GOD’S GLORY FOR OUR GOOD

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3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. 4 For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6, HCSB)

11 We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.
13 When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14, HCSB)

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.(Ephesians 2:4-7, HCSB)

I want to share some things this time that the Lord has been showing me. I don’t want to pretend that this is something new. Many, many people have written about what I am going to say here. Even so, it is a subject that is often neglected in churches these days. Also, I think I have a piece to share that makes the main lesson a bit more concrete and personal.

I have highlighted several phrases from the first two chapters of Ephesians. Here’s the first thing I want us to notice from the verses above: God wants to display his glory and his grace to the universe he created.

God is the best, most beautiful, most wonderful, amazing, superlative being in all of existence. There is nothing better than him. Nothing more beautiful. Nothing more wonderful. Nothing more worthy of praise or attention. He is the highest and best good. Therefore, the highest and supreme good, the most wonderful thing that can ever happen at any time, is that God’s wonderfulness and goodness and amazingness is displayed to, and known by, all of creation. For short, we can call this: “God is glorified.” When God is glorified, it means that his goodness, wonderfulness (and so on) is being displayed, and recognized.

Think of it like this. Just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Supreme Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. In a big-picture sense, this is always what God is up to: bringing glory to himself. This is always the end result that he has in mind, because it the best thing that can happen in the universe, and it is the best thing for the universe. The best thing that can ever happen, in any situation, at any time, is that God is glorified. This is always God’s end-goal, in every situation. Scripture tells that:

10 at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow —
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth —
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, HCSB)

25 For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. 26 And the last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For the Scriptures say, “God has put all things under his authority.” (Of course, when it says “all things are under his authority,” that does not include God himself, who gave Christ his authority.) 28 Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere. (1 Corinthians 15:25-28, NLT)

33 Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!
34 For who can know the LORD’s thoughts?
Who knows enough to give him advice?
35 And who has given him so much
that he needs to pay it back?
36 For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36, NLT)

Stay with me here, because I think the end result will bless you. We have a bit of mind-work to do first, however. If God’s main purpose is to show his glory, then that is the thing that will most certainly happen. Nothing compares to God, and the scripture says he does not change or waver. So, we can count on the fact that God will be glorified. It is more certain, even, than death or taxes. Nothing will prevent God from ultimately being glorified in all things. His own nature and his own purpose guarantee it.

Now, if you are a self-centered creature like me, or maybe even if you are just hurting, you might say, “I can recognize that God’s goal is to be glorified, and, with my mind, I can even agree with that goal. But I don’t see how it helps me when God is glorified.” I know this is a shallow, selfish approach, but I can’t help feeling that way at times. I might think: “Good for God, that he gets the glory that he deserves. But in the meantime, I’m suffering.” If you know me, you know that I mean that part quite literally. I am physically suffering right now, as I write this. But even if you aren’t suffering, you might wonder: “What does God’s glory have to do with me?” It’s nice for God that his purpose will not be thwarted. It’s great for him that ultimately he will be glorified. But life is hard right now. Sometimes, I wonder if the idea of God working so that his wonderfulness is displayed to all creation really does much for me.

But it does.

You see, what the verses I quoted in the beginning (from Ephesians) tell us is not just that God is glorifying himself. They tell us the way he goes about bringing glory to himself. And, simply because he chose to do so, he has decided that he will make loving us a central part of his own glory. The foundation of God’s glory is his love. So, when he glorifies himself, he does it through love. Particularly, he does it by loving human beings. Even more specifically, he does it through loving you and me.

This means that God’s love is not based on something so shallow as our own lovableness, or even our own need. No, he has connected loving us to the eternal good purpose of showing his glory. He will never stop loving us, because he will never stop showing his glory. He has made his love for us central to his own nature, and integral to his own best purpose for the universe.

So now, we can say that because God will always be glorified, God will always love you. Not because you deserve it. Not even because you need it. But because God’s love for you is built into the very purpose for the universe.

This has several implications for us. First, and I mean this is a very positive way, life is not about you. This is in contrast to the message we generally get from our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. However, for Christians, self-fulfillment can be a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. He exists to glorify himself. But because of his very nature, when he glorifies himself, you will be loved. We are safe to live not for ourselves, but for God, because God has us at the center of his own purpose. When we let God become the center of everything, our own lives in are in their proper place. It frees us from being focused on ourselves. God’s got us, because we are part of us his purpose and plan. We can relax, and let him do his work in us and through us.

Second, it means that we can trust that God is working for our good in all things. In fact, he has tied our own good to the highest good and purpose of the universe – his own glory. So Paul writes:

28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified.
(Romans 8:28-30, HCSB)

Not only does God love us for his own glory, but he invites us to partake in that glory! This is not theoretical for me, and I don’t want it to be theoretical for you, either. Simply put, it means that no matter what we might experience – even very difficult things – it will be used for God’s glory, and for our good.

Most of you know that I am in a very difficult season of life. Every day I experience hours of excruciating pain. Doctors cannot figure out exactly way – the best they come up with are guesses. Doctors can’t make it stop, either – they can only provide medicine that eases it a bit, a couple times a day.

If I did not have the confidence that God was using my suffering for his glory, and my good, I would be going crazy. I would feel like these hours and hours of pain (more than 61,000 hours at this point. Not that I’m keeping track) are pointless, meaningless. I would be angry, and bitter, and I’m sure that would filter into my relationships, and make my life even worse.

But as it is, because of God’s word I know this: God will use my pain for his own glory, and for my good. He will do so not because I am worthy, but rather, because it is according to his own nature, and his own unchanging purpose.

I certainly hope you aren’t experiencing physical pain like mine. But you might be experiencing other difficult things in your life. It might be grief and loss. It might be uncertainty, or fear. It might be broken relationships, or a struggle of some other sort. You can have confidence that in every situation, God will be glorifying himself. That means that every situation, he will be glorifying himself by loving you and blessing you. Glory for him means goodness and grace for us. So in every single situation, God will bring goodness and grace to you.

I cannot guarantee that you will always understand exactly how God is making that happen. I can’t guarantee that you will always feel like God is doing good things through our pain, sorrow and struggles. But God himself guarantees that he is, in fact, glorifying himself, and bringing grace to you. He guarantees it by his own nature.

16 Now when people take an oath, they call on someone greater than themselves to hold them to it. And without any question that oath is binding. 17 God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. 18 So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. (Hebrews 6:16-18, NLT)

God has got this. He’s got it because his very nature means that he will glorify himself by being loving and good to us. Therefore, we can be patient in difficult times. We can be at peace and trust God.

16 That is why we are not discouraged. Though outwardly we are wearing out, inwardly we are renewed day by day. 17 Our suffering is light and temporary and is producing for us an eternal glory that is greater than anything we can imagine. 18 We don’t look for things that can be seen but for things that can’t be seen. Things that can be seen are only temporary. But things that can’t be seen last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, GW)

1 PETER #25: BAPTISM, PART 2 – THE DEBATES

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I have formed my opinions by studying the scripture and church history, and I think I am on the right track. But I don’t think I’m infallible, and smarter people than me have come to different conclusions about baptism. I know many men and women whom I deeply love as brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me about baptism. Therefore, let us not be divided by issues of baptism. However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking to really understand what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. 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 25

1 PETER #25. 1 PETER 3:21-22. BAPTISM, PART 2

We are continuing to talk about baptism this time. Once again, I want to remind us that baptism is something that many good Christians have disagreed about for about four centuries now. I have formed my opinions by studying the scripture and church history, and I think they are largely correct. But I don’t think I’m infallible, and smarter people than me have come to different conclusions about baptism. I know many men and women whom I deeply love as brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me about baptism. Therefore, let us not be divided by issues of baptism.

However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking to really understand what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.

There are three main things about baptism about which good Christians disagree. We can use the following questions to help us understand the debates:

  1. What method should we use for baptism: a) immersion, or, b)sprinkling, pouring, or any of the three?
  2. At what age should we baptize: a) Only adults, or people old enough to understand what they are doing. Or, b) Either adults or infants might legitimately receive baptism.
  3. What is the meaning of baptism? Is it a) purely symbolic, an expression of our faith in Christ, and our obedience to his command to be baptized? Or, b) is baptism a special sacrament that God uses to impart his grace to us?

Those who answer the three questions above by choosing “a)” are generally Baptists of all sorts, Pentecostals, Evangelical Free, Church of Christ, and many others. For shorthand, I will call this group “Baptists,” because they typically have the same view of baptism as Baptists, though of course, many of them have significant other differences. We should note, however, the Church of Christ, though it shares a lot of Baptist theology, also has some differences with the standard Baptist position about baptism. The short version is, unlike Baptists, Church of Christ would say that baptism is absolutely necessary to salvation. They would say that if you have faith in Jesus, but die without being baptized, you might not be saved. I disagree with this, but I appreciate how seriously they take baptism.

The “basic Baptist” position is that baptism is a kind of testimony to our faith in Jesus Christ. We do it because God commanded us to. It is an act of obedience, and it is our declaration to the world that we belong to Christ. Because of this, and because of what we read in the book of Acts, the only people who should be baptized are those who are mentally capable of making a confession of faith in Christ, and who have indeed expressed such faith. Mostly, they insist that baptism be done by immersion, but there are some Baptist types who are open to methods of baptism other than that.

Those who typically answer the three questions above with selection “b)” are Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and so on, and, of course, Roman Catholics. Let’s call them “Traditionalists,” for short, because they hold to the same understanding and practice of baptism that Christians historically held throughout all of church history. Some of you, at this point, might think I’m mistaken there, but I’m not. There is plentiful evidence of infant baptism from the early church and onwards. In fact, infant baptism was not seriously disputed until the mid-1500s, and modern “Baptist” theology did not exist until the early 1600s. More on that later.

One of the reasons I want to talk more about baptism is because I think both the “Baptists” and the “Traditionalists” often misunderstand baptism, and practice it in ways that are sometimes not helpful.

Before we go too far, let’s revisit what we learned last time. We simply looked at what the Bible teaches about the meaning and purpose of baptism. There were several key aspects to baptism:

  • It is an initiation into Jesus Christ. In baptism, we are identified with Christ. Baptism says “you belong to Jesus.” It’s almost like a passport, or birth certificate for God’s kingdom.
  • It is an initiation into the Church (the body of Christ). Baptism brings us into fellowship with other Christians.
  • Baptism brings us into union with Jesus Christ. Especially, it unites us to his death, and then to his resurrection. It appears to be, in some way, the means by which our old selves are crucified, and our new selves are given the life of Jesus Christ.
  • The forgiveness of sins is somehow connected, by the Bible, to baptism.
  • The presence of the Holy Spirit is connected to baptism.
  • Repentance and faith are necessary in order to take hold of the benefits of baptism.

Although some of that might have been unfamiliar to you, we didn’t do any fancy tricks of interpretation – we just looked at the relevant passages in a straightforward way.

With that in mind, let’s look for a moment at the traditionalists. Sometimes, they seem to treat baptism as almost a kind of magic, or even superstition. Some of them feel that babies absolutely must be baptized, in almost any situation. They often neglect the importance of faith for the child who is baptized, and do not really make sure that a baptized child is raised into a life of repentance and faith. In the worst of these situations, pastors and parents think their job is done if they simply baptize a baby.

However, according to scripture, if someone who is baptized has no faith, it does them no good. Baptism is baptism, because God’s promises are real, and he does not revoke them. But, as with salvation in general, if we do not take hold of the promises of God in faith, though they are real and true, they do us no good. Salvation in Jesus is offered to everyone. It is enough for everyone. Jesus died for the entire world (1 John 2:1-2). And yet, unless people take hold of it in faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus brings them no benefit.

So with baptism, God offers all the benefits of baptism to all who are baptized. But if the baptized one doesn’t really have faith, he or she does not take hold of those benefits. In my own opinion, unless there is a family (and ideally, a church) who are committed to raising a child in faith, it might be wiser to hold off on baptizing a baby.

On the other hand, when the child is born into a strong Christian family, with a church supporting them, I think baptism gives the child a head start on their relationship with God. My own faith began this way. I was baptized when I was one month old, and raised by a strong Christian family, with a strong Christian community around me. For all my life, God has been real and present to me. This is true of my mother and father, also, and my grandparents. There is evidence from our family history that this has been the pattern for the Hilperts for at least five hundred years. But in other families, it clearly doesn’t always work out that way. So, I would say, discernment is important before baptizing a baby.

Now let’s talk about the basic “Baptist” position. Again, this is that baptism is a symbolic act, a declaration of obedience and faith. Also, in this view, the only people who should be baptized are those who are mentally capable of making a confession of faith in Christ, and who have indeed expressed such faith. This concept that people cannot have faith until they reach a certain level of intellectual development is sometimes called “the age of accountability,” or, “the age of reason.”

Let me start with the first part: the idea that baptism is a symbolic act of obedience, a kind of public testimony that declares “I am a Christian.” The book of Acts describes several baptisms. In all of those accounts, either an individual, or a group of people, hears the gospel, and comes to faith in Jesus Christ, after which they are baptized. That appears to support the Baptist position. We should keep in mind, however, that these accounts from Acts do not tell us much about the nature of baptism itself. They tell us what happened and how it happened. Even then, they are often sketchy on the details. For instance, nowhere does it explicitly spell out the method that was used to baptize someone. Acts was not written to teach us about baptism, but rather, to show how the gospel spread in the first years after the resurrection of Jesus. We have to be very careful when making doctrines out of historical books without clear support elsewhere in the Bible.

As we saw last week, there are other scriptures, found in teaching sections of the Bible (rather than Acts, which is a historical section) that tell us more about the nature and meaning of baptism. None of those teaching passages describe baptism as something that we do for God. They don’t describe it as a testimony of faith. They don’t even describe it primarily as an act of obedience. Instead, they describe baptism as an initiation into Christ, and an initiation into the church. Those scriptures teach that baptism unites us with Christ’s death and with his resurrection. They contain promises that somehow, along with baptism, the promises of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit are imparted to us.

Because of this, I am skeptical of the idea that baptism is merely a special kind of testimony of faith. The Bible teaches many things about baptism, but it is not clear that this is one of them. I am open to the possibility that it might be one part of baptism, but I don’t think we have much biblical support to claim that is all it is, or even that it is mainly what baptism is about.

We also have nothing in church history that suggests that Christians felt this way about baptism, until the mid-1500s, and really, the early 1600s. Early Christians took baptism very seriously, considering it a sacrament in which God imparted something to the one who was baptized. The idea of baptism as merely a symbol and a testimony is not found in Christianity until the 17th century after Jesus (1600s). I want to save space, but if you are curious about church history, I can provide direct quotations from ancient Christian writers, starting in the early 200s, showing that infant baptism was a normal practice in early Christianity. Use the comments section to ask for them.

Also with regard to church history, the culture of the New Testament period would have been heavily in favor of baptism for children in Christian families. People did not have the strong sense of individualism that we have today. All of their decisions would have been made with the larger context of family in mind. When it comes to baptism, entire families would assume that they should do it together, as, indeed, the New Testament records. Often, the New Testament records the baptism of entire “households” which, in those days, typically included grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, children and grandchildren. In wealthy households, the multigenerational families of their servants would also be included. (Acts 10:24 says that Cornelius was gathered with many of his relatives and friends. Acts 11:14 also makes it clear that God is working on the entire household of Cornelius. Other baptisms involving entire families or households include: Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33 and 1 Corinthians 1:16).

So, when it comes to something like baptism, the default cultural position would be that the whole family does it together. Adults in the family might have had the ability to opt out of the family choice to become Christians. It would have been a big deal, and caused division, but I imagine it happened sometimes. However, younger members of the family would be expected to do what the family did. It would have been a very strange thing to most families to think of taking a major step like baptism, but excluding their infants and young children. They simply did not think in those types of individualistic terms. It would have felt to them like excluding their children from the kingdom of God.

Because of this tight family culture, most people would have needed some very clear teaching explaining that infants and young children were not supposed to be baptized, and why not. Otherwise, as I say, the default cultural position would be to include children of all ages. Therefore, it is very significant that there is no command anywhere in the Bible to withhold baptism from infants or young children in believing families, or to restrict baptism to only people who were deemed old enough to make a “valid” confession of faith. Let me say it again. There is no command, anywhere in the Bible, nor any teaching, that says infants and young children should not be baptized. Again, without such a command children would have been included by default.

All of this is, I think, a significant challenge to the adult-only idea of baptism. Now, let’s be fair. The infant baptism people also have some questions to answer. Doesn’t the scripture associate baptism with repentance and faith? If we are going to follow the Bible, shouldn’t those be a part of baptism?

Not all proponents of infant baptism know how to answer this well. However, there are, I think, reasonable answers. The best answer (I think) is this: “Yes! Repentance and faith must be part of baptism – even infant baptism.” The question then becomes: What is faith? Who can have faith? Can Babies have faith?

If we accept the “age of accountability” model, we must believe that faith is mainly intellectual agreement. In this way of thinking, in order to have faith, you have to consciously understand a certain set of principles, and then consciously agree to them. If faith is understanding with the mind, then babies can’t have it, because their minds are still developing.

But intellectual understanding and agreement is not faith. James says that even demons can have that! (James 2:19). And surely we don’t believe that we must truly understand everything about God and Jesus before we can be saved? Many Baptist types are OK with baptizing a child of eight or ten years, but certainly those children don’t understand Christianity as well as a twenty-year old. For myself, I think I continue to understand more and more as I get older. At what point should I consider that I understand enough to call it saving faith? Also, if we must somehow be consciously aware of our own faith, what happens to it when we sleep, or fall into a coma? And where in the Bible does it tell me exactly what I must understand? In fact, what the Bible tells us we must do is not understand, but rather, trust.

Saving faith means we rely on Jesus. I think it goes without saying that babies have the ability to trust, to rely on someone. Now, does the scripture support the idea that babies can trust God? Indeed it does! In fact, many of the scriptures describe faith as beginning before a person is even born! See Psalm 71:5-6; Psalm 139:13-18; Jeremiah 1:4-8; and Luke 1:39-44. Jesus said this about children and the kingdom of God:

13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

( Mark 10:13-16, ESV)

Baptists say that this means children are automatically in the kingdom of God until they reach the age of accountability. But in context, that is not what Jesus is saying at all. He is talking about receiving the kingdom of God. He says in order to receive it, we adults must do so like a child – in other words, with simple trust. Certainly, then it should be possible for a child to receive the kingdom of God like… well, a child. In short, a child can receive Jesus in trust.

Ideally, in infant baptism, the child, through baptism, receives the kingdom of God like a child. As the child grows, his or her parents teach them more about Jesus, and the importance of continuing to trust, and of repenting for sin. Repentance, faith and baptism are all there together, but not necessarily in the same order that they appear in someone who is an adult convert. The book of Acts, because of when it was written, is mainly concerned with adult converts.

Some people, however insist that true repentance and faith must come prior to baptism, or baptism isn’t valid. That brings us to an important point. If you must be certain that you have repented and come to faith before you are baptized, how can you ever know for sure? Are you really sure you were saved before you were baptized? This idea has led some people to get baptized multiple times. It encourages us not to trust the word of God, but rather to trust our own subjective experience of whether or not we truly feel saved by God’s grace. To me, this idea also doesn’t really fit with the things we learned about baptism last time. Baptism is not earned, and it is not something we do for God. It is used by God to bestow grace and blessings upon us.

We all know people who got saved, and then baptized, at some point in life, and then strayed away, and then later came back to Jesus again. Should they be baptized again? How many times? How can they know they might not stray again?

It is true, faith is required to take hold of the promises that God connects with baptism. But the issue of when that faith really matures isn’t as important. If you have been baptized, and you trust Jesus, you have all the promises given in baptism, no matter when exactly you were baptized, or when, in relationship to your baptism, you put your trust in Jesus. To have it any other way is to live with constant uncertainty, trusting your own experience, trusting in your own faith, above God’s Word.

I wanted to present these ideas to you, because I rarely see them discussed the way we have here. But I want to reiterate that if you disagree with everything I said, I still welcome you as a brother or sister in the kingdom of God. Obviously, I think I’m correct. But I don’t think I’m infallible, and neither should you think that I’m infallible. Thank you for letting me present my understanding of the Bible about baptism. If you disagree, I respect that. No matter where we come down on the issue, I hope we can appreciate baptism as a wonderful gift from God that he uses to bless us.

1 PETER #17: REMEMBER YOUR TRUE AUTHORITY

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Many of Peter’s first readers were living in a time when they didn’t have much control over their own lives. They had almost zero influence on what the Roman government did, and almost as little over their own local governments. Peter says, “Don’t worry about that. Obey the government, and entrust yourself to God.”

Now, he is writing to those who have even less control over their lives – slaves. He gives the same advice. We need to remember that there is something much more important here than the twisted natures of those who are in charge. This is a chance to show people what Jesus is like. This is a chance for Jesus to manifest his life through you.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. 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 17

1 PETER #17: 1 PETER 2:18-25

Peter is flowing through a series of thoughts, each one connected to the one before. So, after talking about how God has made us his people, he then encouraged us to act like the people of God, citizens of heaven. Next, he explained that, as citizens of heaven, we should live peacefully and respectfully with regard to governments here on earth, submitting to them not because of any inherent goodness found in any particular government, or any kind of government, but rather, submitting for the sake of the Lord.

Peter now expands on the theme of submitting for the sake of the Lord, and he takes us to the case of slaves. I want to remind us a little bit about slavery in that time and place. There were two kinds of slavery in the ancient Roman empire. One kind involved slaves who served on Roman warships and in Roman mines, and a few other places. These were generally prisoners of war, or condemned criminals, and they served lives of hard labor and incredible suffering until they died. It would have been more or less impossible for this type of slave to be part of a Christian house church, because they generally lived their entire lives chained up like animals either on the ships, or in the place where they were used for hard labor. It’s just an unfortunate historical reality that we don’t have much information about whether or not the gospel spread to these types of slaves.

The second type of slavery was much more common in populated areas of the Empire, and it was very different from the slavery that existed in the American south until the mid nineteenth century, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Slaves could be of any ethnicity – that is, slavery wasn’t race based. Most slaves in the Roman empire were not slaves for life. Some of them sold themselves into slavery in order to pay their debts, or to avoid starvation. Even while they were slaves, they were paid wages, in addition to being given food and housing. Slaves could conduct business in their own names, and own property – though many did not have much free time for such activities. In fact, some well-off slaves even owned other slaves themselves! Slave owners could not break up, or sell off, the family members of slaves. Most slaves in the Roman empire eventually became free again, either by gift from their master,  or by contract, or by saving up their wages and buying back their freedom. The average length of time most slaves spent in slavery was about twenty years. Some had the chance to be free, but instead made a deliberate choice to serve beloved masters for life.

Peter uses a specific term in Greek to show he is talking to the second type of slave, not the slave-laborers who were effectively prisoners with no rights. Though the typical Roman slave was better off than most slaves elsewhere in the world for most of history, we should remember that Roman slaves did not have the same freedoms as totally free people. Though they were paid, they worked for their masters, not themselves. Their time was not their own, unless they were given free time by their masters. They had to do what they were told to do, even if it was unpleasant or dangerous, and masters had wide latitude to punish slaves who displeased them.

Maybe the closest thing we have today to New Testament-times slavery is military service. When you join the military you receive some clothing, housing and an income, and even food. In return, you place yourself at the service of the military branch that you joined, for example, the Army. You can’t leave your Army post without permission. You can’t live just anywhere you want to, and you must do what the Army tells you to do, and you can be punished, even imprisoned, if you refuse to obey. Until your term of service is over, you are not entirely “your own person,” so to speak. Yet, there are limits to what the Army can make you do. That’s a pretty similar picture to slavery in the world of the New Testament. Let’s remember, however, though it was far better than what we might normally think of when we hear the word “slavery,” it was not usually a cushy, sought-after position. Maybe it would be useful to adopt the ESV’s translation of “servants,” rather than slaves. With that understanding, let’s get into Peter’s words.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

(1 Peter 2:18-25, ESV)

Peter is telling us that because we are the people of God, we see all human relationships through the lens of our position in God’s kingdom. So, in the normal course of the world, you respect people who earn your respect, and grumble about people who mistreat you. Peter says, however, that Christians are different: “slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the good, but also to those who are unjust.” Actually, the literal translation of “unjust” in this verse would be “twisted.” Peter is saying, “Your master might be a severely twisted individual, but you submit to him, and serve him, not because of him, but because of the Lord.”

Now, if we talk of submitting to someone who is twisted, how far should we take that? Last time we considered the exceptions when it comes to submitting to government. We don’t submit when the government tells us to sin. We don’t agree to sin either by doing something wrong, or by not doing something we are supposed to do. The same principles hold when we are talking about submission to any authority less than God. However, when there is no conflict between following Jesus and submitting to proper authorities, we submit, and we do so, not because the one we submit to is worthy in some way, but rather, for the sake of the Lord Himself.

Also, of course, this applies to proper authorities. So for example, I don’t have to obey the instructions of an Army officer, because I am not in the Army. But I do have to obey the lawful instructions of a police officer who is within jurisdiction. I don’t have to pay property tax in California, but I do have to pay taxes in Tennessee, and so on.

There is another important point to be made, which Peter himself makes. He is not talking about cases where a servant is being punished for doing wrong. He comments: “How is there any credit to either you or God if you endure punishment for doing wrong? The situation here is when a master is twisted. The master is likely going to be unfair to the servant, no matter what the servant does. So, the servant might be tempted to think: “Why should I bother doing the right thing if I’m going to be punished anyway? Why not serve badly? If he treats me badly, I will return that injustice with bad service.” This kind of thing, says Peter, gives the servant no credit, and brings no glory to God. Anyone in the world, whether Christian or not, can take that attitude. No, says Peter, Jesus so transforms everything about us that we can patiently endure injustice without doing wrong in return. In fact, he says, twice, that to endure suffering for the sake of God, with the grief that often entails, is a gracious thing to God.

All of this lays the groundwork for some important principles of Christian suffering. First, our suffering for Christ need not be the direct result of persecution. Peter is not suggesting that the master might be mistreating the servant because the servant is a Christian. Instead, the problem is the master is twisted – he’s generally just a nasty sort of person. Because it is not about persecution, this means that whatever suffering we endure can be redeemed as suffering for and with Christ – which, difficult as it might be, becomes a thing of grace.

So, for instance, you might think that having a nasty boss could not be considered “suffering for the sake of Christ.” But Peter says: “It can be.” If we endure while still working as if we are working for Christ, (even though in reality we are working for a twisted jerk) our trials bring glory to God. If we can get free from such a situation, there is nothing wrong with doing so. In writing to slaves, however, Peter is talking to people who are stuck, at least for a couple of decades.

If we encounter any kind of undeserved hardship, and endure it as we look to God, bearing up under it the way Jesus did, it becomes a thing of glory to God and grace to us. Peter says we have been called to this, because we are followers of Christ who suffered when he did not deserve it.

That brings us to an uncomfortable thought. We follow Jesus. What was the earthly life of Jesus like? He lived on this sin-corrupted earth as if he was a citizen of heaven, which, of course, he was. That meant he did not live for temporary pleasure, temporary riches or temporary glory. He lived in the light of eternity, which meant he was willing to endure suffering here and now.

Our lives will not exactly look like that of Jesus. Most of us will not be itinerant rabbis in the country of Israel. But the qualities of Jesus should be manifest in us. The way we handle various situations will remind other people about Jesus. They might think: “I don’t know why, but something about the way she responded makes me think of Jesus.” Some people might not even recognize it as a  quality of Jesus, but merely something that impresses them and appeals to them somehow.

In any case, one of the characteristics of Jesus was that he endured suffering patiently, entrusting himself to God. We Christians ought to approach suffering in the same way. When we endure suffering while also holding God in mind, and our citizenship in heaven, there is grace.

Many of Peter’s first readers were living in a time when they didn’t have much control over their own lives. They had almost zero influence on what the Roman government did, and almost as little over their own local governments. Peter says, “Don’t worry about that. Obey the government, and entrust yourself to God.”

Now, he is writing to those who have even less control over their lives – slaves. He gives the same advice. We need to remember that there is something much more important here than the twisted natures of those who are in charge. This is a chance to show people what Jesus is like. This is a chance for Jesus to manifest his life through you.

I believe this extends to any situation where we might be suffering, and where we have little control. In fact, I think it even extends to situations where you might have some control. After all, Jesus certainly could have destroyed his evil enemies with a mere wink. And yet, aware of God’s will, he chose to suffer in order to bring glory to God.

All of this would be incredibly difficult, except for two things. First, we need to remember, and remain aware of, something Peter has already explained:

Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.

(1 Peter 1:3b-7, NLT).

Second, we need to remember that it is not up to us to endure suffering graciously through our own difficult effort. Instead, we rely on the Holy Spirit to manifest the nature of Jesus in us and through us. Practically, what that means might include praying something like this: “Lord, I cannot face this situation with grace or patience. But I know that you can. Would you please live through me right now, so that your grace and your patience are evident to everyone around me? Would you please sustain me through this? I have no other hope but you.”

Some of the trials might include the necessity of dealing with someone in your life who is twisted. The trials will often be things over which we have little or no control. What we can control, is how we respond to them, and we can respond to them with the nature of Jesus, who lives within us. Again, we do that by asking, and trusting, the Holy Spirit to make it so. We have so much more waiting for us than anything that can be found in this life. Think of the very best life you could imagine having on earth, then multiply the goodness and joy of that by a thousand, and you still haven’t even begun to touch what it will be like when we come into our eternal inheritance.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

LENT #6: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF WAITING FOR GOD

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The devil knows scripture, but he cannot understand it. To understand the Bible, we have to receive it with a heart of faith. Satan’s temptation to Jesus was to force God to prove himself. We too, are tempted at times to insist that God prove that he loves us. However, He has already proved his love for us, through the cross.

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 Part 6

Let’s start with the facts. The “pinnacle of the temple,” could refer to a couple different places. One is the east wall. Ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (who was born only a few decades after Jesus) describes the drop along the east wall as being six-hundred feet. Another possibility is the southeast corner, which was at the edge of the Kidron valley. From that part of the temple, the drop to the floor of the valley was at least three hundred feet. Even in our age of modern medicine  and emergency services, 90% of people die after a fall of 84 feet. So, without miraculous intervention, there was no way Jesus would survive jumping off the temple with that kind of height.

Jesus has been repudiating the devil by quoting scripture. Now, the devil shows just how nasty and how devious he can be. He makes his suggestion that Jesus throw himself down, and then the devil himself quotes scripture as a justification for the sin.

If this shocks you, it shouldn’t. People have been committing sins in the name of God all throughout history. Some of them even use the Bible to justify their sins. They do so because the devil has misled them. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you, reading this, were tempted to throw up your hands and say, “Forget it! If the devil can use the Bible against, me I’m a goner. If he knows the Bible, I’ll never be able to know it well enough to fight him.”

If you have a reaction like this, I want to say, with fatherly kindness (but also with fatherly firmness): “Please don’t be childish and immature.”

First consider this: Yes, the devil knows the Bible. But he doesn’t understand it. To understand the Bible, you have to receive it in faith as a follower of Jesus Christ. The devil rejected Jesus long before any part of the Bible was formed. So, the brand new follower of Jesus who only knows a few Bible verses understands what those verses mean better than does the devil.

Second, I have spent a lot of time recently encouraging you to read the Bible regularly. This is just one more reason why you ought to do so. It’s not that difficult, especially with modern translations. Seriously, thousands of people have died, and thousands more risked their lives, so that we could have the Bible in our own language; so we could read it and understand it. It is childish to claim to follow Jesus, and yet not be bothered to read the Bible. It’s like saying you are really into soccer, but in reality, you only kick the ball around with friends once in a while, and you don’t even know the rules. This is basic Christianity. It’s part of the deal. It is as important as being part of a church, as important as praying. If you have questions, you know I will help you. You know your house church will help you. Come on, people: Figure – This – Out.

If you are tired of me repeating this sort of thing about the Bible, I want you to know that I will continue to do so until I am convinced that most of you do, in fact, read it regularly. By “regularly,” I mean at least several times a week, week in, week out, year in, year out. Until I am sure of that, you will hear more of this sort of thing. Put a reminder on your phone. Ask a friend to bug you about it. Tell everyone you are going to read the Bible, so you are motivated to read in order to not be a hypocrite. One thought might be to agree with a group of friends that you will pick a book of the Bible together – say, Luke – and you all read the same chapter, or half a chapter, each day. You could encourage each other, share your favorite part of your reading, and things like that. Whatever it takes – come on, please, do this!

The better you know what the Bible says, and the better you understand it, the more easily you will be able to defeat the devil when he tries to misuse scripture. It is not remotely an impossible task, because again, you will have a better understanding than the devil of every verse you read.

While we are on this subject, I want to give us some basic tools that will help us to avoid the traps of the devil concerning the Bible. Satan quotes Psalm 91 (one of my favorite psalms, by the way) to try to convince Jesus to do his bidding. How can we know that Psalm 91 should not be used this way?

The truth is, it isn’t that difficult. If you read Psalm 91, it is obviously not an invitation to try suicide in order to prove God’s faithfulness. All you have to do is read it, and you can see that the devil has no case. Instead, Psalm 91 is clearly an invitation to trust in God’s faithful love and care for those who belong to him. Again, all this is obvious if you read the psalm with the eyes of faith, using ordinary common sense.

What the devil wants Jesus to do is the opposite of trust, the opposite of the message of the psalm. He wants Jesus to try to force God into keeping the promises of the psalm. Instead of trusting, the devil wants Jesus to make the Father prove his faithfulness. So the devil is trying to use psalm 91 in a way that twists its clear message.

The devil is still doing this kind of thing with scripture, inspiring people who do not have genuine faith to suggest meanings for Bible passages that are twisted and wrong. To keep people from doing that, early Christians developed a few simple rules for interpreting the Bible. Theologians call these rules hermeneutics. At their heart, Christian hermeneutics are not complicated. I want to share these rules with you, in case you wonder how to interpret certain Bible passages.

1. Read the Bible in context. In other words, don’t take one little verse out of a Bible passage and use it to say something that the passage does not mean. So, for instance, Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We could take that out of context and say that Christians should never be found guilty in court. More realistically, someone might take that verse to mean that we are now free to indulge every sinful desire we have, since we are not condemned. But if you simply read for several verses before and after, the passage very clearly says that we should set our minds on the things of the spirit, not the things of the flesh (sinful things). You can’t misunderstand it if you just read the previous few verses, and the following ones. This is one reason I fervently recommend reading whole books of the Bible. You learn to see what a verse means in the context of the whole book.

2. The Bible is explained by the Bible. The majority of the Bible is quite clear, as long as you read it in context (see above). But there are a few parts that are more difficult. When you encounter part of the Bible that seems obscure, or hard to understand, use the more clear parts to help you understand. If that doesn’t help you, and you still can’t understand, then leave it for now, and trust the scripture that you do understand.

3. The Bible does not contradict itself in any important matter. Last time we looked at an example of a “contradiction,” in the Bible: Matthew wrote the temptation about worshipping Satan in third place, and Luke records it as second. But there is no contradiction concerning what the temptation was, nor when it happened, nor how Jesus responded. Most of the so-called contradictions are things like this, that have no bearing on the meaning of the Bible. There are other places where the Bible seems to contradict itself in terms of meaning. However, in those places, we find that we have a choice. We could interpret certain passages in a way that causes a contradiction. Or, we could interpret them in a way that brings no contradiction. When we are faced with such choices, common sense says that we should use the meaning that causes no contradiction. We normally do this, without even thinking about it, with every other book we read. It is plain common sense.

4. Pay attention to the genre of what you read. In this case, genre just means the “type,” or “style,” of writing. So the genre of 1 Peter is instruction. It is a letter written to encourage and teach others. Therefore, we don’t treat it like a poem, or an allegory, or a song. It’s a straightforward presentation of ideas and thoughts. The book of Psalms, however, is a collection of worship songs and poems. Because they are songs and poems for use in worship, we don’t treat them like a straightforward book of instruction. We can learn things from them, but we should keep in mind that there are word-pictures in the psalms that are not meant to be taken at face value. Some books, like 2 Samuel, are historical narrative. They record what happened. Again, we can learn things from reading about what happened, and how God interacted with human beings in various circumstances. However, historical narrative is not the same as instruction. So, when 2 Samuel 11 records that David committed adultery with Bathsheba, that is not teaching us that adultery is acceptable. It is recording what actually happened, not necessarily what should have happened.

All this can be summed up in the idea of reading the Bible literally. What I mean by that is, we read it objectively and inductively in order to find out what it says. We don’t read it with a plan to make it say what we want it to, or what we think it should say. We let the Bible speak on its own terms.

Imagine you want to find out about penguins. You get a book from the library that is all about these fascinating creatures. You don’t pick isolated sentences out of the book here and there – you read it chapter by chapter, the way the author presents it. You assume the author won’t contradict herself. You read the book in a straightforward way, to find out what it says,

Again, I want to emphasize that most of this is just plain common sense. This is how we read almost any book. If you keep these things in mind, and above all, retain your common sense, you will be able to spot it when the devil is tricking someone into misusing the bible.

By the way, the response of Jesus used all four of these simple rules. The context (first rule) of Psalm 91 has nothing to do with suicide, or forcing God to keep his promises. Jesus employed the second rule when he quoted scripture back to the devil. He uses a very clear passage to demolish the devil’s rather strained and murky interpretation: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, (Deuteronomy 6:16, ESV).” This is a clear instruction, that can be used to interpret things that might be less clear. Third, he paid attention to genre. Psalm 91, quoted by Satan, is poetic. It was probably originally a song. It is not an instruction. It uses word pictures that should not be taken exactly straightforwardly. Jesus quotes from a passage of instruction to clarify things.

I want to revisit the central temptation here. What Satan was trying to do was to get Jesus to quit living in faith, and instead, to demand proof from God. I think this sort of temptation entices all of us from time to time. It might even sound reasonable on the face of it: “God, you say you love me, so prove it by healing my husband of cancer.” Or, “God, you say you care for every detail of my life. I’ll believe it, if you will only give me money to meet my bills this month.”

I have known a number of people who have given up their faith because God did not act the way they expected him to. They thought he should do a certain thing, or prevent something, and enticed by the devil, they made their faith in him conditional upon his acting according to their expectations.

One man I know claimed he was an atheist. He said, “I believe in science.” I said: “So do I. That doesn’t stop me believing in God.” As we conversed further, I found out that at some point in his life, God had disappointed him. He wanted God to do something for him, and God didn’t come through in a way that the man could accept. So he abandoned God. It had nothing to do with science. It was because he believed the lie that God has something to prove to us.

God has no obligation to do anything for us whatsoever. Yet, he shows us his love for us in a multitude of ways every day. Every good thing we ever experience is proof of God’s love and goodness. As Ben Franklin whimsically quipped: “Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to enjoy life.” By the way, that’s not an excuse to abuse alcohol, but rather a reason for gratitude. We can and should apply it to every good thing in our lives.

In addition to all the good God showers on us, and in spite of the fact that he does not owe us any kind of proof, he did prove his love for us through Jesus Christ. He proved his love even before anyone had turned to him:

6 For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. 8 But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!

(Romans 5:6-8, HCSB)

At the cross, Jesus proved God’s heart toward us. Christ did prove God’s love and care for us – but not in the way the devil wanted him to. Like Psalm 91 obviously says, like Jesus shows us, we are called to trust God’s love. We are called to ask God to intervene, yes, but also to wait on him to show his love in his own  way and in his own time. God grant us the ability, by the Holy Spirit, to wait on him in trust!

LENT #5: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF THE HARD WAY

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Our heart should know no other consolation or confidence than that in God. We should not let our hearts be torn from him, but for God we should risk and disregard everything else on earth. We should learn to seek all goodness in and through Him alone.

The temptation of Satan is to lead us to entrust ourselves to other people or things; to put our hope and confidence in anything other than the true God. Jesus overcame that temptation, and empowers us by the Holy Spirit to do the same.

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 Part 5

LENT #5. LUKE 4:1-8

Before we plunge into the text, I want to make note of one or two things. You don’t have to swing a stick very long before you hit someone who claims that the Bible is full of contradictions. Most people who say this cannot actually give an example of this – it is something they take on faith. But for the record, our text today is one of those places in the Bible that contains a “contradiction.” Are you ready for this?

When Matthew describes the temptation of Jesus, he says that the temptation to worship the devil (the one we will look at today) occurred not second, but third. That’s right – Luke says it happened second, and Matthew says it was third. They agree that there were three types of temptations. They agree about how Jesus battled them, and the scriptures he quoted. They agree about when it happened (just after his baptism). But one of the temptations is out of order.

If you are wondering what the big deal is, you are right to wonder: there is no big deal here. In fact, to me, this is something that proves that the Bible was neither made up later, nor edited later. If someone was either making it up, or editing it later on for some purpose, this “contradiction” would have been smoothed out. The fact that it is there shows that we really have the original writings of the people who knew Jesus personally. Just to make sure we understand – it doesn’t really matter in which order this temptation came. Both Matthew and Luke agree that it came, and describe it the same way. The order changes nothing about Christian belief.

All right, let’s get to Luke’s record of the second temptation. Satan reveals to Jesus all of the power and glory of the world, and then offers it to him. He says, “because it has been given to me.” Once more, we find out that the devil is a cheat and a liar. It is true that for the time being, God has not dislodged Satan from this world. Jesus later called him “the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30, 16:11).” Paul calls him the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). John writes in his first letter that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:18-21, ESV)

So, though the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, the devil’s power does not extend to those who are born of God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Satan was not completely wrong in saying that he had power over all the kingdoms and peoples of the world. But he was lying when he said “it has been given to me.” It was not given to him – Satan rebelled against God, and then enticed human beings to leave God’s protection, and thus to come under his own dominion. In other words, Satan took all of it, by manipulation and lies. He is combining lies with truth. It is true that Satan has dominion over any human part of the world that does not submit to God. But it is not Satan’s by right. And of course, we who trust Jesus are not under the authority of the devil.

C.S. Lewis powerfully portrays how deadly it is when lies are combined with elements of truth, in his final Narnia book The Last Battle. I highly recommend it to you. Another of his books that depicts the way the devil often works is The Screwtape Letters.

I think it is good for us to be aware of the schemes of the devil, and how he tries to tempt us. When he combines a bit of truth with his lies, that prevents us from simply saying: “That’s a lie.” There is a level of complexity that he weaves to try and trick us. When we see the truth of one part of his temptation, we are tempted to believe the whole thing.

Let’s dig into why worshipping the devil would be any kind of temptation for Jesus. First and foremost, we need to keep in mind what I have said previously, which is that Jesus was limiting himself to his human nature. He had to take the fact that he was the Son of God on trust – trust in the word that God the Father spoke to him. Apparently, the Father had also revealed the details of Jesus’ mission – that he would suffer and die a horrible death. The goal of the mission, the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, was to bring the world back to God. Jesus was to be the means by which the world would know God. Ultimately the whole planet will one day come under the authority of Jesus Christ:

6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11, NLT)

The devil is offering Jesus a shortcut. Instead of humbling himself, instead of experiencing suffering and death, Jesus could have every knee bow to him right now. “You don’t have to keep suffering through this miserable human existence,” he is saying. “You don’t have to suffer humiliation, and pain, torture and death. You can get right to the good part, right now. I’ll let you have the whole world without all that difficulty.”

So, this part of the temptation could be summarized as follows: What you want is good and right. But it seems like it will be very hard for you to achieve it. In fact, perhaps you’ll never achieve it. However, if you just make this one little compromise, you can reach your goal.

Think about how things actually went. Jesus spent three more years living in poverty and deprivation. He gathered followers who did not understand him very well, and even sometimes got entirely the wrong idea. He found himself in constant conflict with the religious leaders, who argued with him, slandered him, and even schemed to kill him. Finally, he was imprisoned, brutally beaten twice in one day, and then crucified – which is, by any measure, death by torture.

After his crucifixion, he still had to go to hell. Finally, he rose. At that point, his personal suffering was complete. However, even now, two-thousand years later, his mission is not complete. For two-thousand years, his people have sometimes spread his word, but many times they have been content to not tell anyone, and to not care about the world he came to save. Even now, the whole world has not come to know him.

“So,” says the devil, “– you have all that – after all your suffering, your mission still won’t be finished, not even after twenty-centuries. Or – if you just do this one small thing for me, we take care of the whole thing, right here, right now. Immediately, the whole world is yours. No suffering, no muss, no fuss. No twenty centuries of watching your people try and fail to spread your word. In many cases, they wouldn’t even try! But if you just join with me, you won’t have to depend on them. You won’t have to suffer. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s painless.”

Of course it’s a trap. If Jesus had bowed down in worship, all of the kingdoms of the world would have remained under the influence of Satan. Jesus might have had power over the world, but then Satan would have had power over Jesus. The world would glorify Satan, not Jesus.

There is another aspect to all this. We shouldn’t overlook the power of the temptation to worship things other than God. By worship, I don’t really mean “pray to,” or “sing praises to.” In this case, worship is about who, or what we put first in our hearts. It is about what is most important to us. So, part of what was going on was that Satan was tempting Jesus to make his mission (saving the world) more important than his relationship with the Father. He was saying, “You’ve got to accomplish your mission, right? Well, here’s how you do that.” But, of course, Satan’s way of accomplishing the mission was to move God out of first place in the heart of Jesus. The mission of Jesus was a tremendously important and good thing. Even so, it was not more important than God himself. This is why Jesus responded with another quote from scripture:

13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you (Deuteronomy 6:13-14, ESV)

Of course, there are many, many scriptures that reaffirm that we must worship the one true God alone, and no one, or, nothing, else. Martin Luther offers us a lot of helpful insights into what it means to worship God alone, and have no other “gods.”

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol… That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God. (Martin Luther, Large Catechism, first commandment)

So, whatever our heart truly clings to, whatever we entrust ourselves to, is what we really worship. It is that thing or person that has the place of God in our lives. Obviously, that can be (and should be) the God of the Bible. But the temptation of Satan is to lead us to entrust ourselves to other people or things; to put our hope and confidence in anything other than the true God.

In our culture many people do this with money. Their real confidence is in money. It is money that they look to for hope of the future. It is knowing that they have (or will have) money that brings them consolation. Satan says to them: “Look, you just want to take care of your family. You just want a secure future. You want to be able to get the most out of life, and enjoy life without having to work so hard all the time. All you have to do to achieve that is to make money more important than anything else.”

Some people do it with relationships. Their trust and hope for the future is all about the people who are important to them. Satan entices them to choose human beings over God. This happens in a variety of ways. For example, maybe you have a friend who doesn’t share your Christian faith. You might be tempted to keep silent about your own faith, rather than risk losing your friend. You might even pretend to agree with the friend about something that contradicts your faith. Perhaps when you spend time together, your friend wants to do things that the Bible says are sinful. You might be tempted to compromise, so that you don’t lose your friend. At that point, you are worshipping your friendship above God.

Success is another thing we are tempted to put before God. I could be more successful as an author if I wrote a mystery series that did not have a pastor as a main character. I would do even better if I included profanity, and much better if I wrote salacious sex scenes. But if I were to compromise, I would be making success more important than my relationship with God.

There are many other things we are tempted to put above God: the approval of other people, achievement, exciting or meaningful experiences (adventures and travel) – the list is almost endless.

The temptation of Jesus was one of the most insidious of all. Satan tempted him with the very mission that God entrusted to Jesus. In the same way, many ministers are tempted to put their ministry above everything else. That’s the nasty thing about this kind of temptation: it is often not a bad thing that tempts us. It is good to make enough money to pay your bills and take care of your family. It is good to make other human beings a priority. It is good to want to do ministry, or to use your God-given gifts to achieve big things. The problem is when these things become more important to us than God alone. The sin comes in when we look to those things for hope, when we trust in those things to bring us happiness or security, or when we make decisions that put those things above our relationship with God.

Luther explains again what it means to worship God alone, and serve only him:

Namely, that the heart should know no other consolation or confidence than that in him, nor let itself be torn from him, but for him should risk and disregard everything else on earth.

We need to come to a place where God is so important to us, that we will give up anything else to keep him. We need the Holy Spirit to bring us to that place, and it is good and right to pray for help – to ask God to work in us so that he is indeed our only true God. Luther again, offers a helpful thought:

He wishes to turn us away from everything else, and to draw us to himself, because he is the one, eternal good

God is actually the true source of everything good, everything that we need and love. Are you deeply blessed as you sit quietly in nature? That blessing comes from the one source of eternal good: God himself. Are you blessed by people you love? Rejoice in them, and recognize that it is God who put them in your life. Do you have all that you really need, financially? You can take pride in your hard work, but recognize that your ability to work, and opportunities you have had, came from God alone. Do you have a gift for music, writing or some other artistic ability? Surely you know that you didn’t get that for yourself – it came from God himself. Learn to see that everything good that we have ever experienced or had, and everything good that will come to us in the future, comes from God himself. It is vitally important, also, to recognize that when we have anything apart from God, it becomes no longer good. We need to learn to worship the Giver, not the gifts.

Jesus held fast to this. Again, he battled Satan by quoting the Bible. He rejected the easy way. He refused to let even God’s mission for him become more important than God himself. He did this for us, yes, but we should keep in mind that even more importantly, he did it for the glory of God, to reaffirm that nothing in all the universe is more important than God himself.

Let the Holy Spirit speak in your heart right now.

LENT #4: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF TEMPTATION

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Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of 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 Part 4

LENT #4. LUKE 4:1-14

We have been using our passage as a jumping off point for various topics that are associated with the season of Lent: Suffering, Fasting, and Solitude. Now, we will return to the text and consider the encounter Jesus had with the devil. Most translations make it seem like Jesus spent forty days in solitude and fasting, and then, when he was just about done, the devil came and tempted him. That is a possible interpretation – there is room in the Greek for that. However, in Greek, it looks much more like the devil was bothering him the whole time. Apparently, when he came back, he told his apostles about three particular kinds of temptations that he faced. The NET captures this fairly well:

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. (Luke 4:1-2, NET)

I want to say a few words about temptation. In the first place, the Greek word normally used for temptation has a wider range of meaning than we typically give to our English word. It seems to me that we think of “temptation” as being enticed into doing something we should not do. We’re tempted to eat ice cream when we are on a keto diet. We are tempted to lust, or to have an affair. We are tempted to cheat or lie when it seems clear we could get away with it. In English, temptation is all about an alluring opportunity to do the wrong thing. Temptation attracts us toward the wrong thing, the sinful thing.

This is part of the meaning of the Greek word. But in Greek, the main emphasis is not about desire, or enticement. Instead, in Greek, the idea of temptation is about testing something to prove what it is made of. Another good word might be trials. When engineers make some new kind of device to make cars more safe, they have to do safety trials in order to find out if their device works. When scientists develop a new drug, they have drug trials, to test it, to make sure it does indeed work. That idea of a trial – putting something through a test, to see how it does – is the essence of the New Testament word for temptation.

Now, of course, the test does consist of being enticed to do something that God says we should not do, but we should keep in mind that temptation is not all negative. When we pass the test, it glorifies God, and brings grace to us. Temptation has a positive outcome in mind. It isn’t just about avoiding evil – it is about proving what is good.

This brings up something very important: temptation is not the same as sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, but was without sin:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV

7 Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, HCSB)

And yes, the word the HCSB translates “tested” (above) is the same word many Bibles translate as “tempted.” So, if Jesus was tempted/tested in every way, but did not sin, that means that being tempted to do something is not, in and of itself, sinful.

I’m going to use a particular temptation that I am familiar with as an illustration. It is generally more true of men, but I think you women can still understand it, because the main points apply to both male and female. Over the years I have spoken with many men who struggle particularly with the sin of lust. I myself have had a significant battle with it at times. I think many men who struggle this way fall prey to a trick of the devil. It is normal male biology to notice attractive women – that’s part of the nature of male levels of testosterone. It is especially normal for men to notice women who are displaying a lot of skin, or emphasizing their various physical “assets” in some way. A lot of men look at such women more or less involuntarily. In some cases, it’s very hard to avoid looking twice.

Now, having seen a woman in such circumstances, the temptation comes along. The devil, or our own flesh (it doesn’t really matter which) raises up these kinds of thoughts: “Let’s think about what she would look like if she was wearing even less. Let’s think about what it would be like to be with her.” Most of the time, such things sound like our own thoughts.

Here’s the important part: so far, the man has not sinned. It is not a sin to be tempted. But I know many men who think they have already failed at this point, simply because they have looked, and were tempted by such thoughts. What often happens then, is the guy thinks, “I’ve already blown it. I might as well go ahead and enjoy the fantasy.” And then, of course, he does sin. But I want to reiterate: temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted, but did not sin. So, the fact that such things interest or entice you does not mean you have failed.

Now, I got very specific there, but this applies to any temptation we might experience. Perhaps you struggle with gossip and slander – this could be equally true of men or women. You are tempted to use your words to cut other people down, to show the world that they are not so great after all. You hear something about someone you know, someone who is far too uppity. It’s a juicy bit of information, and you could use it to teach that person a little much-needed humility. In fact, you want to use the information, you want to say something. But you haven’t yet sinned. You have been convinced by the devil that you want to use your words in a hurtful way, but you haven’t done it yet. Don’t be discouraged: temptation is not sin. You haven’t sinned yet. The attraction you have to do the wrong thing is not the same as actually doing it.

We face temptations from three sources: The world, the flesh and the devil. They are all connected. Perhaps we internalize messages from our ungodly culture. Or maybe something in our sinful flesh draws us toward sin. It might also be the devil, or one of his servants – and they use our sinful flesh to whisper into our minds. Either way, scripture makes it clear that the primary battle takes place in our minds:

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, ESV)

On the positive side, this is a test. By not doing the wrong thing, by doing what God wants instead, you are accomplishing good things spiritually. You are bringing glory to God. By using the resources of the Holy Spirit to battle the tests of the world, the flesh and the devil, we show the world the greatness of Jesus Christ. And of course, all sin is ultimately very bad for us, so we help ourselves when we pass the test.

Let’s look at the first test that Luke records for Jesus:

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4, ESV)

There is a lot of significance packed into these few words. Of course, Jesus was hungry, but the temptation was not really for Jesus to break his fast. Instead, there were two things the devil was trying to do here.

Remember, before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized, and God spoke from the heavens, saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” After being in the wilderness with no food, the devil came at Jesus. He wanted to place doubt in Jesus’ mind about what God had said. If you are the son of God…prove it! Turn these stones to bread.

The devil was saying: At your baptism, it was one quick sentence. Did God really say that? Wasn’t it maybe just a rumble of thunder? If God is pleased with you, why are you out here all alone and hungry? Can you really believe what you heard?

This temptation to doubt God’s word is the very first way in which Satan assaulted human beings:

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV)

This temptation comes in many flavors, but underneath it is one of the most common attacks of the devil: casting doubt on what God has revealed through his Word.

  • How can God actually love you? You know you aren’t loveable, so what it says in the Bible about God loving you can’t really be true, can it?
  • Does God really forgive your sins? Isn’t that too easy? You can’t really trust what the Bible says about this, can you?
  • It’s not really a sin to get drunk is it – does the Bible really say that?
  • Did God really say you should save sex for marriage?

And so on. There is a place for honest questions. It is normal to want to understand where the Bible – God’s Word – comes from, and why we should trust it. If you have those honest questions, please contact me about a sermon series on that subject. Also, feel free to check out my book: Who Cares About the Bible?

However, this temptation of Satan is not about asking honest questions. At the heart of it is a desire to doubt, a desire to believe that the Bible is not trustworthy. There may be a lurking bitterness, almost an eagerness to say: “See! I told you that you couldn’t trust God to be good, told you that you couldn’t trust what God says!”

So the first part of the trial/test/temptation is to doubt God’s word. The second part is this: because you doubt God’s word, you really should take matters into your own hands. So, in the case of Jesus, first the devil casts doubt on what God clearly said to Jesus. Then, he says, “Since you can’t trust God, you better take care of yourself. Don’t wait for God to provide for you, don’t wait for God to show the world who you are – make your own bread. Prove to yourself and to the world that you are God’s son, and satisfy your hunger the same time.”

The devil offers a “solution” for both problems. First, if Jesus were to turn the stones into bread, it would prove that he is indeed God’s son. Second, it would provide what Jesus needs (food) since (according to the devil) God won’t provide it.

Again, remember that Jesus was voluntarily limiting himself to the resources of only his human nature. The devil was trying to get him to stop living in that human dependence on the Father, and instead tap into his own divine nature, his God-nature. If Jesus had done that, he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for human sin. It would have undone the whole reason he was here on earth.

If all of that sounds really tricky and nasty, you are getting the idea. The devil’s tempting can be deep and complex, and he doesn’t play fair.

Jesus’ reply to the devil destroys both lines of temptation. He says: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” Let’s unpack this. Remember, the devil is trying to get Jesus to doubt what God says. Jesus responds with “It is written.” In other words, he is reaffirming his trust in God’s Word. It’s almost like he is saying: “You want to talk about what God said? I can do that: What God said is written down.”

The second part of what Jesus said – that is, the scripture he quotes – is also a deadly response to the devil: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Actually, Luke gives us the shortened version. Matthew adds the next phrase. I think it is useful for us to see the specific passage from Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting, because both Jesus and the devil knew it well:

3 He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3, HCSB)

Jesus is reaffirming his dependence on God. As we saw in the message about fasting, this is the essence of fasting: to recognize our dependence on God, to recognize that we actually need God even more than we need food. More specifically, the scripture quoted by Jesus says that we need the Word of God even more than we need food. So, he is telling the devil: “Yes, God did say those things, and I believe him. In fact, I count the Word of God as more important than food. I am hungry because God is in control, and His Word says he wants me to wait patiently, learning that I can trust him not only for physical food, but for spiritual food, His Word.”

This is a massive reaffirmation of Jesus’ trust in the Father, and of his intention to live, like all human beings, in dependence on the Father.

Where are you tempted to doubt what God has said? Is it what the bible says about what is right or wrong? Or are you tempted to doubt God’s word about forgiveness and love?

In what ways are you tempted to satisfy your own needs apart from the provision of God? There are scripture passages that say everyone who is able should work and provide for their family, so it isn’t wrong to work to provide for your physical needs. But I think some people are tempted to trust in their own finances more than in God. Others are tempted to  satisfy their relational needs in ways that God says are sinful. Or, here’s one that I have struggled with: Like every human being, I have a legitimate physical need to eat. But I am often tempted to eat more than I need.

Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus did live a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

1 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, GNT)

Let us remember that God has indeed told us these things, and let us cling to them, even when the devil tempts us to doubt what God has said. Let us remember, when we are tested, that God has already provided all we need. Once again, look at what God’s Word says:

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16, NLT)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this, today.

LENT #3: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF BEING ALONE

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It is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow Him to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem

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 Part 3

LENT #3: SOLITUDE

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil.

(Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

I want to remind you that we are not doing our normal verse-by-verse exposition of this Bible passage. Instead, this is a topical series, centered around the season of Lent, and using Luke 4:1-13 as a kind of jumping off point to consider various spiritual disciplines that go along with Lent, and also certain temptations. So, for instance, this time we will talk about solitude. I don’t mean to imply that the spiritual discipline of solitude is one of the main concerns of Luke 4:1-13 – though obviously, Jesus was alone for forty days, that isn’t the main point Luke is making. However, also obviously, Jesus was alone, and there are other Bible verses about solitude, and so we’ll use the event of Jesus’ solitude here as a starting point for thinking about the spiritual discipline of solitude.

I promise you, we will get to verses 3-13 before Lent is over! I didn’t actually plan it this way (I wish I was that smart) but this is turning out to be a sermon series about finding grace in unexpected ways. We’ve talked about the unforeseen grace of suffering. Last time, we considered the unanticipated grace of being hungry – where we talked about fasting.  Today we will look at one more surprising way to encounter God’s grace – through solitude.

So, as mentioned, Jesus spent forty days alone at the beginning of his ministry. Just in case we might say “well, it doesn’t explicitly say there was no one else there,” Mark gives us these details:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

(Mark 1:12-13, ESV)

Being with the wild animals did not mean that he had a pack of friendly wolves keeping him warm at night. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, most humans around the globe considered wild beasts to be a huge threat to human life and flourishing. To readers in the first century, the mention of wild animals meant deadly danger and terror. To be with the wild animals meant that he was utterly alone with all the perils that exist apart from the help of other human beings. Mark mentions the angels that ministered to him, but Luke and Matthew record that the angels came only after his temptation was finished. Even if the angels were with him the whole time, believing there are unseen spirits sent by God to help you is not the same as having another human being there with you, someone whom you can see and hear and speak with.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it bears repeating. Part of why Jesus was able to be the perfect substitute for human beings on the cross is because during his time on earth, he limited himself to the confines of his human nature. God-the-Son joined his divine nature with human nature in the person of Jesus. And prior to his resurrection, Jesus did not use his divine nature. Instead, he depended upon the Father and the Spirit for all things, just like all humans must do. He could have used his divine power to protect himself, or to find strength during those forty days. However, he set aside that divine nature, not using it, instead living as all humans must live, in faith in God the Father and God the Spirit. Philippians chapter 2 makes this clear:

6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

(Philippians 2:6-8, NLT)

So Jesus committed himself to using only human resources. Jesus, limiting himself to his human nature during his time on earth, could not sense the angels any better than you or I. And, limited to human resources, he spent forty days alone.

This is not the only time Jesus sought solitude, by the way. Many times, throughout the gospels, it records Jesus going off alone to pray by himself.

35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” (Mark 1:35-37, ESV)

12 During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, CSB)

5 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16, ESV)

18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18, NKJV)

13 When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matthew 14:13, HCSB. [The “it” that Jesus heard about was the death of John the Baptist])

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Matthew 14:23, ESV)

All of these are separate events, by the way. Clearly, even though many people wanted his presence all the time, Jesus made it a priority to spend significant time alone. He was not the only person in the Bible who did this, by the way. Jacob was alone in the wilderness when he had his vision (which we sometimes call “Jacob’s Ladder”). Jacob was again alone when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. Moses spent roughly a third of his life in a desolate wilderness. He was not alone all the time, but as a shepherd, he probably spent significant time by himself (Exodus 3:1).

David spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness, when he was a shepherd. In fact, anyone who was a shepherd in ancient times spent many days at a time apart from other human beings, so we have to add the prophet Amos to the list of people who often spent time alone. The prophet Elijah spent a long time alone, at least two different times. So did John the Baptist, prior to Jesus.

Jesus himself invited the disciples to spend time apart from others, with just him:

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

(Mark 6:30-32, ESV)

We know that very early on in the history of Christianity, many were practicing the spiritual discipline of solitude. Some people took it too far, and withdrew from all community, but that is not what Jesus modeled. It is clear from the Bible that all Christians need to be firmly rooted in Christian community. But there is also need for each of us to be connected to Jesus ourselves, on our own, not only through others.

Like many things in the Christian life, there is a balance here. I have preached before about the importance of Christian community. Let’s not forget there is also an importance to spending time alone with God, with no one else around.

I will freely admit that solitude is the easiest of the spiritual disciplines for me. I crave time alone, and I look forward to it. I have had to learn, and to discipline myself, to be deeply connected to Christian community, to be involved in the lives of others. So, in the same way, perhaps being connected to others is easy for you, but you might need to learn, and discipline yourself, to spend time in solitude with God. Jesus certainly showed us that is important, and, as with fasting, Christians throughout the past two thousand years have practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude.

Some of you may have engaged in this before, but I want to make sure to help everyone understands solitude, even if you are a “beginner,” so I’ll start with the basics.

If you are a real “people person,” or if you are a parent of young children, you may need to start with just a few hours alone – say, half a day. If you are struggling with depression, it may not be the best time to start practicing the discipline of solitude – although, there is a possibility it could help. Use caution and good judgment if you are depressed.

It is best if you can do it someplace other than your home, so you aren’t distracted by things you could be doing, but sometimes you may not have an option. If you have a greater tolerance for being alone, you should maybe consider camping remotely, or renting a cabin that is physically distant from your home, and spending a night, and then a whole day, alone with God. My typical times of solitude for the past twenty-five years have been three or four nights, and thus two or three entire days alone, though I have spent as much as eight days alone in a cabin two miles from the nearest (dirt) road. I try to get at least a couple days alone at least once a year, though I prefer twice.

The intention of solitude is to spend time together with God apart from time with anyone else, apart from things that distract you from the presence of God. There are some practical implications here. During your time of solitude you should plan to be out of touch with people and the world – no phone, no texting, no social media or internet. Don’t use the time to catch up on work – this is time for you and God.

What you actually do, or don’t do, during the time, depends in part on how much time you have, and on what helps you connect with the presence of God. If you are spending only a couple of hours, I would suggest maybe reading a chapter of the Bible, then doing a short devotional reading, and then spending time sitting in silence, in conscious recognition of God’s presence. After that, maybe you could walk, and pray out loud to God with no one else around.

When I take two or three days of solitude, I usually bring along one or more Christian books. Sometimes I have a particular thing I might want to hash over with God during the time, so I’ll bring a book specifically about that topic. I’ll read more slowly than usual, and often pause, and – this may sound weird – talk with God about what I’m reading. For a time of two or three days I usually also take along a couple fiction books. This is because when I have that much time, I spend it not only consciously doing “spiritual things,” but also relaxing in God’s presence through reading, hiking, and fishing. For me, reading is not a distraction, but an engagement with God. When Kari and I go away together, we don’t spend every second staring into one-another’s eyes. Sometimes we are both reading something in the same room. The fact that we are reading does not altar the fact that we are also together. So, when I have a good amount of solitude time (two days, or more) I do have periods that are less directly focused on God, and yet the entire time is imbued with an awareness that it is just God and me, together.

Sometimes in solitude, I have long periods of silence. But I also listen to music at times, because that often opens a spiritual window to God in my heart. The main idea is to have a block of time that is dedicated to spending with God. The way you spend that time might vary, but the  most important thing is to set aside anything that distracts you from God’s presence: phone, internet, other people, and so on.

You may sometimes get together with a good friend, or go away with your spouse. When you do that, you might turn off your phones, and use the time to focus on that relationship. That’s exactly what you are doing with times of intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude does require some adjustment, however. The first couple hours of being alone, you are very likely to feel like you are wasting time, and to think that what you are doing is silly and pointless. You’ll end up thinking about stuff you should do, and people you need to talk to. You won’t feel like it is spiritually productive at all. This is normal. It is part of the process of solitude. If you simply allow these feelings to happen, and continue to be alone with God, eventually, all the stuff going through your head will begin to quiet down. You will begin to settle in to a quiet refreshing place with the presence of God.

Many people feel lonely during times of solitude. This too, is normal, and actually can be very helpful for your spiritual life. We cram our lives so full of people, activities and things, that we seldom stop to simply recognize our own selves, and the presence of God. Intentional loneliness helps us to slow down, and see our need for God, our dependence upon him. It gives us perspective that is almost impossible to get otherwise in this insanely busy modern world.

When you are constantly in touch with everyone you know, constantly connected to news, and social events, and even to the random thoughts of acquaintances you haven’t seen for years, it wears out your soul. The human soul was made for connection with other humans. But it was also made for connection with God, and sometimes, in order to have that, we desperately need to be alone with God, without other distractions.

If you are never alone with just yourself and God, you will never really know the state of your own heart and soul. Socrates is famous for saying these words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But even before he said that, Solomon, the wisest man in the world, said something very much like it:

8 The sensible person’s wisdom is to consider his way,
but the stupidity of fools deceives them.

(Proverbs 14:8, CSB)

In other words, it is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow God to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem. David, Solomon’s father, wrote this:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the everlasting way.

(Psalms 139:23-24, HCSB)

He understood the importance of time alone with God, time for God to use your own mind to dig into your soul and bring up things that need to be addressed. Elsewhere, he wrote this:

9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

(Psalms 32:9, ESV)

When we never separate from the world and take time alone with God, we are being like a mule. We are not letting God guide us, or address things in our lives that need addressing. As scary as it may be sometimes, we need to stop and find out what is in our souls. We don’t have to be afraid, because God is with us as we do that.

Jesus went into the loneliness of exile from Heaven on our behalf. For what felt to him on earth like an entire lifetime, he was apart from the light and joy and fellowship that was normally his in Heaven. His going apart, his separation from the fellowship of heaven, accomplished the most wonderful thing possible for us – our salvation.

God does not ask us to separate from himself. But at times, it may be vitally necessary for us to have time set apart to allow Him to draw us closer.

Please listen to this song, written and recorded by my wife, Kari. It might be another way of encouraging you to find value in time alone with God.

To listen to the song, click the play button:

LENT #2: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF HUNGER

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The essence of fasting is embracing our weakness, and our need of God. It leads us to a place where we are more deeply connected to our need for Him, where we are joyfully humbled by our utter dependence upon Him. It doesn’t hurt our prayer life, either.

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 2

LENT #2. FASTING. LUKE 4;1-2

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

Last time we talked about how God often leads those with whom he is pleased into difficult things. This is not because God is mean, or perverse, but rather, because he knows more than us, and sometimes suffering brings us tremendous blessings. Some of the blessings we receive through suffering may not be fully realized until we stand with Jesus in our new, resurrected bodies:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)

This time I want to look at the spiritual discipline that we call “fasting.” As we see from our text in Luke, Jesus went without food during a period of forty days. I used the ESV translation above because it captures the Greek quite well: “And he ate nothing during those days.” This could mean that Jesus had nothing to eat, whatsoever, for forty entire days – in other words, for 960 hours. It could also mean that for forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat while it was daylight. The Greek would support either meaning. If you pushed me, I would say that I think Jesus ate one simple meal each day, after dark for forty days. Again, however, it could mean that he had no food whatsoever during all that time. I also want to point out that it says nothing about drinking, and since the human body cannot survive longer than about three days without liquid, I’m quite sure that Jesus at least had water to drink during this time.

This practice of deliberately going without food for a period of time is called fasting. The English word “breakfast” simply means to break (that is, end) the fast of the night-time hours. Protestant Christians are often both confused, and somewhat ignorant about fasting. One of the things most Christians do know is that fasting from food is not a necessary part of following Jesus. I quoted this same passage last time:

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.
20 You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)

Fasting certainly falls into the category of food and drink, and also practices of pious self-denial. Paul’s point  in the Colossians passage is not that you should never have a special holy day, or that you should never fast, but rather that you should not allow anyone to condemn you for what you do, or don’t do, with regard to such things. Fasting, merely for the sake of fasting, accomplishes nothing. Fasting will not make you more holy. If done with the wrong attitude, it will not help you fight temptation. Jesus himself condemned the way some people practiced fasting:

16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.

When we use fasting as an opportunity to show off spiritually, we have made it almost useless. When we make fasting into a rule that we have to follow, we destroy its value.

However – and this is a big however – since at least the time of Moses (that is, for more than three thousand years) followers of God have engaged in fasting. You can find followers of God fasting in almost every Old Testament book. Jesus fasted, obviously, on more than one occasion. His disciples fasted, after Jesus was crucified and raised. In the two-thousand years since then, millions of Christians have engaged in this spiritual discipline, some quite regularly. In short, fasting, done the right way, can be very beneficial in our relationship with God.

I’m going to talk about my own fasting experience. Please understand something however: I am not trying to give you the impression that I fast twice a week for years on end, or anything remotely like that. I believe I have done it often enough to help me teach about fasting, but I’m quite sure I would benefit from fasting a lot more often than I actually do it. Perhaps this message is also for my own sake, to become more regular with it.

Usually, I plan ahead of time the sorts of things I want to bring up with God during a fast. Maybe I’m feeling burdened for a particular person or issue. Maybe I want to be closer to God. Perhaps I want God to address something in my life that I am having a difficult time dealing with. Sometimes I write down my “fasting concerns” in a notebook. Sometimes I don’t.

The normal Biblical model of fasting is going without food for a set period of time. As I mentioned before, sometimes that means not eating while the sun is up for one day, or many (and not “making up” for your missed meals by gorging in the evenings). Sometimes fasting might mean going without food for a set number of hours. I would say that to get any benefit from it, you ought to go without food long enough to develop hunger pangs for a period of time. When the hunger pangs come, you can use them in at least two ways.

First, every time you feel hungry, use that as a reminder that there is something special going on between you and God today. Let the hunger pangs remind you to pray. Briefly pause what you are doing, and pray for the concerns that you want to address in your fasting. You might then continue working, and continue praying as you work, if possible. As you pray, use the hunger. You might think or pray something like this: “Lord, I am hungry, but I want your intervention in these things even more than I want to eat.” Let your hunger become an appeal to God. Present your hunger to God as a prayer.

Second, when you feel hunger (and perhaps weakness along with the hunger) use that feeling to maximize your dependence on God in general. I might think something like this: “Oh wow, I feel weak and hungry right now. God, as much as I feel like I need food right now, I need you, even more. As much as I desire to eat, I have an even greater desire for you, and for your work in my life. I confess to you that I need you even more than I need to eat.” Embrace the weakness you feel. Embrace the desire for food (without satisfying it), and let God turn them into dependence upon Him, and desire for Him.

If you haven’t fasted before, some of what I’m describing might make more sense to you after you have tried it.

Many people have adapted “fasting” to include things like abstaining from only certain kinds of food (like not eating sugar, or red meat). Or, abstaining from watching television, or from watching sports, or playing video games. Some people might even say it like this:

“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”

Myself, every year, I give up football for lent (to my overseas listeners, this is a joke: there is no American football during that time of year).

These are admirable ideas, but to really engage the power of Biblical fasting, I think it needs to be something that provides constant reminders throughout the fast (like hunger pangs), and something that makes you aware of your weakness, and your absolute need for God. You need to abstain from something in such a way that the fasting continually leads you into dependence upon God, into prioritizing him above all else. To be honest, I’m not sure that abstaining from video games or sugar would do that. One thing I can think of that might be comparable to not eating is ceasing smoking. From what I understand, if you are a smoker, and you quit, you will have constant cravings, and you will be reminded of your weakness and need for God. Along those lines, the apostle Paul says it is OK for married couples to fast from sex for a short period of time, as long as they both agree to it (Note: he doesn’t command it!). He does command couples to not take that particular kind of fasting too far. My own struggle with pain has sometimes provided the same sort of experience as fasting: The pain becomes a reminder that is felt by only me. I feel a deep need for God, and I use the pain almost as a prayer.

In spite of these few exceptions, I wonder if it is significant that in scripture, the only kind of fasting it really talks about is fasting from food. One of my concerns about other types of things that are called “fasting” these days, is that they sort of emphasize our own will power and achievement, without emphasizing our weakness and dependence on God. If I “fast” from watching TV, I might be tempted to become proud of my self-discipline, proud of doing something that feels righteous. When I fast from food, I feel too weak, too needy, to become proud. Not only that, but if I fast from sugar, or TV, or video games, basically, I am just becoming a healthier person. I’m not casting myself in dependence upon God, I’m working to make myself a better person. That’s a good thing, but it is definitely not the main spirit or intent behind the discipline of fasting.

I will add two very important things. First, it might be wise to check with a doctor before you fast. Particularly if you are diabetic, or have some other kind of health condition, you ought to make sure it is safe before you try it.

Second is this: If the fast is becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, just stop, and eat something. This doesn’t mean that fasting won’t ever work for you. It means that this particular fast, at this point in time, isn’t helpful, so let it go. A few times, I have fasted, and all I could think about was how hungry I felt. I wasn’t feeling dependence on God, and I wasn’t really praying any more, I was just obsessing about my desire to eat. I talked to the Lord about it, and I felt clear permission to go ahead and eat. At a later time, I fasted again, and that later fasting was very spiritually helpful. So, even if the first time you try it, it doesn’t go well, don’t give up. If you have a time when it doesn’t seem helpful, don’t write it off for the rest of your life.

A few practical thoughts. If you are new to fasting, I would suggest going without food from one evening meal until your next evening meal. In other words, eat the evening meal, and skip snacks for the first evening, and then fast from breakfast and lunch (and any snacks) the next day. Break your fast with the evening meal twenty-four hours after your last meal. This is not too terribly challenging. You should be able to get in a few hours of hunger pangs that way.

While you fast, please be sure to drink plenty of non-caloric fluids – water, black coffee or tea (though be careful with too much caffeine on an empty stomach!), or plain carbonated water. I don’t recommend diet drinks, because they can sometimes fool your body into thinking you’ve had something sweet, which can mess with your blood sugar, and actually make the fast more difficult. If you are really struggling, but you also really want to finish the fast, a cup of broth or bullion sometimes helps you feel better, and contains only a handful of calories.

If you have already done some fasting, and/or if you want to challenge yourself a bit, you could fast from after the evening meal of day 1, throughout all of day two, and then break your fast the morning of day 3. That would make basically a thirty-six hour fast.

People who fast for multiple days in a row are usually only fasting during daylight hours (in other words, they have one meal per day, in the evening). One other approach for multiple-day fasting is to drink broths, and diluted fruit juices throughout the fast. Please do be careful about multi-day fasting without any food at all. Do some research and prepare well before embarking on a long fast.

I also want to reiterate the advice of Jesus. Fast during a “normal,” day, going about your normal routine (apart from food). Don’t advertise the fact that you are fasting – the point of the fast is what is happening in your own relationship with God, and it doesn’t have to concern anyone else. If someone asks you why you aren’t eating, you don’t have to be paranoid about it – you can admit you are fasting without feeling proud or bad. On the other hand, if you start as I suggested, most people won’t even notice you skipping breakfast and lunch – the evening meal is the one you are most likely to share with others, so no one has to know that you’ve been abstaining all day long. Again, you don’t have to be all mysterious – if someone happens to ask why you aren’t eating, you can mention it. But try not to use fasting to make yourself look good in the opinion of yourself, or of others. That’s what Jesus warned about.

Sometimes, in the bible, a group of people would agree to fast together. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with other people in the group knowing that you are fasting along with them. There is no basis for anyone in the group to become proud, since everyone is doing the same fast. I will say this however: we should be very careful to not coerce anyone into fasting with us. I was once part of a group where two people basically shamed the rest of us into fasting with them. There was no clear purpose or goal for our fasting. It was more that they wanted us all to show what hard core Christians we were. Needless to say, that fast didn’t go very well for me. Don’t let yourself be forced into it, and don’t try to force others to join you, but it isn’t wrong to invite, without pressure, others to join you.

It makes sense to me that Jesus began his ministry work with this long fast. As we will see later, the things gained in fasting tended to counteract the temptations the devil gave Jesus. Fasting leads us to depend on God, not on ourselves, or the resources we might have. So, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus was already in a place of deep dependence on God.

Even though Jesus had a perfect union with the Father, he found it helpful to fast. Without making it a law, I would like to suggest that if even Jesus practiced fasting, we too, could find tremendous benefit in it. For now, at least let us remember that we need God more than anything, even food. Our need points us to God’s satisfaction of all needs: Jesus Christ. Rely on Him today!

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?