LENT #1: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF SUFFERING

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God the Father made it quite clear that he was pleased with Jesus. It is certain that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. And yet, the Father’s approval, and the Spirit’s leading brought Jesus into a wilderness where he had nothing to eat, and had to battle with the devil. Our circumstances are not a reliable guide to understanding how God feels about us. Often, God leads us into suffering, because he is treating us as his children; treating us, in fact, exactly how he treated Jesus.

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 Lent 1

Lent 2022 #1. Luke 4:1-4

On March 2, this year, we entered the church-season of Lent. The “church year” with its various seasons – like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. – is not found in the Bible. It was developed over time, in conjunction with “church festivals.” Church festivals include days like Christmas, Pentecost, Resurrection (Easter), All Saints, and also days celebrating the lives of various famous Christians. The church year developed as church leaders found it useful to remember different important parts of the Bible, and to highlight certain Biblical themes and events. Eventually, by the middle ages, the lives of most people in Europe revolved around the church year, and the various festivals of the church. It was helpful, at that time, for people to have their lives rooted and grounded in the Church year. The rhythms of their lives, all year round, were deeply attached to themes and holidays that reminded them of God. The very word “holiday” actually comes from the phrase “holy day.”

There are negatives to the church year. The seasons and festivals of the church year are associated with various Bible readings. Eventually, the Church began to focus only on those particular Bible readings, which were chosen by human beings to create the church year. Most people did not have their own Bibles, so they only heard the Bible when it was read at church. Because of the way the church year is structured, no one ever heard a whole Biblical book read in order – that is, in context. Not only that, but the readings of the church year (called “the lectionary,” or “the pericope” [pronounced per-ik-uh-pee]) leave out well over half of the Bible. Many pastors only preach on the lectionary, which means, in such churches, there is over half the Bible that you will never hear taught or explained. When pastors preach on the lectionary, it is, by necessity, preaching out of context. I know some pastors who would argue that the lectionary, along with the church year, is the context, but those are man-made contexts, not the context given by the Bible itself.

All of this is good to know, and important to take into consideration. The church year is man-made, neither created by, nor demanded by the Bible. Paul writes this, in Colossians:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

(Colossians 2:16-19, NLT)

It is easy to see how those verses apply to the church year. But there is another aspect also. We should not judge those who do find the church year helpful. In addition, the church year is the product of centuries of thoughtful consideration. Times have changed, of course, but I think sometimes we in the 21st century are perhaps too quick to dismiss ancient Christian practices that followers of Jesus found helpful in former times. Even today, millions of people find the church year helpful for following Jesus. I do think it has its deficiencies, but I also want us to be able to draw from what is good and helpful in Christian tradition.

All that is a very long way of saying that this year, I would like to at least experiment with following a church-season – in particular, the season of Lent. I do not intend to follow the church year always, but I do want to expose you to this ancient Christian tradition. As always, we will base it firmly in scripture. In fact, it is possible that we will spend all seven weeks of Lent in just one scripture passage, but we will see.

The season of Lent is arranged to last forty days, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness, and battling temptation, just before he began his world-changing ministry. It also echoes the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday, and end with Easter. We will begin this Lenten season by looking at that experience Jesus had in the wilderness.

1 Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

(Luke 4:1-4, CSB)

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has spent thirty-years living in obscurity, most of it in the town of Nazareth. Most sons in those days probably ended up doing whatever their fathers did for a living, so it is likely that Jesus was a builder, like Joseph. Now, at the age of thirty, led by the Spirit, he visits his cousin John, and is baptized by him. At his baptism, the Father made it known that He was pleased with Jesus. He affirmed Jesus in his Divine Sonship. And then, the first thing the Spirit leads Jesus to do is to go out into the wilderness, where he is to refrain from eating, and face the temptations of the devil.

There is an important point here. I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with the devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian who says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get easier as a result of this, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, he is often kind enough to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus. He usually uses suffering to help us absorb that message.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father had his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with  his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is angry at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him. And he ended up in a wasteland with no food, fighting the devil.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. Because we are in Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in the desert with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you – it comes to you through Jesus, which is to say, perfectly!

And here is one of the first lessons we can take from the season of Lent: there is a time and place in the Christian life for hardship and discipline. It is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s not because God is displeased with you, or that you need to get your act together. It is because that is the best possible thing for you, at this time.

I’ve come to this place with my own intense physical suffering. I have prayed, and received prayer for my suffering, including many types of prayer, and from many different people. I’ve tried literally dozens of things, medically. Yet I am still in pain. I trust therefore, that if God continues to allow it, it is because this difficult thing is, in fact, the very best thing for me. The writer of Hebrews addresses this same topic, telling us to consider the suffering of Jesus. His temptation in the wilderness was part of his earthly suffering:

3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:3-11, CSB)

God disciplines us for our benefit, so that we can share in his holiness. Though it isn’t pleasant at the time, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It is not punishment, but training; training in holiness. Most importantly, God deals with us this way because he loves us, because he considers us his children, bearers of his own name.

So here is the first lesson for this year’s Lenten season: allow God to use whatever hardship is in your life to bless you, and train you to share in his holiness. If you can alleviate your suffering, go ahead and do it. But if you find yourself dealing with some kind of hardship that you have no control over, perhaps you could be open to the idea that God will use it to bless you. God is treating you as a beloved child, as a member of the family.

All suffering is difficult. But not all suffering needs to be evil.

Let me say this again, because many 21st century American Christians don’t really know this, or want to accept it: not all suffering is evil. In fact, when we are in Jesus, nothing that we suffer needs to be evil. Instead, the Father can use every bit of it to bless us, and to train us to share in His holiness.

We should not miss this fact, also: God didn’t just use the suffering that happened to come to Jesus as he went about life. There was plenty of hardship in the ordinary, everyday life of someone who lived in 1st Century Israel under the Roman empire. There was poverty the like of which most of us have never seen. There was injustice. There was hard work. There was no modern medicine, so even a headache was not easily solved. But God called Jesus deliberately into even more suffering.

I don’t believe we ought to go looking for ways to suffer. But we don’t need to fear it either, and we need to recognize that sometimes, God’s gracious hand is in the thing that causes us suffering. It is a tremendous comfort for me to know that I suffer because it is God’s best will for me. It is a wonderful joy to know that there is purpose in my pain, and it is accomplishing something in God’s Kingdom, even when I don’t understand it. I am being treated as God’s beloved child. I know this not only because of the Hebrews passage above, but because this is exactly how God dealt with Jesus Himself.

Let the Lord speak to you today about the joy and discipline and love that He can impart to you through whatever suffering he calls you to.

Let me add one final thought. I have heard many Christians say that they believe revival is coming to America. Many of the people who say this are people that I know and respect. But even as they are convinced that revival will come to the American church, I am convinced about the way it will come to us: through suffering. I cannot see any way that American Christians can come to a profound, life changing place in their faith, and have a significant impact on our culture, without suffering. I am more and more convinced that a time of suffering is coming to the church at large. When it comes, let us not be surprised by it. Peter, who knew what suffering  is, wrote:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12-13 (CSB)

Let us not be worried, or fearful, or dismayed. Jesus suffered, and part of following him, involves following him in suffering. It can be difficult, yes, but it is not bad, not evil. It might be the most wonderful thing God can do in us and through us.

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, CSB)

Once again, we see the connection between being a child of God, and being called to suffer.

During this time of Lent, let us use the season to prepare ourselves, to train our minds and hearts to recognize that suffering does not need to be evil, and it can actually accomplish much good for the kingdom of God. Let us use the practices of Lent to train ourselves, so that we recognize we are indeed God’s children, and he will use us in his kingdom, and in this world.

1 PETER #12: ORDINARY PRIESTS, SPIRITUAL SACRIFICES

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In Christ, we do not need priests to help us connect to God. ALL of us have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. This means that in a sense, we are all priests. That priesthood extends to the fact that all Christians are called to represent and serve God wherever we live, work and relax.

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 1 Peter Part 12

1 Peter #12.  1 Peter 2:4-5

As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—5 you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 PETER 2:4-5

As in pretty much the entire letter, when Peter writes “you,” in Greek, it is plural. In English it should be “you all,” which is just one more argument for adopting “Y’all” as an actual, proper word. Anyway, Peter is saying that Christian communities are part of something that God is building. He begins the building with the foundation of Jesus – the living stone, rejected by humans – but he is building us Christians, through our local church communities, into living stones, and those living stones are making a spiritual house. Next, he explains that within the spiritual house of God, every single Christian is a priest.

I want to unpack this a little bit. We will deal with Jesus as a “living stone,” next time. Peter also calls his readers (that is, all Christians) “living stones.” He is providing an analogy about the church. If we needed any reminder that the church is not contained in physical buildings, here it is: we, the people who follow Jesus, are the building blocks, and we are being built into a spiritual house, not a physical one. Remember, there were no “church buildings,” until three hundred years after Peter wrote this letter. One of the main points Peter is making is that God lives within the community of his people (not within physical buildings). When we gather together to worship (even when it is on zoom), God inhabits our spiritual community in a special, and spiritual, way. Part of our purpose as Christians is to be a community in which God dwells.

Let’s spend the bulk of our time exploring the fact that Peter calls Christians “a holy priesthood.” In the first place, in ancient times, only a priest was allowed to “approach God” to make a sacrifice. For the Israelites, the priests had to be born into a particular bloodline. Most people were not priests, and as close as they ever could get to the presence of God was to stand outside of God’s temple, in the courtyard. The priests (lucky enough to be born into priestly families) were allotted into divisions, and the divisions were rotated in their service at the temple. The priests had to go through various cleansing rituals in order to be considered holy enough to complete their service of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one but a priest ever got to go inside the temple, and even for a priest, it was probably a once in a lifetime chance, because you were chosen for the duty by random chance.

Most of Peter’s first readers were probably not Jews, so they might have been more familiar with the pagan religious rites of Greece and Rome.  Although perhaps the requirements were not so stringent, certainly, to engage in anything beyond a minor act of worship (like burning incense in front of an image in your own house), a priest or priestess had to be involved. If you really wanted to connect with a deity, or enlist its help, you needed someone in the class of priests. You couldn’t do it directly.

But Peter says: “Now, through Jesus, you are all priests!” This is one of the revolutionary aspects of Christianity: Because of Jesus Christ, by God’s grace, anyone can directly approach God through faith. You don’t need a priest to pray for you: you yourself can pray directly to God. And in fact, the prayers of a Christian priest/pastor are no better than those of any other Christian. Our prayers are heard because of Jesus Christ, not because the one who prays is somehow special. I have non-Christian friends who sometimes say something like this: “Put in a good word at the Pearly Gates for me.” I usually respond like this: “My word is no better than yours at the Pearly Gates. But I can introduce you to the guy I’m counting on to get me in.”

I am a called, trained, and ordained minister of God’s church. That does mean something. It means that I have a particular kind of calling to spend as much time as I can (ideally, all of my “working hours”) teaching people the Word of God, helping them to grow closer to Jesus, and training them to engage in the callings God has for their lives.. The calling to vocational ministry is relatively rare – maybe 1-5% of Christians are called to it. But my calling does not give me some special hotline to God that other people don’t get. It is about my role in the church, and about dedicating myself entirely to God’s service. It most certainly does not mean that people have to use me as an intermediary to talk to God. In fact, there is no point in trying to use a priest or pastor that way.

So that’s the first part of all Christians being the “priesthood of believers:” we all have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. No one is excluded. There is a second thing, also. While it is true that being called to full time vocational ministry is fairly rare, every single Christian is called to live in such a way that God is glorified, and the church is built up. Ephesians 4:11-16 explains:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16, NLT)

This passage lays it out plainly. There are callings and gifts for vocational (full-time) ministry: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. Some people say that all of these gifts are found in one person, and they call this “the five-fold ministry.” Others say that they are all supposed to be in separate people, so that every church should have at least five leaders (one with each of the gifts). My own inclination is to believe that all of these gifts are present, to some degree, in anyone who is called to full time ministry, but that they are not all found in equal measure.

So, for example, I have a friend who is also called to full time ministry. His strongest gift is that of pastor, and he has a clear gift of prophecy, also. He undoubtedly serves the broader church, like an apostle. He can also lead people to Jesus, as an evangelist (and has), and he can teach, but those are not his greatest strengths. Each of us who is called to vocational ministry has a unique combination of these five things. My friend is a bit older than me, and he has observed that over the many years of his ministry, at times he was called to be more of a prophet, and other times more of a pastor, and right now is doing more with his gifts of apostle (serving not just one congregation, but the church at large).

We see that one of the main aims in the work of those who are called to full time ministry is to equip everybody else in the church to also minister in some way. It is not the full time ministers who are supposed to do everything, but rather, we (the vocational ministers) are supposed to train others to use their talents and time to build up the church, and let love overflow to the world. In other words: every Christian is called to minister in some way. This is part of what it means to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God.

Pastors do have a particular and unique calling and gifting. But so does every other Christian! This is Christianity 101. Being a Christian means to follow Jesus, and that involves all of your life. It means your life is now to be used to lift up and glorify Jesus Christ. Paul describes it like this:

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial

(1 Corinthians 12:4-7, HCSB)

This does not necessarily mean that you should quit your job and just “live for Christ.” For most Christians, instead, it means, live for Christ where you are right now. If all the Christians who worked in a factory quit their jobs, who would be left to show the grace and truth of God to the others in the factory? If everyone became pastors, so many important things would be left undone.

12 For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body — so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 So the body is not one part but many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. 19 And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? 20 Now there are many parts, yet one body.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-20, HCSB)

No, for most people, it means that you are called to represent God where you are right now. And, according to the verses above, that role is indispensable. God desires Christians in factories, in offices, in homes raising children, in transportation, in technology, in government, in education, in law, in sales, in small business – the list is almost endless. We are called to be priests wherever we are – that is representatives, and servants, of God. We are called to glorify God, and to touch others with God’s truth and love. That doesn’t mean you can never change jobs, but it does mean that whatever you do, wherever you go, you do it as a priest of God.

The third thing about the holy priesthood is that now we are set apart, special to God, just as priests were considered specially set apart to God. This can offer us a helpful rule of thumb for everyday behavior. You might ask yourself: “Can I say what I am about to say as a priest of God?” In other words, do my actions and words reflect my calling as one of God’s priests where I am? If not, maybe we need to change what we do and say. We can’t make that change without the help of the Holy Spirit, but recognizing the need to change is the first step.

Another aspect of this is integrity. Being a priest of God where you are may get you fired sometimes. I don’t mean that we should be unnecessarily confrontational. We shouldn’t go out of our way to create conflict. But at times, we may find ourselves facing a choice between doing what is right – that is, doing God’s will – or doing what our boss tells us to do. In such cases, being God’s representative may cost us something in material or financial terms. God promises, however, that whatever we lose in this life is more than compensated for:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:18, HCSB)

In addition to being a priest in the workplace, and at home, you are a priest within the body of Christ, as well. That is, you can provide encouragement and support to other Christians in unique ways. You may have a call to lead a ministry to serve the poor, or to teach the Bible to children, or lead worship, or help maintain the physical resources of your church. You are probably called, at least from time to time, to say things to your fellow Christians that they need to hear. We are all called to pray together, and pray for one another. We are called to love one another, and the way we do that reflects the unique way God made each of us. God has designed you to encourage his people, and to help bring them to maturity, in a special way.

Peter says as God’s priests, we offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. There are several important things to understand about these “spiritual sacrifices.” The first thing is they are something different from the actual, physical animal sacrifices common to almost all religions at that time. In the ancient world, most major worship events involved sacrificing animals in the name of one god or another (or, in Israel, the sacrifice was for the God we worship today). Usually, after the sacrifice, the worshippers would eat together, consuming the meat of the sacrificed animal. In the case of non-Jewish worship, any leftover meat was sold in the public marketplace. So, people understood that one of the primary acts of worship was an actual, sacrifice: a physical animal. In some cases, instead of an animal, an amount of grain was used, or a drink was poured out in honor of the deity.

Peter says, now, through Jesus Christ, we are no longer killing animals or burning up food or wasting drink as part of worship. Instead, what we offer God is spiritual. How do we do that? What is a spiritual sacrifice? Paul tells us, in Romans:

So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. 2 Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.

(Romans 12:1-2, GNT)

The spiritual sacrifice we offer is our very selves. We make ourselves available to God: body, soul and spirit. The verse above explains that part of that sacrifice involves allowing God to transform us inwardly in such a way that results in outward changes. . What God wants is our hearts. He wants us to willingly come to him in love, and trust him, even when we have doubts and don’t understand. The transformation begins through God’s Word as we learn it, and believe it.

In case that gets too esoteric and difficult to understand, let’s make it practical. It starts with reading the Bible and believing what we read. And it continues like this: When I believe that all the good in my life proceeds ultimately from God, and I thank him for it, I am offering  a spiritual sacrifice. When I am hurting, and struggling, but I choose to trust that God is good, and is working good in my life – even though I can’t see or understand it at the moment – and I thank him for that good, that is a spiritual sacrifice. The contemporary song Blessed Be Your Name captures both of these types of spiritual sacrifices beautifully.

Blessed be Your name // When the sun’s shining down on me // When the world’s all it should be:

Blessed be Your name.

And blessed be Your name // On the road marked with suffering // Though there’s pain in the offering: Blessed be Your name

There are other types of spiritual sacrifices that we can offer God. When I want to do certain things, but I learn that God does not want me to do that, and I obey him, rather than my own desires or preferences, that is a spiritual act of worship. When I give God my time and energy, to be used as he wishes, that is spiritual worship. When I choose to let God love others through me (though I might prefer not to) I am giving God my spiritual worship through Jesus Christ. Prayer is spiritual worship, as is music. Quieting my mind to listen to His Spirit is spiritual worship.

I hope you can see, that it all comes back to giving ourselves wholly to God in faith, through Jesus Christ. Why don’t you spend some time offering yourself to Him right now?

1 PETER #11: DELICIOUS WORDS

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God’s Word is life to us. Without it, we die spiritually. Though it takes time and energy, when we regularly read the Bible and ask God to speak to us through it, it becomes delicious spiritual food to us.

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 1 Peter Part 11

1 PETER #11: 1 PETER 2:1-3

Last time, Peter laid the foundations for authentic Christian community: Truth, and Love. Every Christian is called to be involved in the lives of at least a few other believers in authentic love and the truth of God’s word. He continues the same theme in these verses. (Remember, chapter and verse markings are only there to help us navigate around the Bible. They are not part of the Word of God, but were added almost a thousand years later). Peter begins by describing some of the implications of truth and love. If we are to be in Christian community, we can’t have malice toward one another. We cannot deceive one another, or regularly practice hypocrisy, or envy, or slander. These things destroy both Truth and Love, and they make real Christian community impossible.

All of that is a great example of how our beliefs are connected to our behavior. This isn’t a list of dos and don’ts; it’s not another set of laws to follow. But as sure as night follows day, you cannot Love other Christians in Truth if you are nasty or mean toward them, or deceive them, or live as a hypocrite, or envy, or slander them. Our behavior naturally lines up with what we really believe, and what we really think is important. Our behavior does not save us, but our behavior does tell us how much our faith is having an impact on our lives. If we cannot see any impact at all of faith on our behavior, then we need to revisit faith first. Trying to change our behavior without changing our beliefs, or what is important to us, is doomed to failure.

Peter revisits the truth aspect in verses 2-3: He tells us to crave God’s word like newborn infants crave their mother’s milk. By the way, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, also talk about “spiritual milk.” But both of them describe it as only for spiritual babies, and they rebuke various people for still needing milk when they should be eating solid food. (1 Corinthians 3:2, and Hebrews 5:12-13). Don’t let this confuse you – there is not some universal spiritual meaning for the word milk. Even within the Bible, writers do use the same words in different ways, sometimes, and they use the same words to create different word-pictures. Paul and Hebrews are using the picture of babies and milk to make points about spiritual immaturity. However, right here in our passage, Peter is using it in a different way – to show that we are in desperate need of God’s Word, and we should crave it, and that we need it in order to grow.

This is a powerful picture. In the first place, in those days, there was no such thing as infant formula. A baby needed mother’s milk, plain and simple. Without it, the baby would die. Milk was life to the baby. So, God’s Word is life to us. Without it, we die in our sins. Paul explains it like this:

13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.”
14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”
16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “LORD, who has believed our message?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.

(Romans 10:13-17, NLT)

We have to have the Word in order to have faith. And Peter adds that we need it “so that by it you may grow up into your salvation.” Many other verses also explain that even after we initially have come to Jesus, we need the Word to develop and sustain our faith.

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15:4, ESV)

4 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, 15 and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:14-17, HCSB)

12 For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.

(Hebrews 4:12-13, CSB)

We are only one quarter of the way through Peter’s letter, and we can see that God’s Word – that is the Bible – is a major theme. That’s because it is a major theme to Christianity as a whole. Without God’s word, we have no truth, no reality. With God’s word, when we trust it, we have salvation, and instruction about how to know God better, and how to live as we were intended to live. If you are struggling in your Faith, or struggling to live as a Christian, the very first question I have is this: what role does God’s Word play in your life? Do you read it regularly? Do you ask God for help in understanding when you read it? Do you seek to live by it? Are your values and priorities formed by what you read in the Bible, or by other things? In short: Do you regularly feed your soul on God’s Word?

If you are serious about God’s Word, but you don’t really know how to read it properly, or understand it, PLEASE reach out to me! We can have an email conversation, if that would help you. Or, if you are interested, I have written a book to help regular people understand the Bible, called: Who Cares About the Bible? It doesn’t cost that much, but, in case anyone thinks I’m pushing this in order to make $1.75 (the amount I get, if you buy a copy), I will give you a free copy, if you ask for it. It is also available in ebook form. If you want a free copy, contact me. Or, you can buy it from amazon.com.

Peter adds another thought about God’s word. He says: if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:3, ESV) This a theme that recurs throughout the Bible – that as we engage in faith, and particularly as we receive the Word of God, it brings a sweetness and joy to our souls:

8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

(Psalms 34:8, ESV)

When Ezekiel was called by God to become a prophet, God gave him a special vision involving His Word:

1 He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find here. Eat this scroll, then go and speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. 3 “Son of man,” he said to me, “feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll I am giving you.” So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.

(Ezekiel 3:1-3, CSB)

The scroll, is of course, a pictorial representation of God’s Word. When he ingested God’s word, when he took it into his soul, it tasted sweet to Ezekiel. Jeremiah had a similar experience:

16 Your words were found, and I ate them.
Your words became a delight to me
and the joy of my heart,
for I bear your name,
LORD God of Armies.

(Jeremiah 15:16, CSB)

The writer of Psalm 119 felt exactly the same way:

102 I have not turned from Your judgments,
for You Yourself have instructed me.
103 How sweet Your word is to my taste —
sweeter than honey in my mouth.

(Psalms 119:102-103, HCSB)

Let me put this all together by telling you what happened this very morning. I was doing my normal Bible reading – in which I read through a book of the Bible, a little bit each day. Currently, the book I’m reading is Proverbs. I prayed briefly before I started – something like: “Lord, I need to hear from you right now. What do you want to say to me?”

Then, I started reading from where I left off yesterday. Here’s what I read:

11 I am teaching you the way of wisdom;
I am guiding you on straight paths.
12 When you walk, your steps will not be hindered;
when you run, you will not stumble.
13 Hold on to instruction; don’t let go.
Guard it, for it is your life.

Proverbs 4:11-13

This verse tells me about wisdom. I know the historical context, and I know the context of the verses, because I read the previous chapter yesterday. I know that in general, these verses are telling God’s people to pursue the wisdom that comes from God, which, actually, goes along well with this sermon I am working on. That’s all very great. But this morning, God made this word living and active to me. As I read this with a heart of faith, a heart that said, “I want to hear from God,” these words became God’s word to me, today. It was as if the words in Proverbs were addressed right to me. It felt like God was saying:

“Tom, I am pleased with you. I am here. I am teaching you. I am guiding you. Your spiritual steps will not be hindered, your way is clear. I am bringing you deeper into my Life, my ways. You are on the right path, I have given you wisdom, and will give you more. Don’t be worried – continue on this path. I am pleased with you.”

It’s hard to describe exactly what it means to me, but the main point is this: I felt like God spoke to me directly and personally. He imparted his favor and love to me through the words of the Bible. It was food and drink for my soul; it was sustaining substance for my spiritual life.

I have actually read those verses in Proverbs many times. Certainly, I’ve read the entire book of Proverbs at least four times, or more. But today, verses that I have read before became living and active. The Holy Spirit applied them to me, personally in a fresh way. What I heard this morning was not the universal meaning of those verses for all people and all time. What I heard was God’s Living Word to me, for today.

I have experienced this sweetness, this “taste of God,” many times in my life through studying the Bible. Lest you think that means you need to become a Bible scholar to achieve it, let me say that I experienced it first when I was only a teenager, as I tried, for the first time, to seriously engage with what I read in the Bible. I continued to experience it as a college student. In other words before I could have been called a “Bible scholar” in any meaningful sense, God used His Word to let me “taste and see” that He is good. Even today, what I received from God was not about intellectual understanding, but about receiving His Living Word in faith.

So, if you are a teenager, with no college education, God can still give you tastes of His goodness if you engage with the Bible. If you are an adult with no college education, the same thing applies.

It isn’t about us knowing a lot, but rather, it happens when we genuinely want to know God better, and we seek that knowledge through His Word, and through the community of believers. It happens when we read the Bible with faith that God is indeed imparting His life to us through it.

I invite you, too, to immerse yourself in God’s Word so that you can taste and see that He is good!

1 PETER #10: THE TWO ESSENTIALS OF THE CHURCH – LOVE AND TRUTH.

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The two foundations of Christian community are truth and love. Truth without love does not reflect God’s nature, and often turns people off. Love without truth ends up not being real. It provides affirmation without actually being loving. In Christ, we find the perfect balance of both truth and love.

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 1 Peter Part 10

1 Peter #10. 1 Peter 1:22-25

These verses provide us with the two essential foundations of what it means to live in community with other Christians. Often, we don’t realize that being part of a church is, according to the Bible, the same thing as being in community with other Christians. I don’t mean we have to live in the same neighborhood, or start a commune. But properly speaking, churches are gatherings of Christians who are committed to one another in Love and in Truth. These are the two things Peter addresses here.

He starts with love. In the first place, there is a group of people that we should differentiate from all others: those who have been purified by obedience to the truth. It means those who have accepted the truth about God and Jesus Christ in faith, and who submit to that truth in the way we live our lives. In short, love begins in the family of God: our first call, after we have begun to love God, is love our fellow Christians.

I know that some of you will get hung up on the way Peter words things here. The ESV reads: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth.” That makes it sound like we are the ones who have purified ourselves, and we’ve done it by obeying. First, the Greek word “obedience” carries a different set of ideas with it than our English term. One way to describe it might be: “listening attentively, with the intent to act on what is heard.” It is also very much related to submission, or compliance. So the idea is, we have heard the truth, and our intention is to act in accordance with what we have heard. We submit to the truth we have heard.

Second, we need to remember to interpret individual verses according to the whole teaching of the Bible. Therefore, we should not take it to mean that we have somehow made ourselves holy, or acceptable to God, by what we have done. We know from other, more clear verses, that this cannot be the case. It is God who justifies us, calls us, and purifies us. Any attempt to make ourselves holy is doomed to failure (See Galatians 2:16 & 3:10; Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 5:1-8 & 8:33-34 if you are not sure about this). For Peter’s point here, I’ll give you “Tom’s Explanatory Translation”:

Since you all have aligned yourselves with the reality (about God and Jesus Christ), submitting to that reality has purified you. You have brothers and sisters who have also been purified in this way, therefore, you must love one another like a good family; in fact, love one another sacrificially, with unwavering commitment.

I’ve said it before, and I will continue to repeat it: after loving God, our next priority as Christians is to love each other. Too many Christians seem to forget that the command of God is, in the first place, specifically about loving other Christians. It is not that we should ignore or hate people who aren’t believers, but rather, that we cannot effectively love those who aren’t Christians if we have not learned to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Love is a unique thing in that you actually develop more when you give it away. In other words, it is not like there is a finite amount of love, and if you love your fellow Christians, there won’t be enough for the world. No, our love for the world (people who don’t know Jesus) is supposed to overflow from our love for one another. In fact, this is a reflection of the love of God Himself. God, who is one being, exists in three Persons. The Father loves the Son and Spirit, and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. All of the love that God has for the world – that amazing love we talk about all the time – is merely the overflow, the excess, you might say, that comes out of the love between the Persons of God. So, in the same way, we are to love our fellow Christians first, and when we truly do that, it will overflow into love for the world. Contrary to some thinking, loving the world before loving other Christians does not convince the world. Jesus himself made this very clear:

34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

(John 13:34-35, God’s Word version)

The thing that convinces the world is not that we are trying to love them. No, it is our love for each other that says volumes to non-Christians. The nature of our love for each other makes us open to, and eager to find, new people with which to fellowship. But after loving God, our love must begin within His family. John reminded Christians of this in his first letter:

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

(1 John 2:9-11, HCSB)

Now, this last passage is worded very strongly, but we should remember a couple things. First, love is not a feeling – it is a commitment to value another. We can commit to value someone else even when we don’t really feel like it. Secondly, I believe that John’s words above are intended as a diagnosis, more than a prescription. What I mean is, if we are truly trusting Jesus and loving God, it will result in love for other believers. If, on the other hand, we have contempt for our fellow Christians, that is a symptom that helps us diagnose a problem. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the likely explanation is that we have not actually received the grace of Jesus Christ. The answer is not to try harder, or pretend to be loving. Instead, we need to examine our relationship with God himself.

I want to say this, also. When we make love into something too general, or we turn it into a kind of nice idea, it loses the force of real love. I am not asking you to love a bunch of Christians you have never met. Love the ones you know. Concentrate on loving the Christians with whom you have regular fellowship – for instance, those in your house church, or small group.

If you happen to be in a large church, you probably need to begin by finding a smaller group of Christians with whom you connect regularly. The kind of love that Peter is talking about involves actual, close, human contact. It involves taking care of one another when there are physical needs.

It also means being genuine with one another. When Peter writes about sincere love, the actual word used refers to masks worn by actors. We are supposed to take off our “masks” when we are with our Christian community. We need to be real with one another. Because of that loving each other will sometimes involve the messiness of dealing with each other’s foibles and weaknesses – and our own. This love is not supposed to be theoretical – it is practical. It is “doing life together.”

Let’s look now at the second essential part of Christian community: Truth. In the first place, it is only when we align ourselves with truth that we are able to love. We became part of God’s family through hearing the truth, and submitting to what we have heard, with the intention of living accordingly. Without truth, love is fake. Without THE Truth, our relationships with each other are not based on a solid foundation.

Peter explains that our love is based on the fact that we are born again through the truth of God’s living Word. Here again, by the way, is an affirmation that we do not some how impart holiness into ourselves – we are brought to spiritual life (born again) by God’s action, not our own. We also have Peter explaining the eternal nature of God’s living Word.

Many Christians call the Bible “God’s Word.” I am among them. I have shared before how it is unique among the world’s religious books, and, in fact, unique among all the books in the world. Of course the Bible is really like a whole shelf of books. It has been repeatedly verified in its historical details, to the point where it is the most reliable ancient document in existence for every period that it covers. On the other hand, no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted a historical detail in the Bible. In fact, my wife Kari (not knowing I was taking this particular tack for this sermon) just emailed me an article about how Biblical texts are actually helping scientists learn more about the earth’s magnetic field. In the article, I found this quote:

This isn’t the first time the Bible’s accuracy has been vindicated, of course. The Old Testament predicted the existence of ancient groups like the Hittites long before anyone discovered evidence of their culture. Its description of the assassination of the same Assyrian king Sennacherib matches the one his son, Esarhaddon, provides in his records. At the ruins of Jericho, many archeologists believe there is evidence of a sudden structural collapse, which would align with how the book of Joshua describes the city’s destruction.

Of course, many mysteries remain about how the many pieces of the archeological record fit with the Biblical one. But in the words of archeologist and Jewish scholar Nelson Gluek, “[It] may be clearly stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a single Biblical reference.” Yet, “scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”

(https://www.christianpost.com/voices/the-bibles-accuracy-vindicated-again.html, accessed 1/18/22)

The scholar quoted above, Nelson Gluek, is certainly neither the first, nor the last, to make that observation. The whole article above is worth a read, but please finish this message first! 😊

About two years ago, I was reading some of the writings of the early church “fathers.” These were the next few generations of leaders after the apostles. I was struck by something when I read the writing of Clement of Rome. Clement is actually mentioned in the Bible, in Philippians 4:3. He was known to be one of the companions and co-workers of the apostle Paul. He was perhaps the first, and eldest, of the “early fathers.” Not long after Paul’s death, he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth. Much of the letter is very good, and encouraging. But at one point, Clement takes several paragraphs to describe the legend of the phoenix – a bird, he reports, that lives for five hundred years. When it dies (goes the story) a new bird grows in its place from a worm that feeds on the decayed remains of the old. The new bird carries the bones of its parent, says Clement, to a city in Egypt.

Now, while he is merely using it as an illustration, it is clear that Clement believes the legend to be true – in fact, he uses it as in illustration of the resurrection! Obviously, it is not true. If Clement’s letter had become part of the Bible, I would have to admit that, at least in that respect, the Bible was not reliable, and in fact, I think it would have caused some people to question the historical truth of the resurrection.

Think about the situation. Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul, a well known and respected leader throughout the early Christian church, almost of the same generation as the apostles. Luke’s writing became a part of scripture. Mark (John-Mark) was also a companion of Paul, younger, and his gospel was also included in the Bible. Clement was a companion of Paul, a well known leader in the church. And yet, Clement’s letter was never, at any time in history, considered part of the Bible, the Word of God. Why not? Externally, he seems just as qualified as Luke or Mark. My take is that God intervened to prevent something that was patently untrue from being part of his Bible.

Now, you might say that was just a lucky exclusion. But if Clement believed that legend, it is quite possible that others of the first generation of Christians believed such things. It may even be that the apostle Paul himself believed it. Even so, that legend never made it into the Bible. There may have been other false things, like the legend of the phoenix, but different, that the first Christians believed. Perhaps even the apostles believed them. Yet God somehow prevented any of that sort of thing from becoming part of scripture. In fact, when you think about it, it is remarkable that a document written two thousand years ago is absolutely free from those types of false myths and legends. Luck doesn’t seem adequate to explain it.

If you go back to Old Testament times, it is certain that almost everyone believed that the earth was flat. There are Psalms that use imagery that suggests a flat earth. But those Psalms are not teaching that the world is flat – they are merely using poetic images to describe the greatness of God’s creation in terms that everyone in those days would understand. The verses themselves are not about the shape of the world, but God’s greatness. So, in fact, there is no direct teaching in the bible that tells us the earth is flat. That alone is remarkable, unless we believe that God had a hand in the Bible.

By the way, if you are thinking that people went back later on and changed what the Bible said, you can forget it. I know some people think that, but it is the stuff of pure fantasy. Believing that is like believing… well, like believing the earth is flat. We simply know too much about how the Bible was formed, and when. If you want more information about how the Bible came to be, and why we can trust it, please pick up a copy of my book, Who Cares About the Bible, on Amazon.

Let’s get practical about God’s Word for a moment. Sometimes, submitting to the truth of the Bible means we must affirm certain truths that will make us unpopular. Now, I don’t mean we need to go out of our way to “drop truth bombs” on everyone. If someone has a large nose, you don’t have to go out of your way to point that out, even if it is true. However, there are some aspects of obedience to the truth that we must affirm; and some of them are difficult, and might make others angry at us.

For instance, the Bible is very clear that it is not acceptable for someone who has trusted Jesus to continue to live in a long-term pattern of sinful behavior. I’m not talking here about someone who struggles with the same sin, over and over. That person is struggling against sin, which shows that their faith is alive and active. They are continually repenting, and seeking God’s forgiveness. But I’m talking about someone who has said, “I don’t accept what the Bible says about how I want to live. I’m going to do my own thing, and I believe I am a good Christian anyway.” The person who lives like that for a long time is endangering their faith, and it is our responsibility, as fellow believers, to encourage them to stop.

1 Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.

(Galatians 6:1-3, NLT)

We are not too important to ignore the word of God! We all must submit to it, and sometimes, the most loving thing means sharing a hard truth with a  fellow Christian. A Psalmist shares the perspective of a wise Christian, when it comes to being told the truth about sin:

4 Don’t let me drift toward evil// or take part in acts of wickedness.//Don’t let me share in the delicacies//of those who do wrong.//5 Let the godly strike me!//It will be a kindness!
If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.

(Psalms 141:4-5, NLT)

The writer of this psalm is pointing out that if others correct him, and prevent him from drifting further into sin, it is actually a kindness. Telling the truth in that way is an act of love. He prays for the wisdom to remember that. James, brother of Jesus, agrees:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20 you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.

(James 5:19-20, NLT)

Some people who call themselves Christians have begun to actively deny parts of the Bible. It is not loving to tell them that they are right, when in fact, they are not.

Imagine you go to a doctor because you have a strange lump. The doctor knows you, and he knows that if he says you have cancer and need treatment, it will upset you. You might even lash out in anger at him. So, instead, he tells you what you most want to hear: “It’s nothing to worry about.”

But many months later, more symptoms appear. You go to another doctor, and she says: “I’m so sorry, but you have cancer. If we had caught it sooner, it would not have been a problem, but now, it is too late for any treatment to be effective. You need to get your affairs in order, because you don’t have much time left.”

Which doctor is more loving – the one who was truthful, saying things that are hard to hear, or the one that lied to you so that you wouldn’t feel bad? Obviously, we believe the truthful doctor was more loving. In fact, the untruthful doctor would have, for all intents and purposes, destroyed your life by failing to tell the truth.

There are Christians who seem delighted to tell people that they are sinners, and they might burn in hell. Frankly, I’m not sure that all such people are real Christians. For instance, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is not actually a Christian church, but a cult that denies many of the teachings of Jesus. But there are others, within real churches, who are sinning by delighting in bringing bad news.

Even so, real Christians are called to be ready, at times, to warn people who call themselves Christians about what could happen to them if they continue to ignore God. People who don’t claim to be believers are in an entirely different kind of category, and I don’t have space to deal with that here. However, if someone claims to be following Jesus, but is actually ignoring Him, that person is in a unique kind of spiritual danger. They might think they are healthy, while all the while spiritual cancer is eating away at them, untreated. The most loving thing for a fellow Christian to do, is to tell the truth about what the Bible says.

Truth (especially the truth of the Bible) and Love are the essential foundations for any Christian community, any church. When we have only “love,” without truth, we find that while we might be accepting, we aren’t necessarily loving. All we have is meaningless affirmation and emotion, that often does not help, and sometimes even hurts, one another. If we have “truth” without love, we can become hard and cold, and we stop reflecting the loving heart of God, and we drive people away from Jesus unnecessarily.

When we have both truth and love, they balance one another, and they lead us to maturity.

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

(Ephesians 4:14-16, NLT)

1 PETER #9: THE HERO OF MY LIFE’S STORY

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Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the world. That means that God knew ahead of time all of the pain and suffering that would occur after he created the world, but he did it anyway. He did it for love. The fact that Jesus was planned from the beginning also means that He is the Hero in the story of my life. My life is here to show the glory of Jesus to the world. This is true of all of us who have trusted him.

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 1 Peter Part 9

1 Peter #9.  1 Peter 1:17-21

Last time in our 1 Peter series, we talked about what it means to live in the fear of the Lord. Among other things, it means we do not need to fear anything else at all. Next, Peter reminds us that our salvation does not come from perishable things, like silver or gold, but rather from the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

This is one of those places that we might miss if we read too quickly. I think most of us do not think of silver or gold as perishable. To get literal about it, there are Roman gold coins from the time Peter wrote still in existence. That doesn’t seem very “perishable” to me. In fact, to get even more technical and literal, even though it is rare to find a two-thousand-year-old gold coin, the actual gold that was used in Roman coins is still almost certainly in circulation today, one way or another. What I mean is, over the centuries, people who had gold coins, or acquired them in some way, melted them down for other purposes. Nobody just throws gold away, and two-thousand year old gold is just as valuable as gold that was mined yesterday. The same goes for silver. Even though, unlike gold, silver tarnishes, it does not lose its value, and it does not cease to be silver, no matter how much time passes.

It is almost certain that Peter knows all this. In those days, people used coins made of actual precious metals (and some less precious, like copper). They were quite familiar with the properties of those metals. Peter certainly knows that fire does not destroy gold, but only refines it (1:7). So, why does he call gold and silver “perishable?”

In the first place, he knows that most people would think like me, and say, “wait a minute. Gold doesn’t really perish.” He’s getting our attention, and saying in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, yes, it is perishable.

Second, he knows that, no matter how long they may actually last on earth, the value of gold and silver to human beings does not last. To be very direct about it: the moment I die, gold becomes completely worthless to me. I might spend my life amassing millions. When I die, it will mean nothing to me. Most of us spend our lives desiring, and often pursuing, more money. When it comes to the end, however,  the amount of money you have is meaningless. It can’t help you when you stand before the throne of God. The moment you die, it is absolutely worthless.

Third, the value of gold and silver is relative, not fixed. There is nothing absolute, or permanent about its value. A  huge, untapped gold mine might be discovered, and then suddenly gold could become as common as rocks, making it worthless. Or humanity might decide for some reason that they don’t care so much about gold anymore – after all, other metals are much more useful for making things. Gold is only worth something because people have decided it is. They could just as easily decide they don’t care about it anymore. This is even more true of paper and “electronic” money. Inflation is the process by which money becomes less valuable. It happens all the time, and, in fact, is happening in 2022, when I am writing this. You can’t trust money to remain valuable.

Finally, in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, gold and silver are like moldy bread. That is the message of these verses: that Jesus Christ is infinitely valuable, and through faith, we have a part in that infinite value. What we have in Jesus is the most precious thing in the universe, and it will remain the most precious thing in the universe for all time. Remember, we have a hope that can never perish, spoil, or fade.

Just a quick note about the first part of verse 18. Peter mentions that his readers were ransomed from the futile ways handed down from their forefathers. This statement makes it almost certain that at least some of the readers were Gentiles. Neither Peter, nor Paul, nor any New Testament writer, considers the heritage of the Jews to be “futile ways.” They all agree that the Jews did not recognize Jesus, who was the point of it all, but they are clear that the Old Testament scriptures point to Jesus, and that, taking into account that it is about Jesus, the Old Testament is a reliable guide to faith and life. Peter would never call the Old Testament, nor Jewish traditions, futile. He might have argued that people used those things in futile ways, but the things themselves have value.

Peter continues:

20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:20-21

Here is a stunning truth, tossed out rather casually by Peter: Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. This sounds very theological, and so we often get a kind of glazed look in our eyes and move on. But it says something incredible about God.

Before He even began to create the cosmos, God knew that the humans he was going to create would turn against him, and reject Him. Before he spun the first light out of nothingness, he knew that we humans would create a massive mess of things, and bring death, and evil, and cruelty and horror into existence. Before anything at all existed (except for Him) he knew that he would enter a world of suffering; he knew that he himself would suffer a torturous death, and even go to a hell that had not yet been spawned, in order to save the creatures he was going to make. He knew it all long before it even began, before he put creation into motion.

And he created us anyway.

Knowing the horror that we would unleash by rebelling against him, God created a plan to neutralize our rebellion. He planned out ahead of time how he would defeat evil. That’s what Peter means when he says that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. When Adam and Eve fell, and sinned, in the Garden of Eden, God was not taken by surprise. His plan was already in place.

Now, why would God do this?

We Christians believe that God is one being, but that he is a Three-Person Being. The three Persons of God love one another with an eternal, infinite love. In fact, of all the worlds’ religions and philosophies, Christianity alone can legitimately show that love is at the core of God’s nature, and therefore, love is the foundation of the universe.

Because there is no limit to God’s love, he chose to make creatures who could share in his love. Now, love must always involve a choice. Imagine you could create a person who would love you unconditionally, no matter what. If you slapped this person in the face, he would adore you. If you mistreated him, ignored him or threw him out, he would still adore you. There would be no choice.  He would have to love you, because you created him without any say in the matter. Now, for the first few days, it might be kind of fun to have someone like that. But after awhile you would realize that this person actually has no will of his own. He doesn’t love you for your own sake. He doesn’t appreciate your good qualities, or forgive your foibles. This person simply does what he is programmed to do. In fact, after a while we would realize that if there is no choice in the matter, then it is not actually love. Real love involves a choice.

Now, if God is ultimate goodness and love, the choice against God has to be a choice for evil. So, as soon as God created angels and humans who were capable of love, he also created the possibility that evil would come into being. And, of course, it did.

To put it simply: He planned from the beginning that he would make creatures who are capable of true love. Therefore, he had to take into account from the beginning that there would also be evil. Therefore, he also planned from the beginning that he would send Jesus Christ into the world in order to defeat evil without destroying love. And he did it all for us, so that we could love each other, and especially so we could love him.

There is another important implication of the fact that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. It means that Jesus is the hero of the story. First, he is the hero of the grand salvation story found in the Bible. Second, Jesus is the hero in the story of my life, and the story of your life.

I don’t naturally think that way. I tend to think that the story of my life is about me. This leads me to act as if life is all about what I want, and what I need. Even if I devote myself to unselfish things, like my family, and the ministry of the gospel, I still look at it as if life is all about me. However, this way of thinking – that life is all about me – does not typically make me happy. It leaves me trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. It leaves me trying to solve problems on my own. Even if I let Jesus enter the story of my life, if my life is still all about my own aims and goals, then it is up to me, ultimately, to figure things out. Jesus might help me (in this way of thinking), but the final responsibility for everything is still mine.

But Jesus was planned before the world began. Every person’s story is actually the story of what Jesus will do in and through their life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels. He made a very interesting choice in telling the stories. The action is narrated by a man called John Watson. We are told the story from the point of view of Watson’s life. To illustrate what I mean, it reads like: “I met Holmes at our club, and then I told him about the empty room,” and so on. You might say, it is the story of Watson’s life. However, the story is not about Watson. The hero of the story, and really, the main character, is not Watson, but Sherlock Holmes. Watson’s life, and his story, were designed by Conan-Doyle to show the greatness of another character: Sherlock Holmes. If we were to put it in theological terms, we might say that Watson’s life becomes a platform to give glory to Holmes.

In the same way, our own lives are meant to be a platform to show the greatness of Jesus Christ. The story is not about us. Yes, we see it from our own perspective, just as Watson sees things from his own perspective. But the real story of our lives is not about us; the real story is about the Hero, the One who was known from before the foundation of the world: Jesus Christ.

When I realize that my life is not telling my story, but rather, telling the story of Jesus, a lot of pressure is taken off me. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to save the day, or move things forward. Jesus is the main character of my life’s story. Jesus is the hero. I’m a sidekick. We sidekicks are still important. Without Watson, the story of Sherlock Holmes would not have been told. In a similar way, God wants to tell a story about Jesus through my life. There is a story through my life that will bring glory to Jesus in a way that is different from the story told through someone else’s life. But I am not the point. I’m along for the ride, along to admire and trust the Hero, who was foreknown from before the foundation of the world.

Now, this sounds very wonderful and lofty, but what does it really mean: “Jesus is the hero of the story of my life?” Let’s get real. I was thinking about this just a few minutes ago, while my pain was starting to get worse. Some nights, when that happens, I’m looking at hours and hours of pure misery. I prayed without much hope, “OK, Jesus, since we’re talking about this, I need a hero to save me from the pain in this moment.”

I’m telling the truth when I say that within a few minutes, the pain stopped getting worse, and even backed off a little bit. But let’s keep it real. I have often prayed for relief, and received none. What then? What happens when the hero doesn’t save you?”

Here’s the truth: He has already saved us. Yes, I live a difficult life. But the end of the story was written before the beginning of time, space and matter. Jesus always planned to go through hell so that I only have to go through earth. I won’t be thrilled if my suffering lasts a few more decades, but a few decades is nothing compared to the eternal joy that awaits me, because the Hero has already won the final battle. For followers of Jesus, every defeat in this life is temporary – even death! Every moment of suffering will be overwhelmed by joy piled upon joy. The Bible fully acknowledges the reality of suffering in this mortal life. But the end of the story makes everything else more than worth it:

6 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.

(Romans 8:16-19, NLT)

So, recognizing that Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the earth, we can live a life of hope:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

NEW YEAR: 2022. KILL THE RESOLUTIONS!

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New Year’s resolutions are a tradition far more dangerous to following Jesus than enjoying a pagan-inspired Christmas tree. The way we do resolutions gives us false hope, and encourages us to focus on things that probably don’t matter much, in the light of eternity. Scripture shows us a better way, a more encouraging, and ultimately, more effective way, to engage in change.

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 New Year 2022

NEW YEAR’S 2022

I love Christmas. There’s no way you could call me a Christmas scrooge. I like the spirit of the season. I enjoy getting gifts and I like giving them too. But when it comes to New Year I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, some New Year’s traditions appeal to me. I think it’s a good thing to look at where you have been for the past year, and then evaluate and consider possible adjustments in your life for the next year. Hanging out with your loved ones and considering how important they are to you, is also a great New Year’s tradition.

There are other traditions that aren’t so great, like beginning the brand new year by getting falling-down drunk. I also don’t care for the tradition that there is no more eggnog available in stores after New Year’s Eve. And there is one New Year tradition to which I emphatically say, “bah humbug.”

New Year’s resolutions.

Let’s face it, almost nobody keeps them. Nobody remembers them. Do you remember your resolutions for last year? But it’s not just that New Year’s resolutions don’t really accomplish anything for most people. The fact is, New Year’s resolutions, the way our culture practices them, reinforce a false understanding of spiritual reality and human nature. New Year’s, when we make resolutions, is a time when we reaffirm our belief in the power of the flesh.

Consider your most typical sorts of resolutions. We resolve to lose weight. Most of us don’t ever think about how, we just say we want to. We resolve to exercise three times a week. We resolve to say one nice thing every day, or to finish writing a book, or even to read the bible every day. Maybe we resolve not to get falling-down drunk next New Year’s Eve.

None of those resolutions are bad. New Year’s resolutions are full of good intentions.

Three things draw us to New Year’s resolutions. First, we see there is a problem. There are things in our lives that should be addressed. This is a very positive thing, and it is the only part of the resolution concept that I approve of.

But secondly, we gravitate toward resolutions because we are inclined to believe that we have the power within ourselves to change ourselves and make the world a better place.

Third, we tend to make New Year’s resolutions because our focus on what is in this world, instead of our eternal future. I’m not saying it’s bad to lose weight. I want to be healthy. I want to look like my old svelte self. But whether I lose weight or not, I will die someday. When this body is gone, it really won’t matter whether or not I lost weight in 2022. Most of the things we resolve at New Year’s don’t matter eternally. I’m sure some people make eternal-oriented resolutions, but the vast majority of our focus is on things that really don’t matter very much.

New year’s resolutions fail so often for two reasons.

First, they are ultimately self centered. I resolve to do this. I resolve not to do that. The focus of almost every resolution is self. Even an unselfish resolution – like saying something uplifting every day – are not focused on all the encouraging things there are to say – but rather, on the fact that I am going to say them.

Second, they rely on the power of the flesh. Aren’t you the same person that failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions last year? Isn’t the reason that you need to lose weight in 2022 because you failed to control your diet in 2021 (for me, the answer would be “yes!”)? Isn’t the reason you are resolving to exercise is because you have not been exercising? What makes us think that the mere passing of a certain date will make us able to do what we have not done yet?

It is a fake chance to start over – to start over in exactly the same manner you failed before. It is doing what you have always done, and expecting a different result. The reason I’m talking so much about New Year’s resolutions, is because it isn’t just New Year’s. We tend to live our whole lives this way.

Generally, we recognize when we have problems. But our approach to solving them is to put hope in the same flawed person who got you your problems in the first place – you. We think we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ll think we’ll just act differently next time. But we can’t. We are trying to live not by the grace of “receive” but by the law of “do.”

God has a different approach to our problems. He would like to kill the sinful flesh. In fact, when we turn our lives over to Jesus, that is exactly what he does. Through faith, baptism buries us with Christ – our sinful flesh is dead and buried. We want to keep resurrecting it, so to speak, and trying to make it work for us. But the bible says, it’s dead. Let it rest in peace. Paul puts it this way:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2:20)

So, you don’t get to make New Year’s resolutions anymore, because the old you is dead. The life you have now is the life of faith, not flesh. It is the Life of Jesus Himself that shall be lived out through you now. Are you going to bind the life of Jesus to some barely-relevant, ultimately meaningless New Year’s resolution?

Colossians 3:1-4, says this:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

You died. Your flesh is counted as dead in God’s eyes. There’s nothing there anymore to fix or reform. You’re trying to put make-up on a corpse, and the result is only grotesque. Why are we messing around like this anymore? Paul says to fix our eyes and our focus on our real life – the eternal life that is ours with Jesus. It’s already in heaven, hidden until Jesus returns. That is where our focus should be for the New Year, not with what is already dead and dying.

Now, you may say, but Tom, what if there is something that really should change in my life, something that may have eternal significance, like getting into a habit of daily bible reading?

I’m so glad you asked.

When I was thirteen years old, I read a book called the Cross and the Switchblade, by David Wilkerson. It was the exciting true story of how a small-town pastor in Pennsylvania began a ministry to gang members in New York City. There was crime and fighting and it was a great book. Also in the book, was the story of how David Wilkerson got filled with the Holy Spirit when he was thirteen. I wanted that to happen to me, so I prayed that God would fill me with the Holy Spirit

As far I could see, nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t speak in tongues. Sometime, not long after that, I finished mowing our lawn. It was my favorite time of day, and our spot in Papua New Guinea was really quite pretty. I looked around and said, “God, you are so beautiful, I’m going to read the Bible every day from now on.”

That wasn’t the first time I tried to read the Bible regularly. I had started many times before, and never got much further than Exodus. But it was the first time I’d tried to read the bible after I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I read a chapter that night. I read the next chapter the next night. For some reason, I didn’t start in Genesis this time. I read the psalms first. Then the New Testament. Then I went back a read a few books in the Old Testament. Ten years passed…and I had never missed a single day of bible reading until I was about 23. During many of those years I traveled extensively. I often went out, and stayed up late, like any respectable young person. But somehow, I always read my Bible before I turned in, wherever I was, no matter what time it was.

Now, it wasn’t New Year’s when that happened. I didn’t think about some resolution I wanted to make. But the life of God, living through me (not my flesh) resolved in me to do this. I really don’t think I can credit myself with anything here. What thirteen year old boy decides to take up bible reading? What teenager can stick to a promise to read the Bible every day? Not me. It was the Holy Spirit, living in me, that brought forth the resolution, and the power to carry it out.

What we need in 2022, is not more effort. We need more Holy Spirit. More trust in what Jesus has already done for us. We need to hear from him, to obey when he speaks, and trust that he – not us – will carrying it out through us, using His power.

Take a moment right now with the Lord. Ask him to fill you again with his Holy Spirit. Or ask him to do so for the first time!

Now sit quietly a minute more. Let Him speak to you about 2022, about your life, about His life that he wants to live through you. Be aware this next week, of how he might speak to you. And trust him for the power to do what he wants to in you and through you!

CHRISTMAS 2021: THE WILD GOD

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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: Download Christmas 2021

Christmas Eve 2021. John 1:1-14

(if you are not listening, please read John 1:1-14 before the rest of the sermon. Use a standard translation, rather than “The Message”)

We have certain traditions, expectations and feelings about Christmas. As Christians, we know the picture that is supposed to be central: it’s a sweet scene. A young father and mother, a little baby, bathed in light and surrounded by gentle animals, and angels, and men who emit the strong fragrance of sheep.

The verses I’m using this time from the gospel of John are not traditional Christmas verses, but they are a true and legitimate description of the Christmas story. You see, sometimes, this peaceful, idyllic manger scene doesn’t seem to have much to do with what is actually going on with us. For instance, this has been a hard year for me. My chronic pain has only gotten worse. I’ve experienced deep, soul-crushing depression. The kind of year I’ve had is the kind of thing that can make you wonder if God really does love you, after all. I mean, I would never put anyone I loved through what God has allowed me to experience. Shoot, I wouldn’t even do these things to a stranger I cared nothing about. And I can easily think of about ten people I know personally who, I think, have it worse than me. If I applied myself, I’m sure I could think of many more. In other words, it’s been tough for a lot of people. It’s not hard to start wondering what God is up to. It’s not hard to picture the Christmas manger scene, and think, “So?”

But when I read the scripture, I see a God who is wild. He isn’t predictable, and he can’t be controlled. He does things we don’t expect. These verses in John tell the stunning story of the God who created the world entering his creation. We have rebelled, but he invaded this rebel planet. Only…he invades as a baby. That’s a little crazy. It seems that he’s been doing wild things like this from the very beginning. He separates a seventeen-year old rising-star from his family, and then lets him live first as a slave, and then as a prisoner, for years. Just when it seems like finally, God is going to rescue him, he lets him sit in prison for another few years. That’s the story of Joseph, at the end of Genesis, by the way.

Or, four hundred years later, after all kinds of trouble and hassle for everyone on all sides, God brings his chosen people out of Egypt. But, with the army of the Egyptians hard on their heels, he leads his people up to a dead end at the shore of the sea. That’s the story of the first part of Exodus.

Here’s another one: God chooses a sturdy teenage shepherd lad to be the next king of his people. The young man has a heart of gold, and a heart for God, and he is brave, strong, and a natural leader. So, of course, what happens next is that after a few victories, poor young David spends almost a decade running from his own people, hiding in caves, even living with his enemies for a while. That’s the story of King David, in case you didn’t pick that up.

He made the prophet Ezekiel sleep on only one side for six months (if you’ve ever had a shoulder issue, you’ll feel that one). He made Isaiah walk around naked in the middle of the city for a few days (first recorded nudist in history – but he didn’t’ want to be). Also during Isaiah’s life, we have Hezekiah, one of the best, most God-fearing Kings to live since the aforementioned David. Though he did everything he was supposed to, Hezekiah found himself surrounded by the most powerful and brutal army that the world had ever known at that point: the Assyrians, led by Emperor Sennacherib.

As long as we’re working our way through Biblical history, we might as well mention the people of God who were brought back to Jerusalem after a dark period of defeat and exile. They were led by people like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel. At that point in history, it seemed like things were finally about to get back on track for the people of God. But then they were surrounded by powerful warlords who threatened them on all sides.

When we start to look at things in this light, it looks like God is kind of hard on those who are truly doing their best to follow him. We wouldn’t treat our faithful friends this way. When we find ourselves in hard times, at least we’re in good company with the saints of the Bible, but still, it’s a little rough to be doing our best to follow God and end up working on sermons at one AM because that’s the first time you’ve felt OK in forty-eight hours.

But now the meaning of that stable scene becomes relevant. God’s entry into a human body means that He himself has suffered, just as we do. He does not ask anything of us that He himself won’t do. And even more, because of what he did for us while in that human body, he is with us. In all our trials, he is with us. That’s one of the names for Jesus: Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”

I have an uncle who was an officer in Vietnam. Early on, he ordered one of his men to do something, and, to his horror, he saw the man killed, trying to carry out the order. He cared deeply for his men, and faced with the realities of war, he decided to make it his practice to never ask his men to do something that he himself wasn’t willing to do. He backed up that principle with action, and was wounded three times, most likely doing things he could have asked his men to do.

I think, in that respect, my uncle was reflecting the character of the God who made him. God does indeed allow his people to walk into some dark places and deep holes. But God never sends us where he himself will not go, and, in fact, he goes with us.

Two thousand years ago, he proved it beyond any doubt. God did not create some system for human beings to reconnect with him and then leave us to work it out. He did not create the system and explain it. He did not even simply send a messenger to explain things. He himself came to be with us, and He himself became the way. The way is not a system, it is a person. God himself took on human flesh, and faced what we humans face.

14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. 15 Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.
16 We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

(Hebrews 2:14-18, NLT)

So, he came into the world, and experienced the same sufferings and trials that he sometimes allows us to face. He isn’t up there, all remote and mighty. No. He never asks us to do remotely as much as he himself has done. He didn’t enter the world to give us warm feelings in the early winter. No. He came to suffer with us, and then to suffer for us, so that he could give us his presence always.

Now, we might be tempted to say, “Ah, but he was still God, at the same time. So it was still easier for him.” But actually, that was something Jesus had to deal with that we did not. He had the constant temptation to use his God-nature, though he did not do it. To put this in simple terms, the “deal” about Jesus becoming human was that, for the entire time he lived on earth, he limited himself to his human nature, and did not use his divine power. The miracles he did were not from his own divine nature – he relied on God the Father to do those miracles through him, just the way we have to pray and ask God to work through us. When Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, that was the very first thing the devil tempted him with. The devil said: “You’re God the Son. If you are hungry, just turn these rocks into bread. You know you have the power.” But Jesus’ response to that was that part of his mission was to live in dependence on God, just as all other humans must do (Matthew 4:1-4). So, he didn’t use his divine power. He limited himself to the same limitations we have.

I want you to think about this for a moment. The God who created the universe knows what it is like to wear a dirty diaper. He knows what it feels like to get a splinter, and a stubbed toe. He lived under a brutal and oppressive government. He saw violence and atrocity, and later experienced it firsthand. He lived in crushing poverty, and experienced grief, suffering and sorrow. He knows how it feels to be rejected. He went ahead of us through death, and he went to hell so that no one who entrusts themselves to him would have to. That alone is infinitely more than he asks of anyone else.

By the way, in case it slipped your mind, I didn’t really finish any of the pieces of Bible history I shared. Joseph did indeed suffer a lot of injustice. But as it ended up, God used his suffering to make him the second-most powerful person in the world at the time. As I’m sure you remember, the people of Israel at the edge of the sea were delivered by the parting of the waters, which closed again, and drowned their enemies behind them. David did indeed become King: the greatest King Israel ever had in its long history. Poor Ezekiel became one of the greatest prophets who ever lived, as did Isaiah. King Hezekiah and his people were saved from the brutal Assyrians without losing a single casualty of their own. The people who came to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem were protected, and they successfully rebuilt both the city and the temple. Their descendants live in Israel today, while their enemies’ descendants are forever lost to history.

It’s Christmas. We want to be left with warm fuzzy feelings that are in accordance with the lights, the food, the music and presents. That’s fine. We can get back to that happy, peaceful place in a moment. But let’s remember that Christmas – the birth of Jesus – is really just the beginning. If we compare it to war, Christmas was D-Day, the invasion. It had to happen. Without it, no victory could have been possible. But it was the important beginning of a new phase of the war, not the conclusion. It was the beginning of God’s proof that no matter what he asks of us, he himself has done more. It is proof that no matter how we feel, the truth is this:

31 What, then, are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He did not even spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything? 33 Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies. 34 Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, but even more, has been raised; he also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. 35 Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
Because of you we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. [This is how God’s people might have felt in some of those situations I mentioned. Sometimes it is how we feel, too. But read on!]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:31-39, CSB)

We can count on this because Jesus Christ himself has faced all of those things, and emerged victorious. We can count on it because the Word became flesh, became the little baby in the barn with the family, and animals and smelly men. That scene is relevant to us, because it proves how much God loves us.

So, tonight, we celebrate and remember: The remarkable, if humble, birth of the child is the powerful invasion of God into our rebel planet. God has not abandoned us. It is OK if you feel like he has sometimes, but don’t let those feelings define your reality. Instead, let the actions of God himself define your reality: he has already done more for you than he would ever ask you to go through. His love for you is beyond question. The little baby in the barn proves it.

Merry Christmas!

1 PETER #8: THE REWARDS OF OUTRAGEOUS GRACE. 1 Peter 1;17.

This verse draws our attention to two important things: the Fear of the Lord, and his promise to reward us in addition to an eternal life filled with the joy of God. When we learn to fear the Lord, we learn also to trust Him. And when we have the true fear of the Lord, there is nothing else in all the universe that we ever need fear again.

As to the second thing: we will be rewarded for living out our faith the way God designed us to, and empowers us to, through the Holy Spirit. This is on top of the free grace-gift of eternal life lived in the joy of God. It’s far too much. We don’t deserve it. That’s exactly the point.

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 1 Peter Part 8

1 PETER #8. 1 PETER 1:17

Last time, we looked at the motivation for living holy lives: the Love of the Father for us, and the Hope that he has given us through Jesus Christ. When we are deeply connected to those two things, the Holy Spirit will enable us to live lives that are different from those around us. Now, Peter reminds us to take this very seriously: “Since we are those beloved children of the Father, let us remember that the Father also judges our works with perfect judgment. Therefore, let us live out our time in this mortal life with a healthy awe of God.”

Depending on the Bible translation you use, this little section might confuse people into thinking that our salvation is dependent upon how we behave. Just before this, remember, Peter was telling us to be holy, because the Father in heaven is holy. Now he’s talking about recognizing that the Father judges everyone according to each one’s works (I think “works” is the better translation of the Greek word here). It’s starting to sound like being a Christian is all about how well you perform at living an outwardly good life.

Before we go too far with that, we need to keep reading: Peter says, immediately afterwards, that we were saved by the precious blood of Christ, who was made manifest for us, so that our faith and hope are in God. So, when we read that the Father judges each one’s works, it cannot mean that this is the basis of our salvation. The basis of our salvation, our hope, are clearly in Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice on our behalf. Our faith and hope are in God, not in our own efforts. Peter has already said much the same thing, in several different ways, in verses 1-16. Of course the rest of the New Testament also says the same thing, many times over in many different ways.

But what does it mean, then, that the Father judges each one impartially according to their works? Why does Peter even say that, if we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ, not our own? This is another thing that the rest of the New Testament makes very clear: in addition to giving us salvation by the grace of God (not by works) God also wants to bless us by giving us the opportunity to have even greater rewards in the New Creation. In other words, we are saved purely by God’s grace, not by anything we ourselves do, or could earn. AND… God also created us to do good works – things which he particularly prepared in advance for each of us to do:

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

(Ephesians 2:10, CSB)

Those good works cannot earn us salvation, but God lays them out for us, and as we “walk in them” (that is, as we live a life of Hope in Christ, and do the things God leads us to do) God grants us special rewards, in the New Heavens and New Earth. He judges how we have lived our lives in accordance with this plan, and than grants us extra rewards based upon that. Some people want to claim that we get those rewards in this life (not in our eternal lives) but that is not at all the way it is taught by Jesus and His apostles.

Many Christians, especially from Western culture, instinctively cringe at the idea of rewards in the New Creation. But we need to evaluate the source of that cringing: is it really Biblical? I think people from other cultures have less of a problem with this than Americans, and European-originated cultures. Many of us Westerners are deeply egalitarian – which means we have a problem saying one person deserves honor above any other person. We think that if God gives rewards in heaven, it will mean some sort of inequality. Some people will have more, others will have less, and we believe that such an arrangement must be intrinsically unfair, and will cause the New Creation to be less than perfect. But a lot of other people in the world have no real problem with the idea of a heaven where people are given extra rewards for their works. They would say it would be unfair if those who worked harder and better than others to follow Jesus received no extra reward at all. I have to say, the cultures who take that view are probably closer to the kind of culture that existed during the New Testament period.

We need to face the fact that the Bible does indeed paint a picture of people being rewarded in the New Creation, including some people receiving greater honor than others. In the Parable of the Talents, at the end, the servant who did the most was given the most, and honored most, as a reward. The next servant was also rewarded and honored, but not as much as the first. It does not look like an equal-outcome, egalitarian kind of system (Luke 19:12-27; and Matthew 25:14-30).

In fact, we find all over the New Testament, the idea that even after we have salvation, we should be encouraged to work for the rewards of those who follow God faithfully and well. One of the classic passages for this is found in 1 Corinthians:

5 After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. 6 I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. 7 It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. 9 For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.
10 Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.
12 Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13 But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14 If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15 But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.

(1 Corinthians 3:5-15, NLT, bold formatting added for emphasis)

All of this is only echoing what Jesus himself taught. Time and time again, Jesus talked about being rewarded by the Father. I’ve already mentioned his Parable of the Talents. Since we know that salvation is a free gift of grace, and we cannot earn it, these rewards must be something additional that we receive in the New Creation. Here is just another one of many examples of Jesus, talking about rewards:

1 “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. 2 When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. 3 But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. 4 Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

(Matthew 6:1-6, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

There are many more verses and teachings like these. In parables, in direct statements by Jesus, and in the letters of His apostles, the New Testament consistently teaches us that, in addition to salvation, we will be rewarded for walking in the good works that God designed for us. Just in case you need them, here are two more examples:

Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 8 Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.

(Ephesians 6:7-8, NLT, formatting added for emphasis)

3 Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 24 Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.

(Colossians 3:23-24, NLT)

Now, there is another piece, implied by Peter, and also by the passage I gave you above, from 1 Corinthians. Peter says, because God judges our works impartially, we should live out our time in exile in a certain way. By “time in exile,” Peter means to remind us that this world is not our home; we belong with God in Heaven. When I say “heaven,” I mean, of course, our eternal future in the New Creation which involves perfect, eternal physical bodies, living in a perfect physical universe. We were created for Heaven, not this fallen, temporary earth. So, to put it clearly, by “time in exile,” he means, “this mortal life.”

Peter tells us that we should live that time in fear (that is really the best translation of the Greek). On the face of it, that seems a bit strange, considering how many times in the Bible the Lord tells us: “Do not Fear!” But Peter is talking about one specific, certain kind of fear: the fear of the Lord. Our modern culture does not do well with understanding what the Bible means by “fear of the Lord.” I like to think of it as a healthy perspective on God’s power, or a kind of awe of God that motivates us. One popular way of putting it comes from author C.S. Lewis. “God is not safe, but he’s good.”

The fear of the Lord is a recognition that we don’t control Him, and he can do absolutely whatever he wants. There is a wildness and power in him; he can create, or destroy, entire galaxies in an instant, if he wants to. But pay attention: this means we should recognize that God is more powerful, and more to be feared, than anything else we might fear: loss of loved ones, poverty, wealth, injustice, conflict, loneliness, suffering of all kinds, or even death. The only thing we ever need fear is God. I’ll repeat the thought a different way: When we live in fear of the Lord, we find that there is nothing else in all the universe that we need fear.

But now comes the wonderful part. Unlike the other things we might be tempted to fear, we have a firm basis to trust that God’s intentions toward us are good and loving. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can know for sure that God loves us, and that we can trust him. We can trust a God who has died for us, who has literally walked through hell for us. So our fear of the Lord is not terror – it is a fear that allows us to entrust ourselves, body, soul and spirit, to God, especially in times when we don’t understand.

In the Corinthian verses above, Paul says that if we don’t build well on the foundation of Jesus, we will still be saved, but it will be a harrowing experience. Jesus, in his parables, tells of people who acted as if their deeds were of no concern to God. Those folks did not have ideal experiences, come time for the Father’s judgement.

So, in addition to the blessing of rewards in heaven, there is a kind of warning: “Take this seriously.” We don’t belong in this mortal life – we are citizens of Heaven. We really ought to live like it. This isn’t a demand for perfection, but it is supposed to help us realize that we really should be different people than those who have no hope. God is not some old guy up there who is kind of out of it, and doesn’t know what is going on. Our deeds are of concern for God – in fact, he made us specifically to do certain things and live in certain ways. We really should be living for those things, and for the joy that is coming to us, not for the transient pleasures and shallow satisfactions of our mortal lives. It’s not a threat, but it is a warning: This is serious. Don’t blow it off. There is great reward waiting for those who do live their lives as strangers in this world, followers of Jesus Christ.

Let me briefly address the idea that rewards will somehow cause trouble in the New Creation, and somehow make it less than perfect. We have to remember, that when we are rewarded, we will be free from sin, and we will trust God perfectly. So, if God chooses to give someone a reward, there will not be any part of us thinking, “I’m not sure that’s fair.” No, we will be rejoicing at how God’s reward for an individual blesses that person, and enhances the glory of God. We will not experience jealousy. There will be no injustice in the way that God gives his rewards: that’s part of what Peter means when he says that the Father judges impartially. In the joy and perfection of the New Creation, no one will feel slighted, or forgotten. We will be able to agree wholeheartedly that what God does is perfect and right, including the giving of rewards to those who followed him in this mortal life. When he gives a reward, we will all gasp in awe at the justice, mercy and grace of God, who would not only give us eternal life in the joy of his loving presence, but even pour more joy into us through the struggles and work we have had on this earth. As each reward is given, we will shout “That’s perfect! That’s exactly what it should be!” We will not feel a lack within ourselves, nor envy of others. Trust me, no one is going to be unhappy about the way these rewards are given, or feel that something is unfair, when we stand before the Father.

Some people have another objection: “If I am motivated to be a good Christian by the thought of extra rewards in heaven, isn’t that somehow wrong? Isn’t that self-serving?”

Remember, we begin with salvation. We begin with the knowledge that we deserve worse than nothing: we deserve death and hell and eternal suffering. Then we come to the knowledge of God’s incredible love and grace to us. We are humbled and grateful, and filled with joy and hope. We serve God willingly, connected to the love and hope we have in Him. Finally, the rewards are merely icing on the cake. In other words, we shouldn’t see them as entitlement, but as grace piled upon already giant heaps of grace. They show us that God sees what we do in secret. He knows the silent struggle we have with sin at times, He sees us making the hard choices that no one else sees. He sees the business person not taking unfair advantage of a situation to get a promotion. He sees the young mother working hard to raise her kids as followers of Jesus, when no one is watching. He sees the persecuted Christian losing his livelihood because he won’t deny Jesus. God’s rewards are a way of saying: “It’s not in vain. I see what’s going on with you. I know it’s harder for you to do certain things. Your faith and perseverance will not be overlooked, and they will not be forgotten.”

I think sometimes we need to know that God does indeed take note of the things that no one else does. I don’t think it’s wrong to be sustained, in part, by the knowledge that God perceives everything in your life, and even within your heart and soul, and he will make it up to you for every difficult decision, every struggle, every moment we live for him rather than for ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting motivation from that. Clearly, neither did Jesus, who encouraged us to remember that our Father in heaven, who sees what we do in secret, will reward us for it (see verses above).

What I am trying to say, politely, is that if you have a problem with rewards in heaven, you have a problem with Jesus. I’ve given you some of the verses. You can look up others. Comment, or contact me, if you want to. Wrestle with this if you need to, but this is in fact, a solid, ordinary part of the teaching of Jesus: we will be rewarded for living out our faith the way God designed us to. This is on top of the free grace-gift of eternal life lived in the joy of God. It’s far too much. We don’t deserve it. That’s exactly the point.

Yes, we need to learn to fear the Lord, so that we can be free from every other fear. We can also trust that his intentions are good for us, and that means that it is a good thing to live this temporary life with a heart that seeks not only eternal life, but also to hear the Father say: “Well done! Your life and your choices did not go overlooked. Enjoy even more of my joy!”

Let the Lord speak to you about all of this right now.

1 PETER #7: HOPE RESULTS IN HOLINESS

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Because we have an expectation that our amazing future will indeed come to pass, we will make different choices than those who have no such hope. And that will make us look different, sometimes, even strange, to those who do not share our hope. That differentness is a picture of the holiness of God.

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 1 Peter Part 7

1 PETER #7. 1 PETER 1:14-16

There is a reason we have spent so much time in 1 Peter looking at the hope we have as Christians. In order to understand our next verses, we have to have that hope firmly in mind. After telling us to fix our hope firmly on the grace that will be ours when all things are made new (the revelation of Jesus Christ) Peter goes on:

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

If we did not have the foundation of hope, these verses might sound to us like some kind of difficult and hard duty that we have to perform in order to please God: “Now look, people, you’ve got to do the right thing. You have to be holy. Get it together.”

But we need to remember that all of this begins with the grace that God has already given us, and the hope that we have in Jesus.

Before I go on, let me make sure we define “hope” a little bit. Let’s contrast it to a wish. A wish is something that would be nice if it happened, but for which you have very little expectation. I might wish to win five million dollars at the lottery. I might wish I was six inches taller, or wasn’t losing my hair. I have no real expectation of having those wishes fulfilled. In fact, my wish about the lottery is so weak that I don’t even buy lottery tickets. Wishes don’t change the way we live.

A hope is a reasonable expectation of something that will one day come to be in reality. It is still in the future, but we have a strong belief that it will, in fact, come to pass. Because hope expects fulfillment, it influences and changes the way we behave.

When I was at Oregon State University, I happened to have two friends who were on the women’s gymnastics team. At that time, OSU (Oregon, not Ohio) had a stellar women’s gymnastics program. The team was typically in the top five in the nation, for several years in row, number one, more than once.

One of my friends won the title of top female college gymnast in the country just a month before I met her. My other gymnast friend was a couple years younger, and she went on to win the national solo title the year after I met her. As I mentioned, their whole team also won the gold medal a few times.

Both of these women were part of my “core friends” group. This group of friends would get together, hang out, grab pizza, do Bible study, and even take trips together. But our two gymnast friends lived different lives than the rest of us. I had no hopes of ever becoming a top-ranked college gymnast. But my friends had legitimate hopes of being on the medal podium, when the NCAA gymnastics tournament came around. Their hope led them to make choices that made them different from the rest of us. Sometimes, they didn’t eat the pizza we had ordered. Sometimes, they couldn’t get together with the rest of us, because they had to practice. While the rest of us did our normal things, they spent hours doing abnormal things, like hurling their bodies into the air, twisting, flipping and turning, and landing on their feet.

Don’t miss the point: their hopes directed them to lead different lives. They didn’t practice for hours because “it was the right thing to do.” They didn’t do flips and twists in the air because that’s what good people are supposed to do. They did it because they had a wonderful, amazing hope, one which they fully expected would come to pass: that they would be on the medal podium, come tournament time. And so, they lived in continual expectation of that hope.

Significant hope changes how you live. If you have hopes that are different from those around you, you will live a life that looks different. Peter tells us that we should have every expectation of the fulfillment of our amazing hope. That leads us to live differently, to behave differently than we did before we had this hope. So, in the first place, we need to let go of the way we lived before the hope. At that time, we lived according to whatever passions motivated us. In other words, we lived to satisfy our own desires as best as we could. We decided on hopes that we thought might be workable, and lived for small things, mostly for ways to satisfy our own desires and needs.

Peter tells us that now, we should live as children who love their Father, and want to be like Him. In other words, this change of behavior comes out of love and hope, not law. When I was young, there were two men that I loved with all my heart, and looked up to: my father, and my maternal grandfather. They were different from each other in some ways, but I loved and respected both of them so much, I wanted to be like them. I didn’t try to be like them because someone told me that was the rule. I didn’t do it “because that’s what good people do.” I imitated them as a result of love and respect. I was tremendously blessed by God in that I knew for certain that both my earthly father, and my grandfather, loved me. And because they loved me, I loved them back, and I wanted to be like them.

That’s supposed to be the motivating factor with God. Now, I know not all of you were as blessed as I was by your earthly fathers or grandfathers. Some of you did not have that love growing up. But you can trust the love of your heavenly Father. He proved his love to you beyond any doubt by sending Jesus to suffer death in your place. Let the Holy Spirit pour that love into your heart and convince you of his Father-love for you.

2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:2-5, ESV)

So, we live different lives, holy lives, because we know that God loves us, and we love him back. We live different lives because we have a different hope. Now, let’s talk about holiness for a moment. Peter writes:

15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Remember, one of the key things about holiness is that it is different, set apart. I have previously used the analogy of clothing. Most of us in the Western world have “everyday clothes,” and then also “fancy clothes.” We reserve our fancy clothes for special occasions. They are set-apart – they are different, intended to be special, to celebrate special occasions. When we wear those clothes, we are sending the message that something special and important is going on. Or think of it this way: Many years ago, some friends gave us a very special set of plates, glasses and eating utensils. This set of dishes is very fancy, and each piece needs to be washed by hand. We don’t put those plates in the microwave either. Those dishes are set apart – they are intended for special occasions: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and so on. When we use them, it says: “Pay attention! Something important and out of the ordinary is going on right now!”

In the same way, we have already been set apart by God. We saw in 1 Peter 1:2 that God was the one who set us apart, who has made us holy through Jesus Christ. So, we don’t have to become holy – God has already made us that way. But what we are called to do is live out that holiness, that differentness. And, as I have just mentioned, part of living as holy people is driven by our hope of something different than the world hopes for. If we live according to our hope, we will also be living out the holiness that God has imparted to us. It will look different to the world, not “everyday.” We won’t cheat someone when it’s obvious that we could get away with it – not even the government or a large corporation. We won’t use alcohol or drugs, or sex, in inappropriate ways, (for instance, to numb the pain of this life), but instead we will rely on the hope of the grace of God that is coming. We won’t take the opportunity to indulge our sinful desires, even when we think we could “get away with it” without consequence. Because we have an expectation that our amazing future will indeed come to pass, we will make different choices than those who have no such hope. And that will make us look different, sometimes, even strange, to those who do not share our hope. That differentness is a picture of the holiness of God.

At a few different times in my life, I was making a living apart from ministry. In almost any job I had, others would comment about the fact that I behaved differently from most of our coworkers. I didn’t behave that way simply as a point of honor. I did it because I have a hope that my coworkers didn’t have. The same was true of another group of friends I had in college. These were not my “core group” but they were people I ate with regularly, and with whom I hung out occasionally; I don’t think any of them were Christians. Three of us were named Tom. One “Tom” was in the agricultural program, and wore a Stetson hat, so everyone felt the obvious way to distinguish him from the other Toms was to call him: “cowboy Tom.” They had a name for me, too: “holy Tom.” I don’t remember anyone discussing this much, or asking why they should call me “holy;” everyone else seemed to think it just fit, just like we thought “cowboy Tom,” was obvious. I was the only one who objected to that name. But they could see something that I didn’t yet understand: I was different. I wasn’t trying to be that different – but my hope made me different. In fact, I understand now that it was God Himself who makes us different – that is, holy – when we receive Him in faith.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to say I was in complete control of my behavior, or that I tried to put on a good front to impress people. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. It was the hope I have, and the love that God has for me, that made me look different to my coworkers and friends. They recognized something in me as “holy,” when I was not even consciously trying to look that way.

Remember, this different behavior proceeds not from laws about what we ought to do, but rather from our hope, and from our love for God. If you find yourself struggling to bring your behavior in line, I recommend meditating on your hope, and upon the love of God. There is a place for self-discipline, a place to have integrity for the sake of your own self-regard, but the engines that really drive our behavior should be hope and love. If we have a behavior problem, it might be that we have a problem connecting with the love of God, or with the amazing hope of our future in the New Creation.

So don’t be afraid to read:  “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” I’ll say it again: it isn’t about trying with your own strength to make yourself behave. The key to holiness is hope and love.

That last part “you shall be holy,” is also a kind of promise. We shall be holy, because God has already made us Holy in our spirits, giving us His own Holy Spirit as kind of a down payment on the promised hope.

And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. 14 The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. (Ephesians 1:13-14, NLT)

To encourage our resolve to live different lives according to our hope, let’s end with another statement of that hope:

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. 2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. 3 For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. 4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. 5 God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NLT)

1 PETER #6: FIXING HOPE

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We were made for place we have not yet been. We need to learn to use our minds to fix our hope fully on the grace that is to come. Every good thing we hope for on earth is just a blurry reflection of the glorious hope that is to come.

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 1 Peter Part 6

I apologize for any typos, etc. I am getting this out at the last second for our churches to use, and I did not have time to edit properly.

1 Peter #6. 1 Peter 1:13.

13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

We will focus on just one verse this time, because it holds the key to a number of the verses that follow. Peter is going to exhort us to “be holy,” but we have to understand that being holy can only occur when we set our hopes fully on the grace that will be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The old bible-study expression still holds true: “Find out what the “therefore” is there for. In other words, to understand the next section, we need to realize that Peter is connecting it to everything that has gone before, which we will now summarize:

We Christians are strangers and aliens in this world, but we have the superb hope of a future that can never perish, spoil, or fade. That hope sustains us, even in difficult times, and we know that while the difficult times are hard, they are temporary; but our hope is eternal – when we enter it, our joy will have no limit. All of this has been delivered to us by the remarkable writings that we call the Bible, which continually reveals to us the solid core of hope, which is Jesus Christ.

Therefore – because of all that –

preparing your minds for action…

Let’s start with “preparing your minds for action.” Peter is saying: “Get ready to move. Get ready to think clearly and well. Get ready to act according your faith.” Part of idea from the Greek is also to secure anything that might get in the way. Don’t leave any loose ends. It was actually a common phrase from the ancient world, almost a slang expression about tucking your robes up into your belt so you could be ready for running, or other vigorous physical activity. Picture an action movie when the heroes finally understand what’s going on, and they commit to doing what it takes to deal with their enemies and win. Ready to roll! Shake off the dust. Roll up your sleeves. Lock and load. Let’s do this!

Peter applies this specifically to our minds, or, to our thinking. There are people who believe that to be a Christian means you have to give up thinking. The truth is, the Christian faith teaches us that our minds were created by a rational, intelligent God, and that he has given us intelligence as a gift to be used. In other words, there is a fruitful purpose in using our minds. Our faith also teaches us that God created the universe with purpose and design, and that design can be discovered and studied. In other words, it is possible and useful to study the world around us and learn what we can. Studying the world will also tell us things about God, in indirect ways. It was these two important aspects of the Christian view of the world that led to the development of modern universities, and particularly, what we call “science.”

There were centers for learning in the ancient Greek world, the Islamic world, as well as in the Buddhist, Hindu and Confucianist (Chinese) cultures. Certainly those cultures have contributed to the accumulated knowledge of the human race. However it was only in Christian culture that modern methods of study, including modern science, developed. That was because a biblical view of the world and of the human mind, and of thinking, led us to believe that we could, and should, explore our world in an orderly and methodical way. There would be no science without Christianity. That is not an opinion, it is simply a historical fact. There was no modern science anywhere else in the world, until the cultures founded by Christianity developed it and exported it. So, it is entirely appropriate to see Peter’s words here as an encouragement for Christians to be thinking people. We aren’t anti-science. And science is not anti-God. Though many atheists refuse to admit it, science depends on Christian presuppositions in order to function. Meanwhile, we Christians are supposed to use the minds that God has given us.

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent what Peter is saying. Though he is saying that Christians should use their minds in general, he also intends that we use our minds particularly to strengthen the faith of our hearts. He tells us:

and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

What does it means to be “sober minded?” Well, sober is the opposite of drunk, right? It has other connotations as well, like calm, thoughtful, and serious. In other words, we should engage in our hope with clear eyes, and clear thoughts, taking it seriously, not frivolously. Faith is a big deal. So, we should remain in control of our hopes, keeping them fixed on Jesus. We should use our minds to direct our hopes to Him.

What does that actually look like? Suppose you are single, and you really want to get married. And you think, “If I’m honest, one of my biggest hopes is to get married someday. I think I might hope for that even more than I hope for Jesus.”

First, it is good to be honest with yourself about things like that. That’s part of what it means to be sober-minded. You are thinking seriously and clearly about your deepest hopes.

But what of that fact that you hope for marriage more than you hope for the return of Jesus? Consider this possibility: What you really desire so much in marriage is exactly what you will get when Jesus returns. In other words, your hope for marriage is a kind of muddled echo of your hope for Jesus. In marriage, you want to be fully known, and loved, even as you are fully known. You want the joy of intimacy. You want the security of knowing there is a special someone, someone you is yours and someone to whom you belong fully. You want someone who always has your back, who will stand with you when the chips are down and the house is burning. Someone with whom you will share joy, fun intimacy and life.

You might not believe it, but I think that is a pretty good description of what we will have with Jesus when he returns. We don’t always realize that those sorts of desires are actually desires for Jesus. We think what we want is marriage. But our desire for marriage is actually looking beyond marriage to the relationship we were created to have with God.

I think this could be true of many other things that we deeply desire: beauty, intimacy, adventure, peace, security, rest, excitement, and even achievement. I think we desire such things because they are shadows or reflections of what a sin-free relationship with God is really like.

It’s like teenagers who want a car. The truth is, what they want is not mainly a vehicle to help them travel quickly from one place to the next. What they really want is freedom, and adventure, and independence, and to be cool, and have status, and the opportunities that come from being your own master. But try to convince a teenager that what they really want is all that other stuff, and they’ll probably say: “Nah. I just want a car.” But they don’t. They want what a car represents.

I think even adults make similar mistakes. We think we know what we want: financial security. A beautiful relationship with another person. An endless vacation. Freedom from fear and worry. Physical health. None of those things are necessarily bad, though we can pursue them in sinful ways if we aren’t careful. But none of them will truly satisfy us unless we have them in and through Jesus Christ. If we have them apart from Christ, they will always eventually end. If we have them apart from Christ, we will find a way to ruin them somehow.

Some desires, of course, are sinful, and we need to learn to recognize and reject those. But I think many of our desires are simply misplaced. We don’t realize that our desires represent a deeper reality: we were made for intimacy with God in a perfect creation, with things to do that we were created to partake in. That’s what we truly desire, even though we have a hard time realizing it.

It’s unfortunate, but sometimes it is hard to tell, with some Christians, how their hopes are any different from those of the secular people around them. They want the big house, the nice cars, the successful careers, and children they can brag about. They want leisure time and money for travel and fun. They live for the same sorts things everyone else lives for. Sure, they’re happy that the New Creation is waiting for them, but their focus is on the things of this life. They’ll think about their eternal future later, after they have gotten all they can from this present life.

There is fine line here, which why Peter tells us to use our minds well. It isn’t wrong to want your children to do well. It isn’t wrong to have leisure or fun in this life. But I believe what Peter wants us to think carefully about, is where we put our biggest hopes. If I hope more for a new house than for my eternal home, something is not right. If I am seeking intimacy with another human being more than with Jesus, I need to recognize it as an issue. Author John Eldredge puts it like this:

If I told you that your income would triple next year, and that European vacation you wanted is just around the corner, you’d be excited, hopeful. The future would look promising. It seems possible, desirable. But our ideas of heaven, while possible, aren’t all that desirable. Whatever it is we think is coming in the next season of our existence, we don’t think it is worth getting all that excited about. We make a nothing of eternity by enlarging the significance of this life and by diminishing the reality of what the next life is all about.

(John Eldredge, Desire)

C.S. Lewis wrote about this same thing. He says that we set our sights too low, going for the things we know. We are as foolish as children playing in the mud:

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

Scripture tells us that what is coming is far better than anything to be had on earth. The things we desire are mere poor shadows of the reality that will be ours when Jesus returns and ushers in the New Creation. It’s as if someone is offering us a gourmet meal, and we say: “No thanks, I just want McDonald’s quarter-pounder.”

Now, some of the problem is that we know what a quarter-pounder tastes like, but we have not yet tasted the gourmet meal. Peter is telling us that we should train our minds to desire the gourmet meal. There are tiny tastes of it available even now. The ache you feel after a beautiful piece of music. The excitement and satisfaction after reading a great book, or seeing an amazing movie. The inexplicable joy that hits at unpredictable moments.

So we must learn to fix our hope fully on all that we have in God, through Jesus Christ. God is eternal, and infinite. There is literally no end to the wonderful things we can have in Him and through Him. We are actually incapable of imagining anything better than what we could have when Jesus Christ returns. We need to train our minds to recognize and remember this.

When we set our hope fully on the grace that will be our when Jesus is fully revealed, it can create a longing. I believe an authentic life of following Jesus will always involve deep longing, because we were made for more than this life. Sometimes we can’t even put a name to what we want, because God’s resources for us are infinite – there might not even be words yet invented to describe what God has in store for us. But if you find yourself somehow wanting “more,” you are on the right track. Just remember to discipline your mind to recognize that the “more” we want can only be found in Jesus. We should also remember that although God offers us much in this present life, all of his promises will only truly be fulfilled when we stand face to face with him in our new bodies, inhabiting the New Creation.

When we train our minds and discipline our hope in this way, it leads to a different way of living. We will talk about that next time. But it is vital to understand that this different way of living – which Peter calls “being holy” is a result of setting our hope fully on the grace that will be ours when Jesus fully comes into His own.

We can’t really train our minds to do this without the power of the Holy Spirit working within us. So let’s ask the Lord to help us keep our hopes fixed fully on Him.