LIVING CRUCIFIED #7: SIN and GRACE

Photo by Bianca Salgado on Pexels.com

Being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus. Let’s talk about how all this looks.

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 Living Crucified Part 7

I want to add a few more brief thoughts about fighting sin. The first is this: being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus.

It is easy to get confused about this, for a couple of different reasons. First, it is our sin that separates us from God. Our sin is the problem that keeps us apart from ultimate joy, which is found only in the presence of God. It is also sin that makes the world such a terrible place at times. All war is caused by sin. All violence grows out of sin. Selfish actions, abuse of children, rapacious greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, and hatred are all outgrowths of the root of sin. Depression, self-loathing, self-centeredness, apathy, lack of love – all this proceeds from sin. Even disease and accidents are the result of the fact that sin is embedded in the world.

Since sin is the major problem, it is natural to make the mistake of believing that the solution is to commit fewer sins. And that leads to the second thing that confuses us: many churches do indeed seem to be teaching that the whole point of being a Christian is to control sin. Now, if we could, in fact, control our own sin, that would be a good thing to do. But, if you have tried very hard to do it, you realize that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you can control your behavior (and some people are quite good at that) when you look into your heart honestly, you recognize a deep commitment to get your own needs met, no matter what it takes.

Some people don’t realize what a problem this is, because they can get their needs met through things that are outwardly righteous. But even if the means are righteous, the heart that uses them is not. So maybe you go around helping people and quoting Bible verses in all circumstances. Both of those things are good to do. But it might be that you do them because it makes you feel secure, and good about yourself. It makes you feel like no one can find fault with you. So, even though the activities aren’t wrong, you are doing them for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to get your sense of security, or self-worth, from anywhere but God Himself. It is wrong to believe you can be justified by your own actions.

The bottom line is that every one of us is committed to ourselves, and to making sure that we get our own needs met, no matter what it takes. That is the essence of what the bible calls “flesh,” and we all have it.

As we have been learning through this series, God has dealt with human sin through Jesus. In a spiritual way, God crucified our own sinful hearts on the cross with Jesus. We died with him, and so now we are dead to sin. The way to “control” sin is not to think about it all the time, but rather, to immerse ourselves into the love and joy and grace that are found in Jesus Christ. We trust what the bible says: that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, holy, and blameless. We let Jesus live his life through us. The more we trust him to do that, the more we turn toward him, the less we are controlled by sin.

I want to use Romans chapter 7 to help us understand all this. Please take the time to read all of Romans 7:4 – 8:17. It is about the length of one chapter of scripture. Please do stop reading this right now, and open your Bible and read that. Seriously. Please stop reading this, and go read the scripture passage. Please?

Thanks for reading that. This is a section of scripture that is often misunderstood. In the first place, we ought to read the section I just gave you as one unit. The verse and chapter markings we find in our modern bibles are not part of the original. In other words, they were added to make it convenient for us to quickly find places in the Bible, but they were not inspired by God. So, if I were the one dividing up the book of Romans, I would have the section I just gave you as all belonging together. It would be a mistake to read chapter 7, and then stop without reading any of chapter 8.

In the first part of chapter 7, Paul is making two main points. First, that law is good. It was given by God to show us what sin is. Second, though the law is good, it shows us that we are not good, and the law cannot help us to become any better.

Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:

14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. (Romans 7:14-23, NLT)

We usually read this and think: “Yup. That’s me. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t get it together. I keep sinning and sinning.” So far so good. But many people miss the main point Paul is making. He repeats it over and over again. The point is not that he sins all the time. The point is this: he wants to do what is right.

I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”

I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.

“Well, before I was a Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”

You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.

So, in Romans 7, Paul’s main point is not that he sins all the time. The main point is that now, he does not want to sin all the time. That fact shows that he has died to sin, and has been raised to be with Christ. He has a new heart, a new Spirit, and his new self does not want to sin.

Now, it is natural to ask: “If I am already dead to sin, if I’m already a new creation, freed from sin, why do I keep sinning? If I don’t want to sin, why do I do it anyway? Doesn’t this prove I am half-sinner, half-redeemed?”

No. Although I like the New Living Translation (used above) it does have a major drawback. In verse eighteen, the right translation is this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18, ESV; formatting added for emphasis). In the original Greek it never, anywhere in the New Testament, uses a term like “sinful nature.” The problem is not that we have “bad self,” along with a “redeemed self.” What we have is a part of us that is that vulnerable to sin, called flesh. I mentioned in the beginning that one characteristic of what the bible calls “flesh” is that it is utterly committed to getting our needs (and wants) met, even if it means going against what God says. We all inherited this kind “flesh” from Adam and Eve. Before we became Christians, we all lived according to the flesh. We all found ways to do what it takes to feel better. We all depended upon ourselves, rather than God, to get our needs met. Sometimes we did that in ways that didn’t look so bad (like being a good student to gain approval from adults). Sometimes we did it ways that were clearly wrong (like getting drunk to numb our emotional pain, feel good, and gain acceptance from our peers). But both the good student, and the drinker, were looking to something other than God to meet their needs, and lead them to a satisfying life.

In addition to the word “flesh” Paul also says sin is located in his “members.” The Greek word is usually used as a generic term for “body parts.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus said it is better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell, he calls the eye a “member.” He also calls a right hand a “member.” James calls the tongue a member of the body.

So, sin does not live any more in what we call our “(figurative) hearts”. It certainly does not live in our spirit. It camps out in our bodies. Let’s not forget that the brain is part of the body. Our brains are usually the main problem. So the problem is not that we have two natures. The problem is that we inhabit sinful bodies, with sinful brains. In fact, Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 7:24 (which you just read):

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24, ESV)

What are some important things we know about bodies? First, we know that human beings are more than our bodies. Our physical appearance is not the real us. It is, in fact, one of the most shallow things about the true people that we are in our hearts. And that is where sin is located. Sin is not part of your nature anymore than your hair is a part of your nature. Sometimes you have to deal with your hair (or lack thereof). In interacting with others, it is good to maintain a decent appearance. You might fail to get the job you are supposed to if you show up to the interview with your hair wild and askew. But your hair does not really say anything about the real you.

Now you might be tempted to say: “Well, if I have sin in my brain, that is a real problem, because my brain directs everything I do.” That’s not exactly true. This is a little bit complex, but the truth is often complex. There is a difference between your brain, and your mind. Your brain is a physical organ that operates on electrical-chemical systems. Your mind is your sense of self-awareness. Your mind uses your brain, and is linked to it, but your mind is greater than the physical electrical-chemical processes that occur in the brain. The ideas you have are more than electro-chemical processes. Your thoughts and ideas have existence apart from the physical processes that created them. In addition, your will – your capacity to make decisions and follow through on them – is part of your mind, but not your brain. Yes, your brain does exert influence on your mind (and will). But your mind, and your will are greater than your brain. They will live on when your brain (along with the rest of your body) dies. If you don’t believe that, you are an atheist. Therefore, says our text today, we set our minds upon the Spirit, not the flesh.

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.( Romans 8:5-11, ESV)

Notice that Paul, also, distinguishes between mind and brain (because our brains are part of our flesh).

When we are in Jesus, the sin that was in our souls and spirits has been crucified – killed and done away with. Our minds, too, have been awakened to God. The only sin left in us is found in our physical bodies. When our bodies die, what remains of sin will die with them. Then we will be raised again with new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. But we already have spiritual life, spiritual holiness, as a kind of down-payment of what is coming. The most important part of you – the part of you that you think of as “yourself” has already been crucified with Christ, and raised again in holiness. There is no connection between the “essential you” and sin. If there was, the Holy Spirit could not live in you without destroying you (Since the presence of God destroys sin).

So, let’s find some practical suggestions for setting your mind on the spirit, not the flesh. When you are tempted to sin, try having a little conversation with yourself.

“This is not what the real me wants to do. This is what my corrupted brain and body think will make me happy. But they are wrong. I don’t need to do this, because in Jesus, I am already whole and complete. This sin will not actually help me.”

Or: “You – my sinful body – are dying already, and everything you want leads to death. But the real me doesn’t want to do this. The fact that I don’t want to do this is proof that the most important part of me is already holy in Christ. I am going to act like I am already holy in Christ.”

Remember this: you don’t have to feel like this is true. You merely need to believe that it is true, and then act according to what you believe. We are talking about a mindset, not an emotion. We are talking about continually trusting that what the scripture says is true. You will not feel that continually, but your feelings can go jump in a lake.

Think about it like this. Have you ever met someone who felt things that are not true? Of course. Many people feel unloved even when they are deeply loved by others. Many people feel worthless when their friends and family value them greatly. Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. God’s Word is. When you believe what God has done for you, it ultimately changes everything.  We will talk more specifics next time.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #6. TRULY FREE TO LOVE.

Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya on Pexels.com

God’s grace is so outrageous that we are totally freed from sin. Often, we think we are in a cycle that goes something like this: God makes us clean, and then we get dirty again, and so God makes us clean again, and then we get dirty again…and so on. But that is not what the Bible describes at all. We have been made clean once and for all. The sins we commit now don’t “count” against us at all.
This naturally leads to a question: Does this mean we can sin all we want with no consequence?  Not exactly. After we become Christians, the consequence of sinning is that we injure our relationship with God. It drives a wedge between us. Sin is not a problem of breaking laws any more, but it does reveal that we haven’t fully loved God, or fully trusted what he has done for us. The more we believe that God has truly separated us from our sins, and the more we learn to love God, the less we will want to sin, and the less sinning we will actually do.

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 Living Crucified Part 6

Living Crucified #6. Romans 6:1 – 7:6

Let’s recap what we have been learning so far in this sermon series. We began by revisiting what it means to be a Christian in the first place: we repent (that is, turn away) from our sins, and trust God (not our own efforts) to save us through Jesus Christ. Next we looked at the nature of reality: there is our visible, physical reality. In this visible reality, things change. Some things begin, and then later end. People grow older. Everything, sooner or later, decays. Time moves from beginning to end. There is also another part to reality that is harder to grasp. This is the spiritual realm, which we cannot physically see. The spiritual realm is a powerful part of reality, and there, the glory and power of God is fully present. The spiritual realm does not break-down, or end. It lasts eternally. What exists in the spiritual realm is more lasting, more potent, than what occurs in the physical.

After learning about the two realms, we looked at the example of  Elijah, who learned that true, lasting life could only be found in the spiritual realm. Life in the physical has ups and downs. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not, but Elijah could not rely on what happens in the physical. God spoke to him in the spiritual realm, and he learned to draw life from there. Then we saw Leah, who learned the practical lesson of how to draw on that spiritual, eternal life: by putting what God says after the “but.”

After that, we considered something specific that God says: and that is the we (who have trusted Jesus) have been crucified with Christ. That means we are dead to sin, and dead in the eyes of any law that would condemn us. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last time I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.

The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no longer apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.

In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

Imagine I was serving a life-sentence for murder. When I die, the life-sentence is over. That’s all the law can require. If I were to somehow be raised to life again, I wouldn’t have to be in prison any more, because I am dead in relationship to the law that once applied to me. In fact, according to the law (which does not recognize the possibility of resurrection) I remain dead. So whatever I do now has no relationship to any laws. In fact, if I died, and then returned, I could do anything I want, without fear from any laws, because laws do not apply to dead people.

Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? One way you can know that we are interpreting these scriptures correctly is that Paul, also, anticipates that this question will arise (Romans 6:1, and 6;15). Stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE message I am about to give.

Technically, the answer is: Yes. Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.

Imagine I steal something. Someone comes to me and says: “That’s against God’s moral law.”

I could rightly reply: “But I’m dead to that law. That law applied to the old Tom. The old Tom is dead. Punish that dead Tom, if you can, but the law doesn’t apply to me.” Technically, I would be correct.

Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. If you sin, it is counted against the old you, the dead you. That “you” has already been punished for sin – in fact that “you” was executed for sin. Sin has no relationship with the new you. The law has no relationship with the new you.

 That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creations, we are holy, we are blameless in God’s sight, and so on.

I think a lot of people misunderstand this concept. They think of it like this: “God wiped away all my sins, and gave me a clean slate, a chance to start again. Now, I messed up the clean slate already, so he has to wipe it clean again, and I’ll try harder this time.” This cycle gets repeated over and over again. Listen carefully, brothers and sisters: that is not how it is.

All of the sins you commit now don’t count against the new you. There is only one clean slate, and it always stays clean. The sinful you has been crucified. The sins you commit now don’t count against you. They’ve already been nailed to the cross (even the ones you will do tomorrow).

You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.

I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. Although our salvation is accomplished once, for all, our trusting is an ongoing process.

This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us. It’s not working hard. It is trusting; it is putting what God says over the many “buts” that arise throughout each day. It is putting God’s word above outward appearances. It is trusting that what God did in the spiritual realm will work its way out into the physical.

Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner. You act as you believe. When you really believe what the scripture says: that in Christ, you have been made holy – you will begin to act holy. Holiness, by the way, is not at all like “holier-than-thou.” When you meet someone living out of the holiness of Christ, they are kind, and humble and loving, and somehow also pure and good. Not perfect, but they look a lot like Jesus.

If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.

When you believe what the Bible says – that there is no relationship between you and sin, that you have died to sin and to the law, that you are free – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.

Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”

One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”

Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. Even though he was free to be selfish without consequences, he found it is all meaningless and useless. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.

But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he saves the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.

I suggest that if you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved ones, and toward things that are good and right and noble.

Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.

Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I refrain from those things because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.

This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.

Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman whose husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:

 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.

If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then you are still trying to live by rules. You are looking for a rule about how many rules you can break. You are still living by law, not by grace. If this message leads you to be happy that you can get away with sinning all the time, then I think your relationship with God is on rocky ground.

So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. But it isn’t a law problem, it’s a love problem. Cheating on your spouse shows that you don’t love him/her enough to die to your own temptations and desires.

So, when we sin, it isn’t a law problem, it is a love problem, and a trust problem. We sin because we don’t really believe God when he says he has crucified us with Christ, and made us holy, and alive for Him. We sin because we want what we want more than we love God. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him. The answer is not “obey better.” The answer is “trust more,” and when we trust Him, we learn to love him more, and when we love him more, our behavior changes.

I don’t like it when I hurt Kari’s feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.

In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.

Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is a very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.

But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you want to injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.

We don’t fight sin by trying to be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.

Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: YOU’RE DEAD!

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

What we believe determines how we act. If we want to change our behavior, we must start with changing what we believe, what we trust. The scripture calls us to believe that when we receive Jesus, not only did he die for our sins, but he also immersed us into his own crucifixion, so that in a spiritual sense, we were crucified with Christ. This means we are now dead to sin, and alive to God. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but we need to put God’s word after the “but.” Read on to learn more.

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 Living Crucified Part 5

LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: LIVING DEAD

As a teacher of God’s word, I am usually aiming toward one primary goal: that is, to strengthen and encourage your faith. That may seem fairly obvious, but I want you to think about it a moment. Why is faith so important? Isn’t faith kind of esoteric, and “out there?” Isn’t it, after all, not very practical? I disagree.

Almost everything we think and do proceeds from what we believe. When I buy groceries, I have faith that the food meets some quality standards: that it is not poisoned, and it is not going to make me sick. Based upon that faith, I take action – I buy the food, cook it, and eat it. When I eat, I am living out my faith. The same is true of the water I drink. Every time I drive, I am living out my faith. I do not really understand how my car works, but I have faith that it does, and that faith leads me to the action of driving my car. I don’t really know how the internet works, but I have faith that it does, and that faith leads me to post these messages.

Even most things that we think of as objectively proven, we take on faith. For instance, nuclear fission (the process used to create nuclear energy, including nuclear bombs). I have not personally verified the nuclear fission reaction through my own calculations. I have not stood by and watched while it has been demonstrated to me. I believe (that is, I have faith) that other people have done the science, and actually observed the results. But even though some people have actually verified nuclear fission, most of us take it on faith. We haven’t actually verified for ourselves. This is even true of historical events in which we all believe. I believe that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. But I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it happen. I bet no one reading this actually saw it with their own eyes. While we think of such things as established, objective facts, we actually only “know” these things by faith.

We human beings could not exist if we only acted when we knew for certain everything that is involved in our actions. We couldn’t eat, or drink without faith. We couldn’t do business, use machinery or technology. We couldn’t engage in meaningful relationships without faith.

I want to point out two things about this. First, faith is indispensable. We operate on faith of some sort every single day; we simply couldn’t live without it. Second, because we live our lives based upon faith, our lives are profoundly affected by what we believe.

Some of you know the story of the “four minute mile.” For the first hundred years of keeping records of human races, no one was able to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was widely believed that this was the limit of human ability. Then, in May of 1953, Roger Bannister came close. He began to believe he could do it. A year later, Bannister did, in fact, run a mile in less than four minutes. Now, everyone believed that humans could a run mile in less than four minutes. Once Bannister proved it could be done, everything changed. Bannister’s record was broken only 46 days later. Within the next decade, five more people ran a sub-four-minute mile. Sixty years later, almost 900 people had done it.

Now you could probably make a case for nutrition and a more sports-oriented culture to explain some of this. But I personally believe that the biggest difference between the first hundred years of records, and the last sixty, is that now people believe it can be done.

Your belief affects how you act, what you attempt, and what you achieve.This is indisputably true about our physical lives, our life in the realm of the seen, temporary reality. Just take the weather as an example. If you believe that a storm is coming, you will take shelter. If you believe it will rain, you carry an umbrella. If you believe it will be nice, you’ll go fishing (at least, any sane person would 😊). What you believe determines how you act.

 When it comes to the unseen, eternal, spiritual reality, faith is even more powerful. However, sometimes we have not learned this lesson, or we forget it. So often, when we are trying to follow Jesus, and live as is right for people who belong to Him, we begin by trying to change our behavior. We want to be more Christ-like, and so we make a big effort to behave better. It takes a lot of energy and self-discipline. We work hard to try and be more kind and loving. We try to remember to control how we speak to and about others. We try to make ourselves stop sinning.

Now, when we do this, I believe our intentions are good. But it often doesn’t work out very well. Even those who do seem to succeed in making themselves more Christ-like through sheer will-power eventually become proud and legalistic, and then they are no longer Christ-like again.

The Bible does teach us that Christians ought to behave in certain ways, and refrain from other behaviors. But so many Christians do not realize how this change in behavior is actually supposed to come about. In fact, I would guess that most Christians do not understand the process that changes a loud-mouthed braggart into a humble, loving servant; or a lustful person who wants to have sex with virtually anyone, to someone who joyfully submits to God’s design for sexuality.

Here’s the secret: It begins with faith. If you want to change your behavior, the only way to really do it is to change what you believe. (Of course, it is not supposed to be secret.)

If you want to begin to live as Jesus wants you live, let’s start not with living, but dying. Here’s the first belief to accept: You are dead to sin. According to scripture, when you receive Jesus, you are crucified with him, and that “co-crucifixion” broke your connection to sin:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7, ESV)
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..  (Rom 6:2-4 ESV)
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11)
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4)
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6)
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ. (Gal 2:19-20, ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations (Col 2:20, ESV)
The saying is trustworthy, for: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​If we have died with him, we will also live with him; ​​​ (2 Tim 2:11, ESV)
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness (1 Pet 2:24, HCSB)
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:14-17, ESV)

According to the bible, Jesus was crucified for your sins. But there’s more. We were also crucified, with Christ. In Jesus Christ, you have died in such a way that the connection between you and sin is broken. Paul says we are dead to the law. Think about it. There are no laws for dead people. A dead person is beyond the law. Imagine you committed a horrible crime, and you were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, once you die, your sentence is over. They bury you in the prison graveyard, and you are done.  Once you are dead, the law can require nothing more from you. Paul says “You are released from the law. You died to what held you captive.”

In the same way, we are dead to sin: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We need  to go forward from this point believing that in Jesus Christ, we have died to sin, and to the law that keeps us on the hook for sins we commit. The connection between us and sin, us and the law is so thoroughly broken, it is like trying to get a dead person to keep serving a prison sentence. It’s over. It’s a fish and  the concept of liberty. There is no connection.

I spent years trying hard to make myself behave better. I thought my old self was still alive. I thought I still had some deep internal connection to sin. And so I kept trying to reform myself, and always failing  Finally, I saw that God doesn’t try to reform the old Tom. Instead, he killed him, along with Jesus on the cross. In Jesus, the new Tom – at least the spirit of the new Tom – has already been raised. And there is no connection between that new Tom and sin. When I began to really believe that – that I am truly dead to sin – I began to sin less.

Do you believe that your old self is dead and buried with Christ through his death? Do you believe that you are dead to sin? Do believe that you are no longer enslaved to sin? Do you believe that the old has passed away and the new has come? Do you count yourself dead to sin but alive to Jesus? The New Testament clearly calls you to believe all of these things. Only when you believe them will your behavior begin to change. Only when you trust them will you begin to experience the freedom and joy that we have in Jesus.

This is the moment when the other messages in this series begin to come together. First (lesson 1) this is for those who have repented from their sin, and turned to Jesus toward Jesus alone for hope and salvation. It is not about everyone, but specifically about those who have done that. Next, we remember the two aspects of reality: the eternal, spiritual reality (“above the line,” or, “outside the book”) and the physical, temporary, seen reality, (“below the line,” or “inside the story of the book”). This business of being crucified with Christ is clearly not in the seen, physical, temporary reality. My physical body did not hang on a cross. My body was not whipped, nor beaten, nor stabbed. So, in order to understand this, we start by recognizing that we are talking about eternal, unseen, spiritual truth.

Next, we remember where to find life, and how to practice receiving that life. In this case, we would say something like this: “I don’t feel like I have been crucified. I don’t feel like I am dead to sin, or free from sin. BUT the bible says this is true. I will choose to believe that what the bible says is bigger, and more important than my own experience. I will look for life in eternal, spiritual things, not in physical things that will pass away. Therefore, I will believe what the scripture says.”

Think about it like this: If you believe that you are basically just a sinner, barely saved by God’s grace, you will act like a sinner. If you think you are half-sinner, half-Christian, you will sin half the time (at least). But if you believe that God has made you holy in your inmost being, you will begin to act holy. You act according to what you believe.

You might be tempted to say: “I don’t believe that I am dead to sin, because I still act like a sinner.” I challenge you to turn this around to reflect spiritual reality. Here’s the truth, according to the bible: “I still act like a sinner because I don’t believe I am dead to sin.”

Remember this is talking about the spiritual realm, the realm that will never pass away. The spiritual, unseen realm is greater than the “physical realm” in which we eat, drink and sleep. So the bible clearly teaches that in the most essential part of you, the part of you that will never die (your spirit) you are dead to sin, and alive to Christ. In the deepest part of your being, you died to sin. In that place, there is no connection between you and sin.

I want to give you an example of “the deepest part of you,” or the “essence of you” not being a sinner:

Suppose you come over to our house for  a meal. You volunteer to help my wife, Kari, get things ready in the kitchen. While working, you slip on some blueberries that someone had dropped on the floor, and failed to clean up. You almost fall, but catch yourself in time. You say something light and fun, like, “Whoops! I almost got clobbered by those blueberries!”

Kari turns to you and snaps: “I’m sure you keep your own kitchen perfect and sparkling clean, and no one ever drops food on the floor in your house. I don’t need any more help, thank you. Why don’t you go in the other room for a while.”

Is it possible that Kari could behave like that? Of course, it could happen. But if you described that situation to me, or someone else who knows her well, we would say something like this: “I’m sorry that happened to you. But I want you to know, that’s not what she’s really like at all. She must have been having a bad day, because that’s just not Kari.”

And it’s true. Kari could behave like that once in a while. But that’s really not what she’s like at all. She’s not perfect, but she is almost never sins like that – being sarcastic or mean. It’s really not “her” to be like that. It is out of character, when you think about who she really is.

This is the situation with us, now that we are dead to sin. We might still sin, and I’ll talk about that more in the coming weeks. But the essence of who we are is dead to sin. Therefore when we sin, we can say: Obviously, that happened. But that’s just not “me” anymore. It doesn’t reflect my real character, the deepest part of my being.

We need to believe that when God says we died with Christ, we really did die.

I killed a snake one time. I blew it in half with a shotgun. The snake was dead, there was absolutely no question about that. There was a the head, with a little piece of neck, and there was the body, completely separate. But the mouth kept opening and closing like it was trying to bite something. The body twisted and coiled and uncoiled for ten or fifteen minutes afterward.

All that twisting and coiling and movement looked like life – but it wasn’t life. It was merely the death throes. If I was a really dumb veterinarian, I could have wasted time and energy treating the dead snake that acted like it was alive. But there was no life there.

Our old person can sometimes act as if it is still alive. We still get the impulses and signals that seem to show that our old self is alive and well. But this is nothing but death throes. There is no life there. If we work to try and kill it again, or try and reform it, we are wasting time and energy in a futile exercise.

Paul says, “don’t gratify the flesh.” Our old body is rotting in the prison graveyard. We don’t have to follow the prison rules any more. We don’t have to try and make up for the laws we broke before. Satan is the one who comes to you and says: “see all the twisting and turning and activity? You have a sinful nature and it is alive and well.” But the Bible never says anywhere that our old self got un-crucified. It never says that it is possible to be only partly-crucified with Christ. It never suggests that the old nature got resurrected. It is a lie of the devil. He’s trying to get you to live as if you are still alive, back in the prison of your sinful self.

Here’s the thing: he can’t put you back in prison. But if you don’t believe what God says – if you don’t put God’s word after the but – the devil and your flesh can trick you into living as if you were still in prison.

Now, I will talk next week more about this struggle with the devil and the flesh, and how it all fits together. But for this week I am calling you to faith. I am asking you to believe that what God says is really true:

In Christ, you have already died. In Christ you are not sinful. You are not divided into good and evil. You are holy and blameless and without reproach.

Yes sin in your flesh is still writhing around in its death throes. But it is already dead. Pay it no mind. Instead fix your eyes on Jesus, put your focus on the unseen and eternal truth – your old self is dead and your true self is alive in perfection with Jesus.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #4: HEAVENLY BUTS

Photo by Szabu00f3 Viktor on Pexels.com

We tend to say things like: “Today was OK, but I think tomorrow is going to be really hard.” What we really think of as most important, or most powerful, we but after that ‘but.’ Leah was a saint who had a very difficult life. People considered her ugly. Her husband didn’t love her, and it didn’t seem like that would ever change. But (!) she learned to put God’s love after the but. We too, can find incredible life and grace by learning to put eternal truth after the ‘buts’ in our life.

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 Living Crucified Part 4

LIVING CRUCIFIED #4

Genesis 29:16-35

In order to really grab hold of the riches that we have in Jesus Christ, we need to start talking about your buts. We all have buts in life. (All right, insert whatever joke you like here, and then move on). What I mean is, we all say things like this:

Things are going well now, but who knows what will happen in the future?

I know God promises to take care of me, but things aren’t going well right now.

Generally, I have a good marriage, but sometimes he drives me crazy.

I would love to read my bible more, but I just don’t have the time.

I know God has forgiven me, but I still sin, and I don’t always feel forgiven.

There is something I have noticed – we give the most power, the most credibility, to what we put after the but. What we say after the but is what we think is the dominant thing about our reality. The first thing may be some kind of factor, but what we put after the but is more or less the final word on the subject.

What we need to learn, is to put what God says after the but.  You might say, we need “heavenly buts.” [Sorry if that term brought you’re here on an different kind of internet search, but since you’re here, why not keep reading?] Putting God’s word after the but is an act of will, but before that even, it is an act of faith. Much of what we are talking about in this sermon series will not make sense until you agree, as an act of faith, to put God’s Word after the but.

I want us to look at the life of someone in the Bible who learned to do this. She is one of the least known, least talked-about heroines of faith in the Bible. Her name is Leah. Leah was the  daughter of a man named Laban. Her story picks up in Genesis chapter 29. One day their cousin Jacob, whom they had never met, came from a far country. Jacob ended up working for his uncle Laban (Leah’s father). Laban asked Jacob how he should be paid for his work. At this point, the scripture says something about the two young women:

17 Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. (Genesis 29:17, ESV)

We don’t know exactly what it means when it says Leah had “weak eyes.” It seems to be a somewhat unique expression. It might even mean she was hard to look at, sort of the opposite of “she’s easy on the eyes.” In any case, we are given a comparison so that the point is very clear: Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Whatever Leah was, it was not beautiful. Did you notice the “but” there? What a powerful but! “My sister has a beautiful face and figure, but I have weak eyes.” It was probably one of the dominant “buts” in Leah’s life.

This isn’t a fairy tale, or a animated show about ogres. Jacob fell in love with the beautiful one, not the ugly one. That’s generally the way the world works. So, he told his uncle he would work for seven years as a dowry in order to marry Rachel, (the beautiful sister) and Laban agreed. 

Only, when the time came, Laban tricked Jacob.  Brides in those days were heavily veiled, and the wedding took place at night – and there was no electricity. And (let’s be honest) there was drinking.  So Laban gave his older daughter, Leah, in marriage to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t find out until the light of the next morning. Jacob was understandably angry and disappointed. Laban, the father of the women, made some excuse about how there was a custom that the older daughter had to be married first, before a younger sister could get married. Then he said:

27 “But wait until the bridal week is over; then we’ll give you Rachel, too—provided you promise to work another seven years for me.”
28 So Jacob agreed to work seven more years. A week after Jacob had married Leah, Laban gave him Rachel, too. (Genesis 29:26-28, NLT)

Now, think about this. Suppose Laban was not lying about the custom. What did this imply? That no one else had wanted to marry Leah. She was so unattractive that her father had to trick someone into marrying her. Obviously, her father did not expect that anyone ever would ask to marry her. Leah almost certainly knew all of this. It says she was ugly, not stupid. So she had to live with that knowledge. Not only that, but she got to be the bride for only one week before her husband married her beautiful sister, the one he had always wanted in the first place.

Naturally, Jacob favored Rachel. He loved her, not Leah. Leah’s only consolation was that she had children fairly easily, while Rachel went for a long time with none. When Leah’s first son (Reuben) was born, she said, “The Lord has seen my affliction; surely my husband will love me now (Genesis 29:32).” Notice that her focus was on her unhappy situation, and she hopes the fact that she bore him the first child will change it. Applying this to the concepts we have been talking about, Leah was focused on things “below the line,” in the seen, temporary realm.

When her second son (Simeon) came along she said, “The Lord heard I was unloved, and gave me this son also (Genesis 29:33).” Still, her dominant reality is that Jacob doesn’t love her. After her third son was born, she was still focused on her struggles, saying, “at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34).”

Now we know that it takes nine months to make a baby. There was no birth control in those days, but in general, when a woman is breastfeeding, that sometimes helps prevent pregnancy. Back in those days, children were probably breastfed pretty consistently for at least a year. So it is reasonable to assume at least two years between each child. When you throw in the fact that Jacob had another wife, and everything that was involved in the family dynamics, it may have been more like three years, or even more between children. So Leah went at least six years, and maybe as long as ten or twelve, while the dominant fact in her life was that her husband did not love her.

But (notice the but) by the time her fourth son arrives, something has changed.  There is no evidence that Jacob ever changed his attitude very much toward her.  Reasonably, at least eight years might have passed by this point, perhaps as many as twelve or even more.  Say, a decade; ten long years of realizing her marriage will never be what she dreamed it might be.  But listen to what she says when this fourth son, Judah, is born: “This time, I will praise the Lord (29:35).”

Leah is no longer fixated on what she lacks in her life.  She isn’t trying to get Jacob to change anymore.  She isn’t focused on the seen, temporary world, the “below the line” reality. Instead, her focus is on the Lord, and his love and favor for her.  Her struggle had been with God and with her husband.  But when she gave birth to Judah, she has given up the fight – in a positive way.  Her troubles have led her to a place where she looks to God to meet her needs, and can receive his love and mercy with joy and thankfulness.  I’m sure that Leah still struggled.  I think it is only reasonable to assume that emotionally, her situation never changed much. Certainly, the Bible never records that Jacob changed his attitude toward her. But she came to the point where the dominant thing in her life was not her struggle, or her unfilled needs, but rather, God’s awesome love for her.

Genesis 29:31 says that when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. In other words, the Lord was the one who gave Leah these children; and even more, he gave them to her because he saw that her husband did not love her. Now, at first, her response was basically this: “Good! This child will change my situation. This child will make my husband love me.” But think about it. God gave the children to Leah, not as tools to coerce Jacob’s love – the Lord gave Leah children because the Lord loved her. He was showing her that regardless of what Jacob thought of her, He loved her. She was not unloved. At first she missed the point. She was still putting Jacob’s lack of love after the but. Finally however, she got it. When Judah was born, she praised the Lord. She finally saw that these children would not make her loved – they showed her that she was already loved.

Sometimes when we pray, God changes our situation, and makes it better.  Sometimes, he leaves us in the same circumstances. When he does that, his desire is that our lives can be so filled with him, that the negative aspects of our situation pale in comparison.  When Kari and I first started dating, I was in a job situation that I didn’t like, living in a city I didn’t care for, with few real friends nearby.  I remember sitting in a meeting at work, filled with joy.  I wasn’t joyful because I was in the meeting. I wasn’t joyful because I liked where I was living, or because I was making much money, or that I liked my work. None of those things were true. But I was joyful because I knew that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, Kari loved me.

Now, I don’t mean to be negative, but the kind of joy that came when I first knew that Kari loved me, does not sustain me in the same way thirty years later. We still love each other. It is still an enormous thing in my life that Kari loves me. But no human being has the power to fill you with joy consistently for a long period of time. Only God’s love is that strong. His love can change everything without changing one bit of our circumstances.

I think that was the kind of place Leah finally reached. Jacob still didn’t love her. He probably never would. But God did, and the fact that God loved her was more important than the fact that her husband did not.

This is the key to “Living after the But.” Remember, whatever you put after “but” is the dominant reality to you.  For many years, Leah probably said something like this: “I know God loves me, but my husband does not. I’m just a third wheel.”  Finally, after the birth of Judah, she started thinking this way: “I know Jacob never wanted to marry me.  He may never love me the way I want him to. But God loves me and cares for me.”  The only thing that really changed for Leah is which thing she put after the “But.”  However, I think it transformed everything for her.

Now, I want to make sure you do hear this correctly. I’m not trying to create a rule for you to follow. “I must always put the correct thing after the but.” Instead this is an invitation for you to dive into God’s grace. There is an everlasting well of the water of life, a cool, clear, beautiful spring of love, joy, beauty and strength. One very helpful way to access that deep well of grace is to put the promises of God after the but. Again, not a rule, but an invitation, a door by which we can access what God is offering us.

Now, I want the Holy Spirit to make this practical for you. What have you been putting after the but? Has your dominant reality been what God says? Or have you given more power and credence to your circumstances, or how you feel, or what your mind tells you logically? Take a moment to think about it. Let the Lord bring to mind what you have reversed right now.

I am not saying that your struggles aren’t real. I am not saying that you aren’t dealing with things that are truly bad, or difficult or wrong. But I am saying that God’s Word is more true, more powerful. It is an act of faith to believe it.

Your dominant reality might be very negative, and very powerful. Leah spent her whole life thinking, “but I’m ugly.” Long years of marriage only added, “and I’m unwanted, and I’ll never get the chance to be with someone who does want me.” That’s powerful stuff.  And it was all true. She never was loved by her husband or anyone else in that way.

 But…BUT – there was another thing that was true. It was true that she was made in the image of God. It was true that God loved her. It was true that God wanted her. She let God’s love become her dominant reality. She let his word be the final word.

So pause for a moment. Think about your own life. What are your struggles? What is bothering you? What is stealing your peace, joy, or love? Now, put the promises of God after the but:

“I’m so upset that my child has gone this direction….but______”

“I feel so anxious and lonely, but _____”

“I want to follow God, and yet I constantly fail, but ______”

“I am so upset about something, but ____”

You get the idea. We need to learn to believe that what God says is more real than what we think or feel. And so, we need to learn what God says. Try reading some of the verses below. Believe that these promises are for you, that God himself loves you!

Zephaniah 3:16-18; Isaiah 43:1-5; Matthew 11:28-30; Matthew 6:31-34; Romans 8:1-39; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; Ephesians 1:1-14; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 4:6-8.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #3: LIFE BEYOND THE LINE

Photo by Gabriel Peter on Pexels.com

Elijah was a great prophet, and God did amazing things through him. Yet, like many of us, Elijah fell into deep despair when things didn’t go well. God taught him that real life is not found in external things, in things that can be seen and touched. God’s life is not present just because things going well, and His life is not absent when things are bad. Like Elijah, we need to find the life that Jesus promised, the life that is always present, like a never ending spring of water welling up from our spirits.

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 Living Crucified Part 3

LIVING CRUCIFIED #3.

1 Kings 19:1-13; Hebrews 4:15; John 4:12-14; John 6:35; John 6:63; Luke 11:9-13

Last time the message might have been a little heavy on intellectual concepts and light on stuff we could “sink our teeth into.” But my purpose in discussing all of it was actually to improve your “teeth” so that when you do have something to “bite into,” you bite further and deeper. Christianity is an entire way of looking at the world, and an important part of that world-view is the concept of eternal, spiritual reality as well as immediate, physical reality. Another important part is the understanding of human beings as having bodies, souls and spirits. Our spirits can access the eternal, spiritual reality. We need this knowledge to understand the Bible properly.

This time, we’ll put this altogether with a practical example from the life of Elijah the prophet. I believe (and hope and pray) that this message will be practical and meaningful for you, and even more so if you have some understanding of the concepts we covered last time. I have preached this message a few times in different places, so I apologize if you’ve heard it before. And yet, I trust that the Lord will use it to continue to do good things in you.

There is a story from the Old Testament that has always fascinated me. It’s about the prophet Elijah. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. The prediction came true. And yet the king and queen did not repent, so soon afterwards, Elijah went into hiding for most of the time of the drought.

At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.

Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and a cloud formed, and then a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.

Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.

The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done… ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further until he ended up at Mt. Sinai.

9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10, ESV)

Elijah is saying basically this: “After all I’ve done, after how hard I’ve tried, it’s all coming to nothing. Nothing I can do makes any difference.”

Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about to show Elijah His presence.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:12)

Many translations say, “a still small voice,” in verse 12. But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. A literal translation might be: “a sound, a thin silence.” Another way to translate it would be: “a voice, silent and intangible.” What is a “silent voice?” What is the sound made by “a thin silence.”

There is supposed to be a big contrast between the wind, earthquake and fire on the one hand, and the “silent voice” on the other. The silent voice was God speaking into the spirit of Elijah. It is an example of communication with the eternal world, as opposed to the noise and chaos of the temporary, “seen” world. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.

There was a great wind – strong enough to split rocks. Obviously God’s presence was around, but the heart of God was not in the wind. The same was true of the earthquake and the fire.

Now, why did God do this? Why send the wind and the earthquake and the fire. Did he need to impress Elijah? And why send those things, if that was not really his presence?

I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.

Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing!

But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.

You see what was going on? Remember the two sides to reality: the “seen, temporary” reality that we call the world around us, or the physical world. Then there is the unseen, eternal reality. Elijah was entirely focused on what was going on in the seen/temporary realm, and was almost ignoring the life that was available to him through the spirit.

He was trying to draw a sense of life and wellbeing from what was going on externally, in the visible realm. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.

We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

He says the same thing to us.

And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send his fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.

Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still. The voice of the spirit is often quiet and “thin.”

We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn how to cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense.  Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life or hope from Externals, that is from things in the seen, temporary realm. One reason is this: things in the seen/temporary realm are…temporary. So, right after a miracle, things are great. But it doesn’t last. What Elijah needed to recognize (and what we desperately need to recognize) is that temporary things will always let you down.

We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Even Jesus, in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus  was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). In other words, this is part of the “seen” life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt.

Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – sometimes good, sometimes bad, and none of it lasts – that can be a daunting idea. You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going to live holy again.

The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life and hope and goodness out of our behavior, out of the seen and temporary reality. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.

Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there.  There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.

There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.

One of the problems with living our lives with an external focus, a focus on the seen, temporary world, is that whatever results we get are temporary. Jesus pointed it out to his disciples:

 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  
“Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-7 emphasis added)

He says the same sorts of things about other observances. Notice the contrast – the people who focus on the seen, temporary world, get a seen, temporary reward – that is, they get the result of their behavior here and now on earth. It’s over rather quickly. Those who focus on the unseen spiritual reality get an eternal reward from their Father in heaven. When we live our life from externals, then that’s all we get – the external result. That’s our reward. And that is temporary, not eternal. The Lord says the Spirit is what is most important.

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

It is from the spirit – connected to the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus – that life comes; real life, life that does not change and fluctuate and sometimes desert us. Once we are in Jesus, that life is always there. It is always available, though we often forget it. That is because it doesn’t come from our behavior. We can’t control it by manipulating our circumstances, or even our own actions. It doesn’t come from our thoughts or feelings. It doesn’t come in noise, earthquake and fire and exciting things happening outside of us. It comes from the spirit – a place that Elijah found was still and silent, where the voice of God was a soft whisper.

63 The Spirit is the One who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. (John 6:63, HCSB)

The only way we can access the spirit-life is by believing that what God says is true. We receive it only through faith.

Practically, if you want the real, spirit life, the life that lasts forever, and cannot be changed by time or circumstances, you must seek it in the spirit, and do so in the attitude of faith that says: “I believe God is to be found there, and I believe he wants to give me this life.” He does want to give it to us, you know:

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again.” (John 6:35)

That promise cannot be true in the visible, temporary world. Everyone experiences hunger and thirst every day. But Jesus was making a promise about eternal, spiritual reality. It is in the spirit where we can be fully satisfied, always and forever. It is in the spirit that we find the nourishment to sustain eternal life.

Seek it through the bible. Seek it in sitting quietly, in God’s presence, waiting. Every time you catch your mind wandering, just softly whisper the name of Jesus to bring you back. Don’t worry if your mind continually wanders. When you catch yourself, just come back to Jesus with his name. Seek the life in beauty, goodness, truth and joy, whenever you encounter them. Listen for the quiet voice that is not the voice of the world, not the loudness that is everywhere, but is in the spirit.

The life is not in your behavior. It is not in your thoughts and feelings. It is in Jesus, and the only way to get it is to believe he offers it to you.

Sometimes it can seem sort of vague, or esoteric, this listening to the soft whisper of God in the spirit. I recommend that you start by asking God to help you find him there. This is a prayer he loves to answer:

9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13, ESV)

Ask him and then actively listen for his soft, silent voice in the spirit. As you practice, it will eventually become easier, and more natural. When Jesus encountered a woman at a well one time, during their conversation he said something. Hear the promise in his words, and trust that he will deliver it you:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14, ESV)

Believe the promise. Receive the promise as you thank him for it.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #1: THE PATH TO JOY BEGINS WITH BAD NEWS.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

The beginning of the Christian life is turning away from sin and toward God (this is called “repentance”). Sometimes we fail to receive the wonder and joy of God’s grace because we have not actually repented. We are called to despair of our own efforts to make ourselves (or the world) better, and turn to God alone for hope and salvation. Only then can we be changed. When we do that, and only then, we can begin to receive the stunning riches of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gate, through which we all must walk, the lifeboat that is our only hope of being saved from drowning.

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 Living Crucified Part 1

During the past year or so, I have noticed that many people in our house-churches seem to be struggling with a deep tension in the life of following Jesus. We are told that everything is by God’s grace. And yet we are told that we shouldn’t sin. We are told that we are new creatures, created in Christ Jesus – and yet we still act like the old creatures, frequently sinning and failing.

The tension that this creates is actually very important. We need to pay attention to it, because it will lead us to some wonderful, amazing truths that will affect every area of our lives.

Our new sermon series is about all that.

As we revisit the riches of the gospel, you may (or may not) recognize some ideas, stories and concepts that I introduced more than ten years ago now, in the sermon series: Living Life in Reverse. Those truths are powerful and practical. I think it is worth revisiting them. So, in a way, this is an updated and expanded version of the original “Living Life in Reverse.” If you want a series title, we could try: “Living Life in Reverse – Again.”

When I did the series the first time, there were a few things which I left out. So, I want to start with very beginning of the Christian life, which is, repentance and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

It has been on my mind lately that Christians, in the 21st century Western world, have a very different way of reaching people for Jesus than the Christians of the New Testament. We typically reach out to non-believers with the following basic message:

“God loves you, so much. He really wants you to experience his grace and joy. He is the missing piece of your life. He heals your brokenness and forgives your failures. Come and experience his love.”

Now, that message is good, but it is only half the message that was preached by most Christians throughout history. Here’s the way Jesus himself preached. He taught his disciples to do the same.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31, ESV)

20 I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21, ESV)

In the verses above, I have italicized the word repentance so you see my point more quickly. You do see it, right? Repentance is an essential part of the gospel. It is the beginning, and it is necessary if we are to receive the gospel.

You see, I believe many people think the gospel is essentially just: “God loves you.” And they hear this, and look up, and think, “Oh, that’s cool. How sweet of him.” And then they go back to whatever they were doing.

Maybe some churches put it a little more forcefully. “God loves you. But if you want to benefit from this love, you need to walk down in front here, say a prayer, and then get baptized.” This is a bit more inconvenient, so not as many people respond positively. And yet, after all, it’s just something you need to do, like going to the DMV, or paying taxes. So, a lot of people take the time out of their lives to go to church for a while, take the deep breath, and then do the God-transaction. Then, they can get back to their lives. Maybe they think it’s like joining a political party. They are now “registered Christians.”

Think about it for a moment. “God loves you,” is not that big of a deal until and unless you feel in need of that love. Scripture tells us that we are desperately in need of his love and mercy. Without the love and grace of God you are utterly lost. You are already dead, spiritually. You are in the process of dying physically; every second brings you closer to the moment of your death. And your soul (where “you” are) is slowly withering, utterly committed to self above all. Even when you do “unselfish” things, it is to benefit your own sense of self-esteem. At the same time, we find ways to justify so many of our selfish desires and actions. (By the way, if I just made you mad with all that, think about why). Yes, your soul, too, is on a long slow decline to eternal frustration and self-hatred.

This is the beginning of the gospel: you are dead in your sins, slave to self, and the things that tempt you, manipulated by spiritual forces of evil, though you don’t realize it. You are infected with a deadly disease that is gradually destroying every part of you. The Bible calls that disease “sin,” and it really means “all that is in conflict with the character of God.”

The human race, in all recorded history, has improved technologically, but not much morally. Thousands of years ago, human beings were greedy, cheating each other, lying, hurting one another, oppressing the weak, and engaging in bloody wars and violence. Isn’t it good that we’re so much better now? Oh, wait. Never mind. Just read a few news sites, and you’ll be convinced that there is something deeply flawed and wrong with humanity in general. The same thing that is wrong with humanity is also wrong with you and me.

Now, a lot of people look at themselves, and think “Gee, I don’t think I’m that bad. I’ve never stolen anything, for instance.” The bible asks: But have you ever been greedy? Ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to want? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

We might say, “Well, I’ve never committed adultery.” But have you ever imagined it? Have you ever wanted to? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

“I’ve never lied.” But have you ever gossiped? Ever said hurtful words, or malicious things? Ever been hurtfully sarcastic? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

If you have the courage to be honest with yourself, you know that within you is a deep well of awful muck, of self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to have what you want, no matter the consequences.

The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God

Now, let’s put this together. Everything that is good, awe-inspiring, encouraging, beautiful, glorious, true and loving originates with God. Some things may come directly from God, like a sense of his love, or the words of scripture. Other things may be several generations “removed” from their origin in God, like, for instance, beautiful music, or a lovely painting, or awe-inspiring landscape, but it all begins with him. The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God. Even people who do not know him are affected by him nonetheless, and anyone at all might be used, even unknowingly, to reflect a small piece of God to the world.

But God is so profoundly good, so holy, and so completely powerful, that his very presence destroys anything that is not perfectly good. Bring the tiniest bit of sin into the presence of God, and it is destroyed.

When you combine pure sodium with water, the result is a spectacularly violent reaction. Google it sometime, and watch the video results. There is a similar reaction when sin comes into the presence of God. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. It is violently destroyed.

18 Then Moses said, “Please, let me see Your glory.”
19 He said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” 21 The LORD said, “Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23, HCSB)

God was pleased with Moses, and very gracious to him. But he could not allow Moses to “see his face,” which means, in that culture, to be fully in his presence. Later on, when Moses was reminding the people of their first encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he said this:

4 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. (Deuteronomy 5:24-28, ESV)

The people did not see God’s face, but they were close enough to him to be terrified that his holiness would destroy them. And God said, “That’s right. No one can come too close.”

Now, if God is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, and if the presence of God destroys all that is not perfectly aligned with God’s character, and we are infected with sin (the antithesis of God’s character) we have a problem. If we come into God’s presence we will be annihilated. If we don’t come to him, eventually, we will be further and further separated from all truth, beauty, joy and goodness. We will end up gnawing away at our own souls, bitter, withered, pathetic, hating ourselves, but utterly alone. Complete separation from God is sometimes called “hell,” and that is where we are all headed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our efforts to stop the slide into self-destruction are pathetic, and in fact, they end up being nothing more than additional manifestations of our twisted and flawed natures.

This is the starting point. Until we face this reality, we have not begun. Until we recognize this reality, there is no hope for us.

You might say, “But Tom, I thought you just said there was no hope anyway. You said an essential thing to recognize is we cannot do anything about it.”

I did, and it is. There is no hope from within humanity in general, or from your friends and family. There is no hope from within your own corrupted body or soul. No hope from your dead spirit.

That is why Jesus entered the world. When he came, he said two things. First: Repent! That means recognizing the truth I just told about our own sin and the pointlessness of our own efforts. To repent means to earnestly desire to turn away from sin, and toward God. It means also that we genuinely give up on the idea that we can help ourselves. We have no hope within ourselves, but we turn toward God in our need, recognizing our own helplessness and hopelessness. In a way, we cannot even do this on our own. The Spirit of God has to empower us to repent. That’s why I’m giving this message: to allow you to hear the Word, and through the Holy Spirit, believe it and repent.

The second part of what Jesus said was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In some ways, he was being a little bit coy, since he hadn’t yet completed his mission. But after he had died and risen, he gave his apostles the full message. Peter put it like this:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40, ESV)

Being baptized does mean the physical act, but the literal meaning of the word is immersed. We are to be immersed in Christ. Baptism also means you are leaving one realm, and entering a new one. You are leaving behind the world, the devil and your sinful flesh, and entering the kingdom of God. Paul described it in terms of repentance toward God (that is, turning away from sin, and self, and toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21, quoted earlier).

You might wonder, “But if I am a sinner, and God’s presence destroys sin, how does this help?” That’s a great question. In some ways, the answer takes a lifetime to unpack, but here’s the short version:

God’s intention is to destroy all sin. In doing that, it will be necessary to destroy all sinners, also. So he chose to find a way to make sinners into “not sinners.” He sent Jesus into the world to combine his God-nature with human-nature. Jesus was perfect, because of his God-nature. Because of his human-nature, he became an appropriate vessel to do the job. All sin was placed upon Jesus (which could be done, because of his human nature), and destroyed by his suffering on earth, death on the cross, and descent into hell. Only Jesus, with his eternal God-nature, could survive this. So now, all sin – even the sins of those who lived before Jesus, and sins yet to be committed – has now been punished, and paid for:

1 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)

The way to take hold of this forgiveness, this cleansing of sin, is through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust him, and what he has done. And we entrust our entire lives into his care. We immerse ourselves in Jesus, and in his kingdom. Those who reject this are, in essence, saying, “No, we want to continue to sin.” Or, if not: “We believe we can get our salvation some other way.” Those who reject Jesus, who do not trust in him, have rejected the only lifeboat in the ocean. They would be welcome on board, but if they want to wait for some other boat they like better, they will drown.

 But faith turns away from sin, receives what God has done, and entrusts all of life into the hands of God through Jesus Christ. When we do that, God makes our spirit, which was dead to him because of sin, come alive. Through the spirit, he pours grace, love, truth, beauty, goodness and joy into our souls.

This is the starting gate. Everyone must enter through this gate, or remain separated from God forever. Jesus put it like this:

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

If you have never done so, I invite you to believe God’s Word. Repent of your sins, turning away from them, and to God. Entrust your entire life to Jesus. Come alive to God in the spiritual realm.

Now, I am sure that many of you who follow this blog have already entered through this gate. But if you have, you understand how important it is that everyone recognizes these truths, repents, and enters through Jesus.

I myself am using this message to renew my repentance from sins. It can become easy, once we have trusted Jesus and received the grace of God, to forget the deadly and awful nature of sin. Let this message remind you to never make peace with sin. Let it also remind you of the incredible truth, love, joy, beauty and goodness of God, and remind you that all of that is available to us through Jesus Christ.

Let the Spirit keep speaking to you now!

Jonah #6: THE BIBLICAL GOD IS FOR ALL PEOPLE

God called Jonah to recognize that God is for all human beings, not just Israelites. So, he calls us, too, to recognize that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ will not look like us, or even speak the same language. Not everyone is willing to repent and receive God’s forgiveness, but God wants to give the opportunity to ALL people, and he wants us to be on board with that.

The motivation is that God was gracious to us, and saved us when we didn’t deserve it. Not only that, but almost all Christians today are saved because, at some point, people from other cultures and ethnicities reached out to people like us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Jonah Part 6

Please read the whole of Jonah 4:1-11.

For the first part of this message, I owe a lot to Roger, a member of New Joy Fellowship. He observed that Jonah, with all the complexities of his character, with his history, with his temperament, was exactly the right person for the job of converting the people of Nineveh. Because Jonah was an Israeli patriot, he ran away when God first called him, and because of that, he experienced separation from God, his need for God, and then God’s grace. Because he was kind of hardheaded in the first place, because he hated Israel’s enemies, he delivered the message to Nineveh and clear, bold terms. He relished declaring their sin, and he probably enjoyed pronouncing God’s judgment upon them for their sinful ways. And so, without meaning to, he delivered the message in exactly the terms that they needed to hear it.

And of course this is one of the major themes of the book of Jonah: that God is entirely control of all things. God was in charge of allowing the events of Jonah’s earlier life. He allowed Jonah to run. He sent the storm after Jonah was at sea, he sent the fish to swallow Jonah when Jonah was almost drowned, and he stilled the storm, leading the sailors to worship him. He caused the fish to spit Jonah up onto dry land, and he allowed the forces that shaped Jonah into who he was so that the message was delivered to the Ninevites exactly the way it was supposed to be delivered. Jonah made his own choices, of his own free will, and those resulted in God’s will being accomplished exactly as God planned. We don’t always understand this, or how God works it, but that is the biblical truth: we are free to make our own choices, and, at the same time, God is completely in control.

We ended last time on something of a high note: Jonah’s mission has been successful; that is to say, the people of Nineveh have heard the message, and responded with repentance and faith. But the story is not over. We still have Jonah himself to reckon with.

Remember, Nineveh was one of the great cities of Assyria (also called “the Assyrian Empire”). And Assyria was one of the bitter historical enemies of Israel, Jonah’s home. The Assyrians were cruel, brutal and arrogant, and before Jonah’s time they had slowly eaten away at the northeastern parts of the larger Kingdom of Israel that was built by David and Solomon. Israel had been defeated and humiliated many times by Assyria. However, during Jonah’s lifetime, for the first time in centuries, Israel began to defeat the Assyrians, and take back some of their ancient lands. So, finally, Israel was starting to get the upper hand, and then God sent Jonah on his mission, which Jonah feared would actually help Assyria.

Remember, I said, Jonah, after his experience of nearly drowning, understands God’s salvation. He is indeed saved by God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean he has been made perfect in all his ways. He still has some sinful thoughts and attitudes. And this is one of them: God’s grace should be for me, and my people, but not for anyone I consider dangerous, or an enemy. God is not pleased with this attitude. There can be no doubt that it is wrong and sinful.

I’m afraid that with the next part of this message, the Lord is okay with making virtually everyone angry. I just want to say, I am only the messenger. If what I write here makes you angry, please take it up with the Lord, because to the best of my ability am simply passing on the things I believe he wants me to say.

All right, with a big gulp, I’m simply going to plunge in. In order to help us understand the position that Jonah is in I want us to compare it to where we ourselves are often at in our relationships with other people. So, for you President Biden-supporting-people, imagine God calls you to minister to die-hard Trump supporters. Even though you really don’t want to minister to those people, you do so, and the result is that President Trump is elected again in 2024.

Or, those of you who are convinced that the right thing to do in this Covid-19 situation has been absolutely to wear masks and avoid contact with others. Suppose God calls you to minister to people who think masks are silly, and who refused to wear them, and who continued to gather in person? The end result is that those people are encouraged and lifted up.

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine you are a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. God calls you to minister to the Black Lives Matter organization, and to people who wholeheartedly support Critical Race Theory. Reluctantly, you will obey, and the result is that their position in society is strengthened.

What if you think illegal immigrants are destroying this country, and God calls you to minister to illegal immigrants in such a way that they are blessed and their position is strengthened?

Maybe you are an NPR-listening, intellectual cultural elite, and God calls you to ultimately bless talk-radio-listening, country, redneck types, people you might secretly think of as deplorables.

Imagine an American patriot called to bring God’s word (and, potentially forgiveness) to the Taliban in the Middle East? Or an American patriot called to bring God’s word to China, so that God won’t destroy the Chinese government?

Before you get angry, make sure you understand my main point. I am not saying everything I named above is morally equal. For example, I think there is no comparison between the horrific crimes of Communist China and people who dispute the wearing of masks in the covid-19 era. I’m not comparing morality or value in the groups I named. I’m only trying to help everyone feel a little bit of what Jonah felt. There is a lot of anger in our culture at the moment, and it is easy to be angry against “those people.” My point is simply that God loves “those people” and he may want you to bring not only his truth, but also his grace to them.

Also, let me make sure we don’t lose an important piece of all this: the people of Nineveh repented of their sins. They heard God’s word, and the first thing they heard from Him was that they were sinners, cut off from God, and there was nothing they could do to save themselves. They believed that this was true, and they repented, crying out to God alone for mercy and salvation.

So, the Bible does not say that all people are saved, no matter what. The book of Jonah is not teaching us that all lifestyles and all philosophies are equally acceptable to God. There is nothing here to suggest other religions are equally valid with worship of the Lord. Not everyone is included in the kingdom of God.

However, Jonah is teaching us that God desires all people to be included in his kingdom. God wants Israelites to repent and be saved. He also wants Assyrians to repent and be saved. He does not want the Assyrians any less than he wants the Israelites.

God wants your enemies, the people that make you want to pull your hair out, to repent and be saved. He loves them every bit as much as he loves you. He also wants you to repent and be saved, if you have not yet done so. The people who live in a different country, who have thoughts and attitudes and habits that you find repulsive, are just as important to God as your children are to you. Those who live far from you are just as important to God as those who live close by. The Bible is filled with verses that teach that God loves all people and wants all people to be saved:

1 First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4, HCSB, formatting added by me for emphasis)

Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” This is the declaration of the Lord GOD. “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives? (Ezekiel 18:23, HCSB)

31 Throw off all the transgressions you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in anyone’s death.” This is the declaration of the Lord GOD. “So repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:31-32, HCSB)

9 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)

John’s glimpse of the heavenly reality makes it clear that God desires all people to repent and come to him, and indeed, people from all over the world will do so:

9 After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! (Revelation 7:9-10, HCSB)

Our worst enemies are precious to God. The people we deplore are precious to God. God wants them in his kingdom, if they are willing to come.

We would do well to remember something else. If you are a Christian today, it is only because at some point, Christians from a different culture, with a different language in another part of the world, believed that God wants all people to be saved, and came to you or your ancestors and told them the good news about Jesus. Unless you are an ethnic Jewish Christian, you know Jesus today because people who are foreign to you brought God’s message to you or your ancestors. How then, could we refuse today to help bring the message to people who are not like us?

The idea that God would have mercy on his hated enemies, the Assyrians, was offensive to Jonah. So, God gave him an object lesson with the plant that he neither planted nor tended, but of which he grew very fond. Jonah deliberately makes himself seem childish and petty here, because his attitude about the Assyrians is childish and petty.

I’ll give you another object lesson example. At times, I have been a big fan of NFL football, particularly the Tennessee Titans. There were times when, if the Titans won, I was content and happy for most of the next twenty-four hours. If they lost, I was irritable and moody. Now, I suppose I’m a fan of the Titans because I’ve lived in Tennessee longer than I’ve lived any other place in my life. But, let’s get serious. I have no financial investment in the Titans (not even betting; I don’t gamble). I don’t actually know any of the players, coaches or staff. I don’t live that close to where they play, or even where they practice. In reality, I have no connection at all with the team. Yet, at times, I have deeply cared what happened with them. If I can develop this strange attachment to people and an organization that I’ve never met, why should we consider it strange that God deeply loves human beings, whom he created for himself? How can the Titans be important to me, but not all human beings who are precious to God?

Let’s consider again what Jonah said at the beginning:

“Please, LORD, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. (Jonah 4:2, HCSB)

Jonah was not on board with God’s attitude toward his enemies. But that did not change God’s attitude. God is not a god for our own little tribe. He is for all people. God wants his people on board with this. Yes, to be the people of God means something specific, and some people reject that chance to come to God. But God wants us involved with giving every kind of people, everywhere, a chance to repent and receive his salvation. We don’t get to say, “I don’t want God to use me to bless those people. They aren’t my type of people.” But they are God’s type of people. They may reject God’s message. But they may receive it. Let’s get on board with God’s desire to reach all people.

11 For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, 12 since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
14 How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news (Romans 10:11-15, CSB)

Let the Spirit speak to you today!

JONAH #5: THE GRACE OF HARD WORDS

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

We all need to recognize some hard truths before we can truly know God’s grace. We truly need God more than anything else in the universe. We are truly morally corrupt, unable to be with God. We are separated from Him, yet, we will perish apart from Him. And there is nothing we can do about these things.

Once we accept these hard words, we can receive a flood of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.

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 Jonah Part 5

JONAH #5. JONAH 3:1-10

Let’s remember where we are in Jonah’s book. In case I haven’t said it before, I believe Jonah himself wrote this book. He almost goes out of his way to avoid making himself look good. He seems to be trying to take us, the readers, through the same lessons that he himself had to learn.

Remember that before this, Jonah was a national hero, a patriot, who, after helping his country become great again, was called to go and preach God’s word to the enemies of his country. Instead, he ran, trying to escape God. God sent a storm, which did not relent until Jonah was thrown overboard, and he began to drown. Before he died, however, God sent a fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah, saving him from drowning. Inside the fish, Jonah repented of his sins, and praised God. Three days later, God made the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Next comes our passage for today. God spoke once more, saying the same thing that he said at first: “Arise. Go to Nineveh – a great city of the Assyrians, who were enemies of Israel – and preach to them.” This time, Jonah got up and went.

Now, it would be easy for us to chuckle at this and say, “Yeah, I just bet he went, after that experience.” We think, “If I was nearly killed by a storm, then nearly drowned, and then swallowed by a fish, and then ended up on the beach lying in fish-vomit, I’d do what God said, too.” In other words,  we think that Jonah went because God forced him to.

However, I think that is a massive misunderstanding of what actually happened with Jonah. When he was drowning, literally dying, Jonah cried to the Lord. He knew that he was in that hard place precisely because he had cut himself off from God, precisely because he was rebellious and sinful. And yet, when Jonah had done nothing but rebel, God saved him anyway. So Jonah says:

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)

He said that while he was still in the fish. He says he will worship God, ‘sacrifice’ to him, and ‘pay what he has vowed,’ because “salvation is from the Lord. (2:9).” That is, Jonah experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, and that changed him into someone who wanted to be on the same page with God, someone who wanted to do what God asked.

It is really important for us to recognize this; it is one the major themes not only of Jonah, but of the whole Bible. Jonah knew he could not save himself, or redeem himself. He knew that salvation comes from God alone; he said as much.

In the sea, and in the fish, Jonah recognized three things:

1. His separation from God (“Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence,” 2:4).

2. His need of God (“As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD,” 2:7, and many other sentences like that).

3. His utter inability to help himself (“I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.” 2:6, among other verses).

He cried out for help and mercy, and God answered him. It is because God saved him that he gets up and does what God asks. Jonah wants to do God’s will after this. Later on we will deal with the fact that although he is saved, and he wants to obey God, he still holds sinful thoughts and attitudes. For now, understand that Jonah is not motivated by law and fear, but rather, by grace and by love.

Now, let’s go to Nineveh with Jonah. I’m going to give you “Tom’s Literal-Ish” Translation (TLIT?): “Now Nineveh was a city great to God, of three days’ travel.”

The second half of verse three has been used by some skeptics to show that the bible is inaccurate. They point out that (as far as we know from archaeology) the city of Nineveh was not three days’ journey across at that point in history (three days walking would be about sixty miles). I bring this up in case you ever encounter arguments like these. There are several reasonable answers to this objection. First of all, though there is a lack of evidence showing a walled city that large at that time, a lack of evidence cannot actually prove anything. The evidence could be yet to be discovered. Or, it may have once existed, but now be lost for all time.

Second, in a crowded city, a person is extremely unlikely to average twenty miles a day walking. In ancient cities, the streets were narrow, crooked, and choked with traffic of all sorts: donkeys, donkey-carts, camels, caravans, cattle, street-vendors, beggars and business-people of all sorts. If you have ever been in a third-world city in modern times you realize that most of the residents spend their time outside, in the streets. It would be even more so in ancient times. So you would be lucky to go even ten miles a day through a populous city, which would shrink the size of Nineveh by at least half. In my opinion, it would be impossible to go even ten miles in a day, so that makes it even smaller.

There are other possible answers to this objection. Although Nineveh “proper” (say, the walled portion) may not have been three days journey across, there were three other cities (as well as a few smaller towns) close by, and these were sometimes included when people spoke of Nineveh. If you include these, and outlying “suburbs,” you have a “Greater Nineveh Area” that certainly would take three days to travel through. (See Genesis 10:11-12, if this topic interests you)

But I think these solutions, while possible, are unnecessary. First, as you see from my TLIT, the Hebrew leaves things open to interpretation. It could mean Nineveh was so large it took three days to journey from one side to the other – but that’s not exactly what it says. It might also mean that it took three days to see all the important parts of Nineveh. However, if we simply pay attention to the context, it is clear what the author is getting at. The NLT puts it most clearly.

4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. (Jonah 3:4-5, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Nineveh was a big city, and it was going to take Jonah three days to complete his work of preaching, in order to make sure everyone had a chance to hear. Even so, on the very first day, the people responded to God’s word. The point is this: the people listened to God immediately, even before Jonah had completed his assignment. That is the point of the three-day comment. It is about Jonah’s mission, and it is there to show us that the people repented even before Jonah was halfway done.

It may surprise some people to read that every single person in the city responded with fasting. Some cultural information is helpful here. In those days, the community was much more important than the individual. In matters of religion the people decided together which gods they would worship, and how they would do so. In these decisions, the community leaders had the most important voices. Therefore, I think verse 5 describes the outcome (everyone gets on board with fasting), while verses 6-9 are an explanation, showing exactly how this came about. Basically, the king and his nobles led the entire community into repentance for their sins.

I want to take a moment and think about what provoked this immediate and drastic response. We are not told exactly what Jonah said in his preaching, other than this: ““Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (NLT). It is safe to assume that Jonah said more than that, and that this is just a kind of summary. I think we can read between the lines here, and, with a knowledge of the rest of the Bible, get a sense for Jonah’s main message.

Remember Jonah’s background. He was a hero to his own people, an Israeli patriot. Now, God has called him to go preach to Israel’s enemies. Although Jonah has experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, it has not yet filtered down to change all of his thinking and attitudes. So, he doesn’t like the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t understand why God is concerned about them. He doesn’t care that they experience God’s grace and forgiveness and salvation. In fact, he doesn’t want them to. Therefore, he states God word as unappealingly as possible. Basically I think he said this:

  • You all are full of sin and evil. Your actions, and your very lives, are offensive to the one, true, living God. (Jonah might also have preached about the specific kinds of sins that they were committing.)
  • Because your sins have separated you from that one true God, you will be destroyed in forty days’ time.

Jonah did not expect this sort of preaching to be effective. I don’t think he wanted it to be. But two things were going on of which Jonah was unaware. In the first place, before anyone can truly experience God’s grace, they must come face to face with their own sin and evil, and their own helplessness to be better. This is exactly what happened to Jonah in the ocean and fish, but he still didn’t realize that God loves all people, not just Israelites.

If you think you can make yourself into a better person, you cannot experience the grace of God. If you think you aren’t so bad, or that God compares you to other, more sinful people and says, “She’s not so bad, compared to _____,” you cannot be saved. In order to be saved, we must both admit that we are hopelessly sinful, and that we deserve nothing good from God, and that we cannot do anything about this predicament. Jonah helped the people of Nineveh by bringing them face to face with their own depravity. They heard his preaching, and thought, “We need God’s forgiveness, but we have separated ourselves from Him! We cannot do anything to fix it!”

So the fact that Jonah was so harsh and clear about their doom was actually very good and helpful. (Again, however, I don’t think he actually wanted them to repent).

The second thing Jonah didn’t think about was this: God is loving, gracious and forgiving. And so, even though Jonah was trying to simply condemn his enemies, the Ninevites, even though he thought maybe he had succeeded in doing it, God will make his grace known to anyone who is willing to listen. Think about it for a moment. How in the world did God’s grace come through Jonah’s harsh preaching? Hint: in the New Living Translation it is four words. In the ESV, it is three words.

Here are the words of grace, from the NLT: “Forty days from now.”

These words may not sound that amazing to you, but imagine the people of Nineveh. They heard God’s word, and they believed it. They believed that their souls were riddled through with sin. They accepted that they were evil, and deserved to be destroyed. Most importantly, they accepted that there was nothing they could do about it. Put yourself in that position and then ask: “Why forty days from now? Why not destroy us immediately?”

There’s only one logical answer: “Because God doesn’t want to destroy us.”

So they responded with earnest and true repentance.

6 When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he issued a decree in Nineveh:
“By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. 8 Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.” ( Jonah 3:6-9, HCSB)

Sackcloth was basically the cheapest, ugliest, most humiliating and uncomfortable thing you could wear. It was usually very roughly made out of goat-hair. Goat hair clothing is smelly and itchy, and they deliberately made it utterly unstylish. People wore it in order to show that they were full of extreme grief, remorse and repentance. Ashes were dumped on the head for the same purpose. To wear sackcloth and sit in ashes was to humiliate yourself, to show extreme sorrow and shame and regret.

When they heard that God was going to give them forty days, they believed that meant he might forgive them after all. Since his forgiveness was their only hope, they turned to him. In short, they turned away from the path of sin, and they put all of their hope in God alone. Once more, we find the gospel – the good news – even in the Old Testament, even from a prophet who didn’t want to preach it.

Let’s begin to apply this to our lives right now.

First, think again about why Jonah now obeyed God. It would be easy to think that God forced him to go. Certainly, there was still work to be done in Jonah’s heart, but I think the evidence we have is that he went as a response to God’s grace. I wonder if sometimes we almost have an attitude toward God that is like this: “If you want me to do this (or stop doing that) so bad, why don’t you just make me?” When we think this way, it shows that we don’t understand God’s grace. We may not truly believe that we would be cut off and without hope if it wasn’t for His love and forgiveness. Maybe we think we’re not such bad people, and God’s love is only a small favor that he does for us. If you are having trouble with your behavior, try meditating on God’s incredible love and grace.

Second, let’s not miss the big message. In our natural state, we, like all other humans, have sin wrapped up in our bodies and minds. It cuts us off from God, and there is nothing – nothing – we can do to fix this problem. Yet God says this:

Let the wicked one abandon his way
and the sinful one his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD,
so He may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isaiah 55:7, HCSB)

Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit today!

JONAH #4: THE FAITHFUL LOVE THAT SAVES US

Jonah, influenced by the world around him, unwilling to listen to God, found himself banished from God’s presence, dying. He turned back to the Lord in his distress, the and Lord saved him. This is the gospel in a nutshell, and we find it today in the Old Testament. We are separated from God by our own sin, and yet God’s faithful, covenant-love saves us when we cry out to him, when we trust him to do what we cannot do.

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 Jonah Part 4

I just said something briefly last time about the miraculous nature of Jonah being in the fish. For Christians today, I think it might be worth spending some more time on the relationship of faith, miracles, and science. A miracle, by definition, is when the normal laws of physics, biology, etc. are set aside by God. Because of this, science cannot either prove or disprove the existence of miracles. Science can’t study them. Many people who pride themselves for being rational thinkers, say that this makes miracles bogus. If they can’t be studied scientifically, why should we believe they are real at all?

Behind that sort of attitude is an assumption that science is the only true way of knowing things. The idea is that if something can’t be studied by science, it isn’t real, or true. Or, to put it another way: everything that exists can be discovered and studied and known by science.

Even though many people think like this, it is utterly ridiculous to believe that science is the only way of knowing anything, or even that it can (eventually) know everything. In the first place, science itself cannot prove that it is the only way of knowing anything. That is a completely non-scientific proposition. It is an example of what we call “a circular argument,” that is, an argument that depends upon itself in order to be true. To simplify, it is like saying, “science is the only way of knowing anything, and the reason we know that is because science is the only way of knowing anything.”

In fact, we can think of many things that normal people consider rational, but cannot be proven by science. We believe that some things are good, and others are evil – yet we cannot know that by the scientific method. Science uses math and logic, but it cannot prove the validity of either one – that would be another circular argument (I can’t use logic to show that logic is real).

We encounter things that are outside of the realm of science every single day. Take for instance, love. If someone were to study love scientifically, they would have to ask questions like these: “How much does love weigh? How long is it? How high? At what speed does love travel? Which molecules are used to build love-units? What does it look like under a microscope? How does it behave under laboratory conditions?” Obviously, these sorts of questions do not apply to love.

However, just as obviously, love exists. So do dozens more such things that profoundly affect our lives, but which science can know nothing about. Another example is freedom. What is the specific mass of freedom? What happens when you mix freedom with water? Again, silly questions. Science is excellent for studying the physical world. All Christians should rejoice at the way science has helped human beings. But obviously, there are more ways of knowing than science, and human beings couldn’t function if we knew nothing other than what science knows.

In fact, in order to do science, we must first accept, without evidence, that human thinking is rational, that our senses do not deceive us, and our thoughts correspond to reality, and that it is possible to discover what it true. In order to do science, all of those things have to be taken as “givens;” that is, we must simply believe that they are true, that is, we have faith that they are true. In other words: science could not exist without faith. Therefore, while science is a powerful way of knowing, faith is also a powerful way of knowing, and in some ways, faith is necessary for science to work.

I want to make sure that we Christians understand that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science. They are not at war. They are complementary ways of knowing things. It is true that some scientists try to use science to attack or undermine faith, but when they do that, they are being unscientific. When a scientist says something like: “this proves that there is no God,” or “this proves that miracles do not happen,” those are not scientific statements. Science cannot pass judgment on matters of faith without becoming unscientific.

All right, let’s look once more at the prayer, or psalm, that Jonah composed while he was (unscientifically) in the belly of the whale. It is important that we do so with the foundation of last week: In the belly of the sea creature, Jonah was saved, and yet, his salvation was not yet complete. So we too, have been saved, but our salvation won’t be complete until we stand with Jesus in the New Creation. Therefore, what Jonah says at this time is very relevant to us.

The Psalm starts with this: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me.” This is the main point. Jonah says he cried for help from “Sheol,” which means “the place of the dead.” He doesn’t think he died, but he thinks he was knocking on death’s door. Jonah recognizes that he needed salvation because of his own sin and wrongdoing. He says, (as I pointed out last time) that it was the Lord who cast him into the sea, and he says he was banished from the sight of the Lord. In other words, his own sin and disobedience separated him from God. Jonah was almost beyond hope. He says he was near death, banished from the sight of God by his own sin. You can’t get any closer to lost than Jonah was. It reminds me of several different New Testament verses, including:

1 Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!  (Ephesians 2:1-5, NLT)

Jonah, in his desperate situation, looked to the Lord alone for salvation. When we recognize our need and distress, when we know we have no hope apart from the Lord, and we call on him, he saves us. No one who trusts him will be put to shame. All who call on him will be saved. This is the basic message of the whole Bible.

This is the message of faith that we proclaim:9If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.10One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.11Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame,12for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.13For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Rom 10:8-13, HCSB)

This is the gospel in a nutshell, and here it in the book of Jonah, in the Old Testament, seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus! 

I want us to pay special attention to verses 8 and 9. The best English translation of verse 8 is the HSCB: “Those who cling to worthless idols//forsake faithful love.” That’s really all it says in Hebrew. I think it is implied, however that the faithful love they forsake is the love of God. In the New Testament there is a Greek word that describes the unconditional, never-ending, sacrificial love of God: agape. In the Old Testament, there is a Hebrew word that is the equivalent of agape. That word is cHesed. (I add the small “c” for pronunciation. It’s like starting to softly clear your throat). It means: “faithful, never-ending love; covenant-love.” That is what Jonah says idol worshippers forsake. God offers us never ending, faithful love. He loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die in our place. But we can’t have both our idols, and also, at the same time, God’s love. If we choose to live for human relationships, or money, or achievement, or pleasure, or art, we forsake God’s love.

Now, all of the things I just named are good in their rightful places. Not even pleasure is evil in and of itself. But if we make any of these more important than God, or if we think of any of them as the “ultimate thing,” we forsake the love of God. If we must have something (other than God), or if we run to such things, rather than God, to bring us comfort and hope, we are in danger of idolatry. Jonah realizes what he almost gave up. Nothing is worth more than God’s cHesed , his covenant-love. But idol worshipers ignore what is eternally precious in the pursuit of things that only temporarily satisfy.

In verse 9, Jonah says he will sacrifice to the Lord, and do what he had vowed. God called Jonah to preach His word. Jonah accepted that call. But when God sent him to Nineveh, he balked. Now, he says, “I will do what I was supposed to do.” Notice that this comes after God has saved him. He is not trying to pay for his salvation. He knows he can’t earn it. But because God showed Jonah his power, and because God saved him, Jonah will live in obedience. It is a response to God’s grace, not a way to earn something from God. He has remembered (with God’s obvious help) that he is in a covenant with God, a cHesed covenant. That means, among other things, that he will go where God tells him, and do what God asks. He does this, not in order to get saved, but because God has already saved him, and given him covenant-love.

Jonah’s ending statement basically reiterates this main point. However, the words he uses makes it truly stunning.

Salvation is from the lord!” (Jonah 2:9, HSCB)

OK, maybe it doesn’t seem that stunning to you. This will take a bit of concentration to understand, but it is worth it, so listen closely. In the book of Exodus, God revealed himself personally to Moses as “I am that I am.” The Israelites took that to mean that God’s name was literally, “I am that I am,” or, as they pronounced it: “Yahweh.” They believed that God’s personal name was Yahweh. God commanded them not to take his name in vain. As time went on, the Jews took this command very seriously, and so, when the Old Testament text said “Yahweh,” they felt it was too holy to pronounce. Instead they said “The Lord.”

Most English Bible translations use this same practice. So, in most English translations, when you read “The Lord,” the Hebrew actually says, “Yahweh.”

Fast forward to New Testament times. For the first Christians, the basic confession of faith was this: “Jesus is Lord.” Those who said that did not mean: “Jesus is an important person (a lord).” They were saying: Jesus is THE LORD, the one true God who revealed himself to the people of Israel in ancient times. In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

Now, one other thing. Jesus is our English way of saying his name. In Hebrew, “Jesus” is pronounced “Yeshua” and it means, “(the Lord’s) salvation.” Almost certainly, when his disciples said his name, they would have said, “Yeshua.”

Now let’s return to Jonah 2:9. There are only two Hebrew words in this verse. It is translated, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” But let me give it to you straight from the Hebrew: “Yeshua Yahweh.”

In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

I don’t want to create any misunderstanding. Jonah had no idea that one day God was going to come into the world as a man named Yeshua. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Lord inspired Jonah to use those exact words. To me, it is sort of like finding an Easter egg hidden by God, or maybe like having God wink at us. He’s saying, “Here I am! In case you were wondering if it’s all really true, look, I’m everywhere.” Seven hundred years before he came into the world, the Lord dropped that little breadcrumb there for us!

Thoughts for application:

  • Though some scientists are antagonistic to Christianity, there is no necessary conflict. What are ways that you can praise God for the wisdom he has given the world through science? What are concerns that you might want to turn over to the Lord?
  • How has your own sin and disobedience separated you from the Lord? What about the world, or temptations? Have you called on the name the name of the Lord? Hear the word of the Lord through Jonah that all who call upon him (which means, also trusting him) will be saved!
  • Consider meditating on God’s covenant love for you, his commitment to love you, even to his own death. Receive his love by thanking him for it (and possibly singing, or responding in some other creative way)
  • What is the Lord saying to you today through his word?

JONAH #3: IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE

Photo by Red Brick on Pexels.com

So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

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 Jonah Part 3

JONAH #3. JONAH 1;17-2:9. PART A

We ended last time with a fish swallowing Jonah. The Hebrew word for “fish” really just means: “really big sea creature,” so it might have been a grouper, or a whale shark, or a sperm whale, or some other creature that has since become extinct, or one that humans have yet to discover. It doesn’t really matter, because the Bible is not asking us to believe that this incident conforms to the normal laws of the physical world that God put in place long ago. It is clearly portrayed as a miracle.

I have pointed out before that when God said “get up!” Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the coast. He went down from the wharf onto the ship. He went down into the lower parts of the ship. Last time, he went from there, down into the sea, and now, down into the belly of the sea creature. Finally, Jonah has hit bottom.

In many ways, chapter 2 is the heart of the book of Jonah. It is the beginning of Jonah’s journey back “up.” Verses 1-9 are a psalm – that is a prayer, or song of worship – composed by Jonah. Judging from the psalm, especially verses 3-5, Jonah started to drown after he was thrown overboard. It was quite possible, perhaps even likely, that he didn’t know how to swim, since there were no swimmable bodies of water near his hometown. If he did know how to swim, the storm was drowning him anyway. From the descriptions in those verses, he was not keeping his head above water, but instead was sinking down, and all but certain he was about to die.

But the fish, by swallowing him, saved him. There, inside the fish, Jonah composes the psalm, which, no doubt, he perfected and memorized and wrote down later. I can’t imagine there is much else to do inside of a sea creature. It is interesting to me to notice that once he is inside the fish, he already feels that he is as good as saved. If it had been me, I would have been thinking, “OK, at least I didn’t drown, but what am I supposed to do now? How am I going to get out? Won’t I die of thirst, with no fresh water?”

I think there are two reasons that Jonah praised God before his deliverance was complete. I mentioned last time that he had probably absorbed some of the beliefs of the worldwide culture, and, while he officially believed that God was God of all things, practically speaking, he acted like God was just a territorial god from whom Jonah could run away. In the middle of the storm, his eyes are opened, and his faith was taken to a new level. Remember, he acted courageously and selflessly, telling the sailors to throw him overboard. I think during those moments, Jonah was almost like a new convert. He was in awe of God’s power. Even inside the fish, he was probably thinking: “Oh my word! It’s all true! Everything I’ve heard about God is actually true!”

Therefore, when he was swallowed by the fish he understood that to be God’s miraculous way of saving him. If he was able to think logically, it was a million-to-one that he would be swallowed by a sea creature and live, so God must have sent the fish. And since God sent the fish when he was drowning, obviously, he didn’t want Jonah to die yet.

One of the major themes of the book of Jonah is that God is in control of all things. He sent the storm. He stopped the storm exactly at the moment Jonah was swallowed by the fish. He sent the fish. Later we will see he directed the fish to the coast and caused it to vomit Jonah out. We will also see that he caused a plant to grow, a worm to eat the plant and a hot wind to bother Jonah. God is not “out there somewhere” doing his thing. He is intricately involved in nature, and in the lives of human beings. Verse three reiterates that God is in control: “For you cast me into the deep,// into the heart of the seas, // and the flood surrounded me; //all your waves and your billows // passed over me. [By the way I am using this: “//” to indicate a new line. It saves space here in the written version of the message.]

So, pay attention to what Jonah was saying. Even though it was Jonah’s own decision to flee by ship, and even though it was actually the sailors, with Jonah’s own encouragement, who threw him overboard, Jonah declares that it was God who cast him into the deep. He recognizes that behind even his own decisions, and the actions of others, God was at work.

God allowed Jonah to choose his own path, and yet, at the same time, God was completely in control. He allowed the sailors to make their own choices, and yet those choices were the outworking of God’s purposes acting in human affairs. Jonah’s choice to run resulted in God’s purpose, which was that the sailors come to know Him, and that Jonah’s faith be revived. So understand this: The Bible does teach us that we are free to make our own choices. It also teaches us that God is completely in control of everything. However, (listen carefully now): The Bible does not teach us how to reconcile those two truths with one another. It is true that I am fully responsible for the consequences of my actions. It is also true that God is in control, no matter what I do. Jonah understood this, and it did not lead him to blame God for that, but rather to praise him for being in control of the whole world. That is what it supposed to do for us also. We can have peace knowing that God is in control. We can praise him, knowing that we do not have the power to thwart the purposes of God. That is freeing and wonderful knowledge.

I realize, however, that if we were to accept that God is so completely in control, it causes problems for the way we think. If God is so involved, what about when storms or droughts destroy lives? What about when people are doing their best to follow him, and tragedy strikes?

 The book of Jonah does not try to answer all of those sorts of questions, though, we will see at the very end, it does provide one sort of response. However, I don’t want to raise the issue and leave it completely alone, so I’ll point out three main ideas to consider.

In the first place, we often conveniently forget our real position before the Lord. Think of it this way: Joseph Stalin was a communist dictator who ordered the brutal torture and murder of millions of people. If a storm came and destroyed his house, would we say that it isn’t fair, that God is unjust? No, in the case of Stalin, we might say, “fair enough,” or even, “God should have done even worse to him.” But the same thing that was inside of Stalin, the thing that caused him to perpetrate such injustice and cruelty, is also inside of me. It is called sin, and it is like cancer. Perhaps I have reigned it in better than Stalin did, but maybe, if I had as much power as he did, I would not have controlled myself, and maybe I would have been even worse than him. And frankly, in my case, the only thing that has caused me to fight against that sin inside me is the Holy Spirit given to me by Jesus. In other words, the only true good inside of me comes through Jesus, not myself. This is true of every single human being on the planet. Any good in this world originated with God, and this is true even for those who don’t know it. Therefore, no one – no one – no, seriously, no onedeserves any good from God. Maybe the cancer doesn’t grow as large in some as in others, but we all have it.

1LORD, hear my prayer. In Your faithfulness listen to my plea, and in Your righteousness answer me.2Do not bring Your servant into judgment, for no one alive is righteous in Your sight. (Ps 143:1-2, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)

20There is certainly no righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins. (Eccl 7:20, HCSB, women are also intended as part of this statement ;-/)

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

If you think I don’t have sin in me, that is only because you don’t know me well enough. If you think you don’t have sin inside yourself, that is only because you don’t know yourself well enough. There is some good inside of people, a remnant of the original intention of God when he made us. But it is not enough. If the standard is perfection (and it is) than all things that are imperfect fall short. There are no degrees of perfection. Either I am perfect, or I am not. And I am not. Being close doesn’t count.

What if you are 95% good? All right, imagine someone served you a hearty stew. You could see chunks of meat, and potatoes and carrots, and also little dark chunks of something else. The stew smells of good meat, but also of something else that seems repulsive to you. You ask your host, “What is the rest of this stuff?”

Your host says, “95% of the stew is good stuff like beef, and carrots and potatoes. Only 5% of it is dog feces.”

Would you eat it? 95% of it is good, why not eat it? Because even 5% spoils the entire thing.

Really a better analogy would be 5% of the stew is deadly poison. Only 0.0000001% is needed to kill whoever eats it. Any amount of deadly poison in your food is too much. It destroys the value of all the good parts.

So, to say, “Yes, I have some sin in me, but also a lot of good” is like saying, “yes, there is some deadly poison in the stew, but also a lot of good stuff.” Or, “there’s only a little bit of cancer in your liver.” Any amount changes everything. In the same way, any amount of sin separates us from God. Therefore, even though we may have some good within us, any amount of sin is too much, and separates us from God.

 Therefore, if a storm destroys my house, the truth is, I never deserved to have a house in the first place. Sin is a cancer, and God will destroy every last bit of it in the end. Without Jesus, we would have to be destroyed with it, since we cannot overcome it ourselves. Our only hope of escaping the destruction is through Jesus. His death provides the only effective treatment for sin. There is no such thing as a truly “good person” who actually, truly deserves good things. If you are honest, when you look inside yourself, you know, at the very least, that you are not a thoroughly good person. I know I am not.

Secondly, when we think about God being entirely in control, we need to remember that He is infinite, and we are not. He knows incredibly more than we do. The entire universe cannot contain his knowledge, while all of my knowledge is contained within my three-pound brain. Therefore, we do not know – we cannot know – that God is being unreasonable, or unjust or cruel when he allows bad things to happen to people. We simply don’t know enough to judge God’s actions (or lack of actions).

Third, even though we deserve nothing good, God still piles good things upon billions of human beings, daily, including you and I: life itself, and everything that sustains life, like food clothing, family. He allows us to inhabit this beautiful planet. Frankly, I think I’ve got more than my share of good things. And in addition to these “everyday good things,” he sent Jesus so that we can eventually live in a world where there will be no sorrow, mourning, or suffering.  Anyone who desires it can come through Jesus, who calls himself “the door,” and, “the way, the truth and the life.” He offers us far more than everything this mortal life has to give. In fact, He offers far more than we could possibly lose here and now. We cannot always understand God’s ways, but because Jesus died for us, we can understand that he is good, gracious, and loves us far more than we could ever deserve. We can know that what he offers us will more than compensate for anything we suffer in this life:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

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

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you now about his control of all things, and about your salvation.