4 billion years, fine. But you won’t be on it for much longer, all things considered. It is not given to us to know when we die. I may get in a car wreck next week, and for me, Jesus has returned. So you also must be ready, because “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus says it will be like the days of Noah. Virtually every culture that keeps any sort of history, has a historical tradition that includes a story very much like Noah and the ark. The Samburu people, living in the near-desert of Northern Kenya have a flood story. The people of India have one too, as do those in Indonesia, and around the world. There is debate about whether the flood was worldwide or local, but the historical and genetic evidence is that all people on earth are descended from one family, a family which apparently survived a great flood. The people in the days of Noah were warned about the flood. It didn’t seem to them like anything would ever change. Noah took 300 years to build the boat, and probably even he wondered if it would really come. But one day it did, and it destroyed everyone but the family that believed and prepared for it.

The return of Jesus may seem like it is a long way off. It may seem like things will never change. But those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

So how can we be ready? How do we “keep watch” as Jesus said? First, we need to receive and welcome Jesus as he comes to us right now.  Consider Hebrews 3:7:

“So as the Holy Spirit says, Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion”

2 Corinthians 6:1-2 adds this thought:

“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Jesus’ coming happened yes, at Bethlehem when he was born as a baby. And yes, He will come again in Judgment. But right now, He comes to us every day. He comes to us to spend time with us. Maybe that is time in prayer and meditating on the scriptures, or time going for walk and talking to him as well as listening to him. He comes to us, wanting to bless other people through us. Are you receiving him today? Maybe you’ve never received him into your life at all before. If not, please pray a simple prayer, something like this: Lord Jesus, I want to receive you in my life. I need your forgiveness and love and grace. Please come now and take over my heart and my will, and live your life through me. Thank you for hearing and responding. AMEN.

There’s really no point in getting all excited about the return of Jesus if we aren’t interested in the ways he comes to us right now. But if we have received in him into our lives, I think, as I said earlier, he would like us to live each day in expectation of his return. How would you live today if you knew, absolutely for sure, that Jesus was coming back at 11:00PM tonight. Would you express your love to your friends and family? Who would you spend time with? What would you say to people? How would you spend your time on the last day in history? Now, why can’t you do some of that every day, no matter how many or few days you have left? Why can’t you regularly tell people about Jesus? Why can’t you always affirm your loved ones and express your love for them? Why can’t you just avoid sin, just for today? Why can’t you fully surrender to Jesus every day?

It’s not a gimmick – Jesus really is going to back, whether we are ready or not. Instead, it’s grace – he’s told us he is. He wants to live his life through us, in the expectation of what he will do when he comes back. Will you let him?

ADVENT #1: TOO OLD?

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Due to the changing of the season, and upcoming medical procedures, we will observe the church season of Advent this year, using sermons I have prepared in the past. I will be continuing to work on our Colossians series as I am able, and we will return to that book after Christmas.

This week we will look at the father of John the Baptist: Zachariah the Priest.

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Advent 2020 #1 .  Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

Bear with me a few moments while I explain what we call “The Church Year.” After Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, Christian churches began to have more contact with one another, and it wasn’t long before “the church” was also an institution with an organizational structure and a hierarchy. There were, of course, a lot of negatives about this. However, one of the positives was a sense of unity that extended among virtually all Christians. One way that unity was preserved was through having all churches reading the same scriptures as other churches each week; this later became known as “the lectionary.” The lectionary was organized around “church seasons.” There are some small variations, but in general the seasons are: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and “after Pentecost,” (sometimes call “ordinary time”). Each season has a kind “character” to it. For instance, Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus and the significance of His incarnation. Lent is a time many Christians use to reflect on the suffering of Jesus, and to engage in personal repentance. Easter is about the resurrection, and so on.

I want to emphasize that these church seasons are not given to us by the bible; they are traditions, and no true Christian would say that it is necessary to observe them in order to be a follower of Jesus. One of the negatives of the church year is that it means that huge portions of the bible will never be read in churches which strictly observe it, since those churches focus only on the lectionaries given for each season. Even so, I think we can benefit at times from the traditions associated with the church year.

For me particularly, Advent is one of the seasons that I find very helpful. Advent actually marks the beginning of the church year, and starts four Sundays prior to Christmas. I use the season of Advent, with its traditional readings, to help me get the most out of what the rest of the world calls “the holiday season.”

The focus of Advent is helpful to me, because it takes my eyes off of the commercial aspects of Christmas and the holidays. It even takes me out of simply sentimentally reflecting on the birth of Jesus Christ. The theme and scriptures of Advent remind me that Jesus has promised to return. They encourage me to focus on what Jesus is still doing, and will do in the future. It keeps my hope focused on eternity, and my work focused on how God would use me here and now.

Now, I am going to go ahead and show the weakness of the church year by using some scripture that is not in any of the traditional Advent readings. I think, however, that these verses can help us get our focus in order for this season.

One of the overlooked figures surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ is the father of Jesus’ cousin John. John’s father was Zechariah, a priest. In the year when both Jesus and John were born, Zechariah was chosen for the rare honor of offering incense during the sacrifice. Priesthood was determined by birth – they had to be descended from the first priest, Aaron. Each priest served with others in his division for two weeks every year; Zechariah was in the division of Abijah. Duties were assigned by random lot. Jewish documents suggest that at that time, a priest would have such an honor only once in his entire lifetime, and many priests never had the chance. To be chosen for this duty would be the highlight of Zechariah’s life.

One interesting note is that from all this we might take a stab at finding out what time of year Jesus was actually born. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple. The Jewish new year varied a little bit each year, but the best guess for that year would be that Zechariah encountered the angel sometime in May or June. Luke says “after those days,” Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived John. Five months later, the angel visited Mary, and then Luke says “in those days” Mary came to Elizabeth’s house. So if it all happened immediately, that would mean John was born in April of the following year, and Jesus in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a lag time of just two months total in those two flexible periods, then Jesus was indeed born in December. The exact date of his birth doesn’t really matter, of course. I just think it is interesting, after all the years I’ve heard “Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas” to find that the evidence shows it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that he was born, if not on December 25, sometime close to it.

Back to Zechariah. The innermost part of the temple was called “the holy of holies,” or, “most holy place.” In it (originally, before they were lost) was the ark of the covenant, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. This was where the Hebrews believed that God’s presence remained. A thick curtain separated the “most holy place” from the “holy place.” In this second, larger space stood a table with bread, which was renewed every seven days. Also here was a seven branched golden lampstand (something like a Menorah) and finally, the altar of incense. Zechariah would have been accompanied into the Holy Place by two assistants carrying coals and incense, whom would withdraw and leave Zechariah alone in the sanctuary to complete the ceremony. Meanwhile, a large gathering was worshipping out in the courtyard, which means it may have been a Sabbath day.

Now, I want to set the stage a little bit. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “blameless.” I don’t think Luke means they never sinned, but rather, they conducted themselves in faith and integrity for their whole lives. This is significant when we learn that they don’t have any children. In the first chapter of Genesis, God blessed the first human beings and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” For thousands of years, Jewish culture saw this as a sign that children are God’s blessing; they also believed that when people could not have children, it was because God was somehow displeased with them. Many people felt that such couples must have sinned in some way, so that God prevented them from having this blessing. It is true that Abraham and Sarah did not have children until old age, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel also was barren for a long time before Samuel. Even so, it is virtually certain that their childlessness was a source of very real emotional pain for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They must have wondered what they had done wrong. It is quite possible that others in their community thought that they had been particularly sinful, for God to withhold children from them. Zechariah and Elizabeth may even have felt angry with God – after all, they had lived in faith and integrity, but still, God withheld this blessing from them. By the time Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple, both of them were obviously older than normal child-bearing age. In fact, a fair description of them would be “old.”

In temple alone, Zechariah would have been praying for the worshipers and for the nation of Israel. At this point, an angel appears to him. I think it is interesting to note that Luke records that it appears “to the right” of the altar of incense. There is nothing particularly significant about the position of the angel, and that reinforces the authenticity of this scripture. Luke is carefully recording a story that had been told and remembered in detail, even unimportant details. For me, it is one of those hundreds of little things that rings true in the biblical accounts of history.

As recorded elsewhere in scripture, the appearance of the angel was awe-inspiring, provoking a kind of fear. Like so many angels before, this one begins by saying: “Do not fear.” The angel goes on, telling Zechariah, “your prayer has been heard,” and then explaining that he is about to become a father. One thing that isn’t clear is what Zechariah’s prayer actually was. As a priest, it was his duty to pray for the people. He might also have been praying for himself and his wife. The fact is, God’s answer, foretold through the angel, addresses both Zechariah’s personal desires, and his prayers for people of God. On the personal level, Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have the joy of parenthood. On the larger level, their child will be used by God to do significant spiritual things for the people of Israel. By the way, this follows a familiar pattern from the Old Testament. Sarah and Abraham longed for a child of their own, and in finally fulfilling their desires, God began the nation of Israel. Samson’s parents were also childless until an angel announced to his parents that he would be born; but Samson wasn’t just for his parents – he would also be used by God to deliver Israel. Hannah was full of grief because she could not have children, and finally God answered her prayers and gave her a child, Samuel. But Samuel was not just a blessing to his mother – he became one of the greatest prophet-leaders in history.

In light of all the people in Israel’s history who had famous babies after long barrenness, Zechariah’s response might seem surprising. He questions how it can happen, since both he and Elizabeth are getting along in years. But at another level, I think it is entirely understandable. First, there is the issue of age. In ancient Israel, older people were given respect, and yet, at another level no one expected much of them. Healthcare then was not anything like it is today, and people then could not expect to remain active as long as they do today. So, Zechariah knows that he is nearing the twilight of his life. Since that is the case, why would God possibly choose him, not only to be a father, but to be the father of someone that God was going to use in great ways? It just didn’t seem likely. In his response to the angel, he mentions Elizabeth. It is clear that he thinks of her in the same way as he thinks of himself: too old.

Second, and I am reading into the text a little bit here, I wonder if Zechariah, at some level, thought that God was being too good to him. Here he was, in the holy place of the temple, standing where very few Israelites would ever get to stand in their lifetimes. He is been blessed with this great honor, and now God is coming along saying “I’m going to bless you even more.” It just seemed too good to be true.

Third, in spite of the fact that in the past God granted previously barren women the ability to have children, he certainly did not do that for every barren woman in history. In addition, all of that happened a very long time before Zechariah was born. The latest incident that I mentioned above was that of Hannah and Samuel, and that occurred about 1000 years before Zechariah stood in the temple that day. In other words, though I’m sure Zechariah believed that God had done this sort of thing in the past, and he probably even believed that theoretically, God could do it now, it was a whole different thing to believe that God was actually going to do it now, and for him. I mean, I have a hard enough time believing that God will repeat miracles that I have seen with my own eyes in my own lifetime, so I can’t blame Zechariah for saying “How can I know this will happen?”

Now, I want us to see how God responds to Zachariah’s weakness. First, of course, Zechariah is rebuked for his lack of faith. Then, as now, the Lord is seeking people who will trust him wholeheartedly, and he makes it clear that Zachariah failed in this. This is an important message for us: all the Lord wants from us is trust. He wants us to trust his promises, to trust his goodness, to trust his word.

But I want us to see the incredible grace that God gives to this old man. First, we need to understand, it was not that Zachariah had no faith at all, but his faith was weak. I’m sure he wanted to believe it. He did not say “I don’t believe a word of it.” Instead, his question was: “how can I know for sure?” God’s response is both a rebuke for Zachariah’s failure to trust wholeheartedly and at the same time a gracious answer to Zachariah’s desire to know for sure that God was going to do this:

20Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20, HCSB)

Do you see what is going on here? His lack of faith is both disciplined, and answered. The angel made it so he couldn’t talk. Certainly, this must have involved some hardship for Zachariah, but it was not, after all a very terrible thing, and it was temporary. I think most of us could learn a lot, and even perhaps find some unexpected peace, if we were forced into nine months of silence. [Spouses, insert your jokes at each other’s expense here] At the same time, the fact that he couldn’t talk would have been a constant reminder to him that the words of God were true and trustworthy. Even while disciplining Zachariah, God gave him the answer that he desired.

Afterwards, when the child was born Zachariah demonstrated his faith by naming him what the angel told him to name him. At this point, he was released from his silence. Luke records that Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to praise God. I think this is very important. When Zachariah was focused on what he wanted, and upon his own unworthiness and unfitness, his faith was weak. But now his focus is all on God; his focus is not on the gift of his son John, but on the giver of the gift: God himself. The words he spoke at this point have lived on for 2000 years in Luke’s gospel.

So, what is all this have to do with us? What would the Holy Spirit say to you through the Scriptures?

The first and most obvious one to me is that God can use anyone. Think about what God was doing at this point in history. He used an Emperor to take a census which ultimately caused the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy. He used an unwed teenage girl to become the mother of his own Son. He used a humble carpenter to become the stepfather of the son of God. And he used an old man and an old woman who had already had a full and blessed life to bring even greater blessing into the world: John the Baptist, who in turn prepared the way for the Messiah.

Not too long ago, Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player, died. One of his famous sayings was: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” For a guy who said a lot of silly things, that one is very profound. If you are alive enough to read or listen to this sermon, it ain’t over for you, not yet. The Lord still wants to bless the world through you. Before you say, “But how can he possibly use me?” I want to remind you that that is more or less what Zachariah was asking. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how he will use every single person. However, I do have a suggestion: pray. Prayer, in and of itself, is a powerful force for God’s work in the world. When you pray, you invite God into the things you are praying for, and he shows up where he’s invited, and where he shows up, he does his work and accomplishes his purposes. When you pray you are partnering with God to release his power into the world. Every single one of us can pray, which means that God can use every single one of us in amazing ways. In addition, it was as Zachariah prayed that the Lord showed him what else he wanted to do in and through his life.

Another thing I get from the story of Zachariah is that God is good; so very, very good. Zachariah had already received the honor of burning incense in the holy place. He lived a long and full life. Then he was promised a son, and when he doubted the promise he was given a sign to show him that it was true, and to help his faith. This is one blessing after another heaped upon Zachariah and Elizabeth, even towards the end of a blessed life. This encourages me to trust the goodness of God.

Finally, Zachariah reminds me to focus more on the giver then on the gift. John was a tremendous gift for Zachariah and Elizabeth. But by the time he was born, Zachariah had learned that the greatest gift he would ever have was the grace and love of God, and nothing could ever take that away. I hope and pray that you and I can also have that same perspective.

As we consider that Jesus not only came 2000 years ago, but also promised to return, let’s try to learn from Zechariah. God is still working in the world. He wants to involve you in what he is doing, no matter how unqualified you might feel.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.

COLOSSIANS #32: THE JOY OF MALE AND FEMALE

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God created our genders deliberately, and with a purpose. The Bible teaches us how to work with that fact in loving each other and following Jesus. The latest science decisively confirms that human beings are gendered to the core. However, because we are all made in the image of God, gender is something even deeper than biology. Women and men are made to relate to one another in a way that shows the world something of the glory of God. This happens in all sorts of contexts, not just marriage.

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COLOSSIANS #32  Colossians 3:17-18

Before we address our specific verses for today, let’s remember the context. Throughout the end of chapter two, Paul was addressing the problem of legalism. Legalism is all about performing well in order to manipulate God into accepting you, and doing what you want him to do. He explained that in Jesus we have died to performing well in order to get God to approve of us. We do not have what it takes to get God to do our bidding. Instead, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God, trusting in what Jesus  Christ did for us, rather than our own efforts. Next, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, detailed several things from which we are free, because of the death of Christ.

Then, in chapter three, he addressed the problem of lawlessness. Because we have died to the things of this world, and because we have already been included spiritually in the resurrection of Jesus, we are called to live a certain way. We are supposed to draw on the life of the Spirit, and avoid the life of our dying flesh, which is incurably self-oriented.

Paul then explained we need to put off our old sinful flesh, and no longer participate in the sins that we used to love, no longer insist on getting our wants and needs met in our way. He moved on in verse 9, and said we have put off the old sinful self and put on the new self, which is being renewed in the image of Jesus.

In verse twelve, he started to tell us what this new life looks like. He explained that the character of Christ wants to shine through us, and what it means to live according to the character of Christ. We considered the several aspects of living that way, like having compassionate hearts, and forgiving each other, and so on.

Last time, we considered that everything we do, all that we say and whatever we’re about, we do it in the name of Jesus Christ.

Now, we are going to get specific. We are still talking about what it looks like to let the character of Christ shine through us. We are still talking about how to do everything in the name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit through Paul, now begins to explain what all of that looks like for different groups of people: Wives, husbands, children, fathers, servants and masters.

When we understand the context, we realize that these are not just random, isolated instructions that cropped up out of nowhere. These verses are there to help us think about how we do everything in the name of Jesus in different parts of our lives. They are not given to help the Colossians fit in with culture of their city – nothing at all in this letter is about how they can be better citizens of this world. It is all about living this life with an understanding that we are already full citizens in the life to come.

So, with that understanding, I give you our verses for the next several weeks:

You wives, put yourselves under the authority of your husbands, because this is what is right in the Lord.

You husbands, love your wives sacrificially, and do not cause them to be grieved, or make their lives bitter.

(My own “amplified” translation from Greek, Colossians 3:17-18)

The more direct translation of verse 17 is: “wives submit to your husbands…”

I want us to take our time with this subject. These are short sentences in both English and Greek, but they represent something that is very deep and far reaching. “Jesus died for your sins,” is also a short sentence, but it might take years of thought and study to “unpack” all of the meaning in those five words. So, these verses are also short, but they represent the end-product of a deep and important subject.

In our culture today, verse 17 sounds ridiculously old fashioned. To many people, it might seem oppressive, and even perhaps hateful toward women. When we encounter any bible passage that disturbs us, we can take one of three possible approaches:

  1. We can study and pray and press into what the Holy Spirit is saying through such verses. With the faith that God knows best, and wants to speak to us through the Bible, we humbly approach the text to learn from it. We may be surprised by what we find, or we may find what we want or expect, but either way, we let the scripture set the agenda.
  2. We can decide that we don’t like it, and so we study and think and work on ways to make the verses irrelevant or meaningless to our life today. Or, we might try and find ways to show that the meaning of the verse is something other than what it seems to say so obviously. But we start with our own agenda, and try to make the scripture conform to that.
  3. We simply dismiss the verse. We ignore it, or we simply decide that we are not going listen to it, or apply it to our lives. We might even try to say that it shouldn’t be in the Bible.

Because our culture automatically rejects verses like “wives submit to your husbands,” many Christians have taken approaches #2 or #3. They start with the desire to make the Bible conform to 21st century Western cultural ideas about gender. This is a very flawed way to read and understand the bible. Instead of letting the text lead them wherever it goes, they already know where they want it to go, and so they try to make it go there. Or, they find ways to say that we don’t need to pay any attention at all to such teachings. Christians who want to “neutralize” bible verses like this believe that they are champions of gender-equality, and so they call themselves “egalitarians.” Sometimes they also call themselves “evangelical feminists,” or “Christian feminists.”

Christians who read these verses in a basically straightforward way call themselves “complementarians” because they believe that the bible teaches that men and women were created uniquely different in order complement each other. I believe that gender is all about reflecting the image of God to the world, so I call that idea “imagism.”

I have studied the issues surrounding this verse, and the other verses like it, for a long time. In fact, I wrestled with this subject for fifteen years before finally submitting to what I believe the Bible teaches. I desperately wanted to be able to be an egalitarian in good conscience. I did not want to appear to be oppressive to women, and I wanted this subject to be a non-issue. I wanted to fit in with our culture, including a lot of church culture, and not rock the boat.

Unfortunately, what I have learned convinces me that egalitarians are wrong. Even worse, the way they treat the Bible in order to make it conform to their ideals is extremely flawed, and dangerous to true Christianity. If we treated the entire Bible the same way egalitarians treat just these texts about men and women, it would make Christianity meaningless.

Now, of course, I might be the one who is wrong. However, if I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to be truly open to the alternatives. If I am wrong, it’s not because I have a prejudice against women. if I had any prejudice to begin with, it was in favor of feminism. If I am wrong, it is not because I have failed to diligently study what the  Bible says about gender, nor have I failed to study and understand what egalitarians say, and how they interpret the scriptures. If I am wrong, it is not for lack of wrestling in prayer and crying out to the Holy Spirit to speak to me about this subject. In fact, I have prayed numerous times, over a period of years, “Lord, change my heart and my mind! Show me how I can return to being an egalitarian!”

As I say, all of my study and prayer doesn’t automatically make me right, but  I would like to challenge those who disagree with me to put in some significant time and effort on this subject before dismissing what I say, and to have the integrity to let the texts lead you wherever they go, regardless of whether or not that’s what  you want. If you want to learn more about why I think egalitarianism is such a problem, or if you want to discover, in depth, what the Bible says about gender, please get a copy of my book, In God’s Image,” available on Amazon (kindle version also available). The link will take you there.

Although these are just two simple verses, they represent an understanding of human nature that is rapidly being lost in today’s world. These verses tell us that men and women are different in certain ways, and so as we relate to one another, we should be conscious of those differences, and live accordingly. In short, the Bible teaches that God created human beings in two genders, male and female, and both of the genders are vitally important for human flourishing, and also for showing the world what God is like. Consider Genesis 1:26-27

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

(ESV, Genesis 1:26-27)

You see that God intended human beings to display “his image;” that is, show the world what he is like. It sounds at first like it is only talking about “man,” but verse 27 makes it clear that in order for the image of God to be displayed in the world, both male and female are important and necessary. This comes in the very first chapter of the Bible, and we learn several important things:

  • Human beings are created to display what God is like
  • In order to show the world what God is like, both male and female are necessary
  • Therefore male and female are not the same, and the differences between them are important
  • Since God does not have a body, our gender, to display his image, must be at least partially spiritual.
  • Male and female are therefore equally important, equally valuable.

One of the great weaknesses of egalitarianism is that it confuses “equal” with “the same.” But, if the Bible is true, our masculinity and femininity make us different, and those differences are good and right and important and valuable. We aren’t just androgynous souls poured into either male or female bodies – we are male and female right down to our essence. We are male and female, even spiritually. The way that we relate to each other is supposed to be a reflection of image of God.

I realize that to write this in 2020, I sound like a horrible bigot. This is one of the areas where Western culture has been running away from God at a screamingly-fast pace. Even ten years ago, very few people would have found what I just said to be offensive. Twenty years ago, people would have told me I was crazy if I thought that in the year 2020, people would call me a bigot for saying that the male and female genders were intentionally created by God, and that the differences between the two is profound.

Am I just a bigot? Are Christians crazy to say that men and women are deeply different? Thankfully, whatever the culture says, facts are facts. Today, we know more about the physical facts of being male and female than ever before, and the more we learn, the more it is confirmed that humanity is gendered to the core, and the differences are profound. You can choose to believe the earth is flat, but that does not make it so. You can choose to believe that genders are fluid and there is really no such thing as male and female, but that does not make it so.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a researcher and clinical child-psychiatrist, presented some of the recent research in his 2005 Book, Why Gender Matters. Boys and girls, women and men, are profoundly different at a fundamental, biological level, and the biggest differences are found, not in sex organs, or even hormones, but in our brains. The very tissue of our brains is different, depending upon our sex. Sax writes:

Scientists analyzed thirty samples of human brain tissue collected from different areas of the brain and different individuals. The scientists were not told the sex of the individuals from whom the specimens were taken. But just by analyzing the expression of two different genes in the brain tissue, they were able to correctly identify the sex of every one of the thirty specimens, female versus male. Female brain tissue and male brain tissue are intrinsically different.

Sax cites research that demonstrates that girls and women see color distinctions that boys and men are incapable of perceiving. This is not because of socialization – it is the result of different nerve and brain pathways that are hard-wired by the time babies are born. Every step in every neural pathway from the retina to the brain is different between males and females. That means that men and women literally, physically, see the world differently.

Females have more sensitive hearing. This is simply fact. Also, the mechanisms for sensory perception, particularly pain, are different between females and males. To put it another way, men and women experience pain differently, at a cellular level.

Not only is our brain tissue different, but the brain is organized differently. Men seem to have a distinct division in brain function between the left side of the brain and the right. The left side of the brain, in men, is the center for language. This is not the case for women, who seem to distribute functions equally between each side of the brain.

Dr. Sax, who is both a clinical child-psychiatrist and a scholar, writes:

Girls and boys play differently. They learn differently. They fight differently. They see the world differently. They hear differently. When I started graduate school in 1980, most psychologists were insisting that those differences came about because parents raised girls and boys in different ways. Today we know that the truth is the other way around: parents raise girls and boys differently because girls and boys are so different from birth. Girls and boys behave differently because their brains are wired differently.

Later, he adds:

Human nature is gendered to the core. Work with your child’s nature, work with your child’s innate gender-based propensities, rather than trying to reshape them according to the dictates of late-twentieth-century political correctness.

What is true of boys and girls is, obviously, also true of women and men, perhaps even more so. Our verses today start with that understanding: Women and men are gendered to the core. Therefore, the Bible teaches us how to work with our innate gender-based propensities. In our text today, the instructions to wives are different from the instructions to husbands. God understands our gendered natures – he created them for a purpose! Therefore it should be obvious that men and women need to focus on different things in order love each other well, in order to do all in the name of Jesus.

We have a lot to chew on so far, but we have only just laid the foundation. Don’t worry about the s-word (submit) for now. Instead, for this next week, take time to thoughtfully appreciate the gift of your gender, and also the unique things about the opposite gender. When we do this with an awareness of the Holy Spirit, we can appreciate without either lusting, or wonder without getting frustrated with things we don’t understand.

We are both indispensable to God’s plan to show his glory. Not only that, but each gender needs the other in order to fulfill that purpose. Men cannot display the image of God without women. Women cannot do it without men.

Women: know, and enjoy that God created you to bless the world as a woman. Men: know and enjoy that God created you to bless the world as a man. Both women and men: know that you cannot bless the world the way God intended without your opposite gender.

By the way, when I say that, I don’t mean that everyone has to get married, or they won’t be fulfilling God’s purpose. Jesus himself never married, nor did the apostle Paul, and maybe not Barnabas either. Jesus also taught that some people are called to be single (Matthew 19), and Paul passed on that teaching in 1 Corinthians 7.

When it comes to displaying the image of God through male and female, even single people are usually connected to families, and singles also have friends of the opposite sex. The point is, the way men and women interact with each other in all sorts of different contexts shows the glory of God, if we let Him.

COLOSSIANS #31: ALL OF LIFE

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For Christians, all of life is about Jesus. We live for him, we live with him, we live in dependence upon him. It is when we try to compartmentalize Jesus, and have him in just one area of our lives that we turn into religious hypocrites. When are “part-time Christians,” we have times when we act like Christians, and other times when we are not “in Jesus-mode,” and we act differently. This sort of hypocrisy does you no good, and it turns off those who are not Christians.

Tom Hilpert

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Colossians #31.  Colossians 3:17

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV, Colossians 3:17)

The Greek in this verse emphasizes all things. A literal-ish translation might be “in all things whatsoever…” Maybe another way of putting it would be “in absolutely everything…” Every single area of our lives should be involved in honoring Jesus. There should be nothing at all in our lives that cannot be done in the name of Jesus. If there is, we should either not do it, or change how we do it, so that we can do in a way that honors Him. If you needed any more reminders that following Jesus involves every area of your life, every moment of your life, here it is.

This can be really clarifying. Can I do my work in the name of Jesus? Can I be angry at another driver in the name of Jesus? Can I go swimming in the name of Jesus? Can I fill out a form for the government in the name of Jesus? Can I sue someone in the name of Jesus? Can I ride my bike in the name of Jesus?

Sometimes the answers are obviously yes, and at other times, obviously no. At other times, we have to apply it with careful, prayerful thought.

This will come up a bit later in Colossians, but one helpful question to ask is: “Could I be proud of this job if I was doing it for Jesus?” Because, in fact, you are doing it for Jesus. All things whatsoever, we are to do in the name of Jesus. Life is to be lived because of Jesus. It is to be lived with Jesus. It is to be lived through Jesus.

To be crystal clear: this doesn’t mean everyone should quit their jobs and join a monastery or convent. It means that we are to live every moment of our ordinary, everyday lives for and with Jesus, depending on him as we do. My work as a pastor might be directly connected to Jesus, but I also write mystery novels, and even though they are “ordinary” novels, I need to learn how to write them for and with Jesus, depending on him as I do. I also have had a few years when I wasn’t a pastor. During that time, one thing I did was business consulting. I would travel from business to business, helping them learn to cut costs, work more efficiently, and generally become better at what they did. In general, I think I did it in the name of Jesus. In other words, I tried to work as Jesus would work if he was a business consultant.

For example, on one particular job, I helped an industrial plumbing/welding contractor. I did a lot of good work for the owner in several different areas of his business. I wasn’t teaching him to rip off other companies, I was just showing him what he needed to do if he wanted to stay in business and earn an honest living. In fact, in some instances, I was showing him how to avoid getting ripped off himself. I spent three weeks with that client, and I felt like I could do that work in the name of Jesus. I had helped someone become better at what he was supposed to do.

However, while we were wrapping up the job for that owner, I got a call from the corporate office of my consulting company. They knew I had developed a good rapport with the client, and they thought I might be able to convince him to pay us for more consulting time. They wanted me to pretend that there was still a lot of work to be done, and that we could help him even more if we stayed on longer. The thing is, the owner didn’t need more consulting at that point. We had given him our best help, and more, at that point, would have just been racking up our consulting fees to no purpose. We would have been billing him for “busy work.” It would not have been illegal, but it wasn’t ethical. One of my superiors made it clear that he would be very upset with me if I didn’t make it happen. However, in my understanding, my ultimate boss is Jesus, and I felt I could not rip off the client in the name of Jesus, so I politely failed to make it happen. You might say, I did some business consulting in the name of Jesus, and I also stopped doing some business consulting, also in the name of Jesus. I listened to my earthly bosses and did what they asked as long as I could do so in the name of Jesus. But when I could not, then I chose to do what honored Jesus the most. I was prepared to lose my job over it, but as it happened, I got an offer of a promotion instead.

To be clear, I’m not saying that doing everything in the name of Jesus will always result in you getting a promotion. In some cases it might lead to you getting fired. But we do need to live with an understanding that Jesus has the ultimate say in our lives, and everything we do is to be with and for him. To put it plainly: following Jesus should be a lifestyle.

The alternative – living for Jesus only part of the time – leads ultimately to tedious religious duty and often hypocrisy. If take this approach, we have times when we are living for Jesus, and other times when we are not. One of the problems is, when we are “off” of our religious activities, we say and do things that conflict with who Jesus is, and we could rightly be called hypocrites. Even when we do serve or worship Jesus, we do it out of obligation, and often we can’t wait to get back to our “real life.”

A lot of people prefer fitting Jesus in as just one component of a busy life. They have softball on Thursday nights and Saturdays, date night Friday, work throughout the week, and church on Sunday. When they are at church, they are doing their religious thing, but it never occurs to them for Jesus to be present at work, softball, and date night. Christianity is an important thing, sure, but they want to keep it in a limited place. It’s just one thing, they think, out of many good and important things.

But Jesus rejected the idea of being just one component of life. This is what he says:

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. 26 For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life? (CSB, Matthew 16:24-26)

For those who want to be Christians, all of life is about Jesus. He isn’t just one important piece of a fulfilling life. He is the life. Again, his words:

6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (CSB John 14:6)

He isn’t part of life. He is the life. So, let’s understand this. Take the lifestyle I described above. It’s still fine and good to play softball. It’s not only fine, but good and right to go to work, and contribute to society, and to support yourself and/or your family. Date night is good, too. But a Christian does all of these same things with an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all. So, at work and at softball, a Christian works and plays in ways that bring honor to Jesus. In the same way, a Christian avoids working and playing in ways that reflect poorly on Jesus.

Let’s get even more specific. A Christian at work can’t be dishonest with her boss, or her clients. She doesn’t get to do shoddy work, either. Maybe nobody at her job cares, but she’s working in the name of Jesus, and he knows and cares, so her work should reflect that, regardless of whether the people around her notice or not.

A Christian at play doesn’t get to cheat, even though it’s only a game, and all his teammates are doing it. He uses the kind of language that honors Jesus and blesses those who hear him (Ephesians 4:29). He doesn’t do this only with the church softball team, but everywhere he works and plays.

Christians on a date enjoy the relationship that God has given them, and they enjoy it in ways that honor Jesus. So, if they are not married to each other, they honor Jesus by staying out of bed. If they are married, they may happily enjoy the gifts of intimacy that God has given to bless marriage. But either way, they recognize that God is part of their relationship; he is there with them, and they honor him by being kind and loving and respectful toward each other, and celebrating the joy he has given them in each other.

Now, we don’t do all these things (or avoid doing other things) because of some legalistic rule book. We do it because Jesus wants to express the power of his life through our lives. This is how Jesus wants to live in you, and through you. I personally think Jesus enjoys it when we do a good job because of him. I think he likes being there when we play softball (or whatever). I’m sure he enjoys date nights and family times, and many of the things we do. He is not asking us to just sit around and “be holy.” He is saying, “In whatever you do, make room for me. Let me be in it, let it be for me, and as you rely on me.”

Let me be honest. There are times in my life where, if this text were describing me, it would say: “Everything whatsoever he does, in word and in deed, he does for the benefit of himself, complaining to God the father that he doesn’t give enough help.” I’m just guessing here, but perhaps  this describes some of you, also. (That was sarcasm. Of course it does. We all fall into this).

Let’s back up and address this. Our natural inclination is to live for ourselves. We require others to treat us according to what we want and need, no matter what might be going on in their own lives. In fact, we often demand it. And we often expect that our own failure to meet the needs of others can be excused because of the struggles we have, even though we don’t give others the same leeway in meeting our own needs. Sometimes we don’t demand our way, but that makes us feel self-righteous, as if we are self-sacrificing martyrs just for not requiring the world to conform to our own desires. This self-centeredness is wired into these mortal bodies that we inhabit. We only live for Jesus to the extent that it does not conflict with our own strong desires.

It’s important to understand how serious this issue is. We cannot do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus until and unless this self-centeredness is addressed, but we can’t seem to break loose. Jesus himself provides the way, as we learned earlier in Colossians:

11 When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.
13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. (NLT, Colossians 2:11-14)

When we came to Jesus, he pronounced the death sentence on our own way of living for ourselves. He himself was killed for our sins, and he included us in his own death and burial. Our real life is now with Him. Remember, this section of Colossians that we are in begins like this:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT, Colossians 3:1-4)

We need to remember and recognize that the selfish way of life belongs to a body that began to die the moment it was born. That way of life is passing away. It can’t last for more than a hundred years or so, and often doesn’t make it nearly that long. It is literally a dead end.

However, we can live every moment whatsoever in the name of Jesus when we focus on the new life he has given us. We set our sights on the realities of heaven (that is, the New Creation). We recognize that all of our legitimate needs have been met in Christ, and our illegitimate needs belong to a body that is temporary and dying. We take our needs to Jesus, not demanding, but humbly trusting he will do what is best for us, even when we don’t understand what that is.

The year our son turned five, I saw something interesting happen. Like pretty much all kids, he was often selfish, often very upset when he didn’t get his own way. When he turned five, he was old enough to understand that his birthday was his special day, a day when everyone else would be celebrating him. He looked forward to it. When the day came, he was confident that others would be giving him attention, looking out for him and treating him well. He knew that we might go easier on his behavior. But instead of acting out, he became so kind and gracious. A number of times, something happened that normally would have upset him. One of his siblings accidentally broke one of his toys. He graciously forgave her. Another sibling got upset about something, and he tried to comfort her, rather than getting us to focus on himself. It seemed like because it was his birthday he knew, at least for that day, that his needs would be met, that he didn’t have to worry about himself. So, he was able to let things go, and able to act kind, and unselfishly.

It should be the same with us. The God who created the universe has declared that we are special to him. He has provided all that we need for an eternal life of joy. We can know that we are celebrated, that we are safe. We don’t have to demand that our needs be met, because God has already met all our truest and deepest needs. Trusting this, we can now do all things, absolutely everything, in the name of Jesus.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this is the third time in the last three verses that tells us to be thankful. I have said before that thankfulness opens the door to help us receive the things that God is giving to us in the spiritual realm. I said recently that thankfulness is also the gateway to peace. In addition, thanksgiving is the beginning of what it means to do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus. When we thank him, it helps lead us away from unselfishness. It helps us remember everything good in our lives comes in him and from him, and so encourages us to live more and more not for ourselves, but for, with, and depending upon, Jesus