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

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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

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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.

JONAH #2. THE FUTILITY OF IDOLS.

Though we modern people laugh at the idea of worshipping a statue, we often have idols in our lives without knowing about it. Sometimes we think, “If I only had [fill in this space] then I know everything would be fine.” Or, when we are in trouble, we run to [fill in this space] for comfort. Anything in which we place our hope (other than God) is an idol. Anything we feel we must have (other than God) is an idol. Anything we look to in crisis (other than God) is an idol. One of the messages of Jonah is that idols will always fail us, and our only true hope must be in God alone.

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

Jonah #2.  Jonah 1:1-17

Last time in the book of Jonah we learned a bit about Jonah, and what motivated him to run away when God told him to go to the capital city of Israel’s enemies.

At that point in history, like every time in history, people had certain assumptions about religious things. In those days, each nation or people-group worshipped their own gods. So the Ammonites worshipped Molech, and the Canaanites bowed to Baal, and the Philistines had a god called Dagon. Everyone assumed that there were many gods, and they assumed also that each god was in charge of certain people, and not others. In other words, the Ammonites would have utterly rejected the idea that they should worship Dagon, because Dagon was the god of the Philistines, not the Ammonites.

When nations fought one another, most people also thought of it as also a contest between the gods of the two peoples. So if the Ammonites fought the Canaanites and won, they would take this to mean that Molech was stronger than Baal, at least on that occasion. To put it another way, they believed in territorial gods.

If we are to understand the book of Jonah, it is very important for us to realize that this was how almost everyone in the world thought. No one even argued about it – they thought that this was obviously the way things were. People believed in territorial gods in those days the same way we believe that the world is a sphere. Almost no one has actually been far enough into space to actually see that the world is spherical (fewer than 600, out of almost 8 billion people). But we trust that scientists have discovered it. We take it for granted. So too, in Jonah’s time, they took for granted the existence of territorial gods.

However, from the beginning, the God of the Bible insisted that He was the only actual God, and that his God-ship was over the entire world, not just the Israelites. This was the official doctrinal position of the people of Israel. Even so, the people of Israel were deeply affected by the cultures that surrounded them. To believe in just one god felt a little silly. It was like being the only people today who believe the world is flat. So, although officially they believed God was the God of the entire earth, practically speaking, what they really felt was something more like this: “Our God is the best god of them all.” Again, they did know what they were supposed to believe: that God is the only God. But the history recorded in the Bible shows that again and again, they failed to act like that is what they believed.

Jonah is a perfect example. As a prophet, of course he knew the right doctrine. God is the only God in the universe. Even so, when push came to shove, he acted on his real belief. Deep in his heart, he wondered, maybe if he ran far enough, he might be able to get out of God’s “territory.”

Remember, in verse 1,God said, “Get up,” and Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the sea, and then down onto a ship, and then down into the deeper parts of the ship. He was clearly trying to hide from God. The ship left port with Jonah sleeping in the lowest part of the vessel.

Have you ever wondered why God waited until Jonah was on the ship and out at sea to try and stop him? If God could send a horrific storm onto the ship at sea, certainly he could have stopped Jonah in some way before he even reached the coast. So, why wait?

For reasons we shall soon see, God did indeed wait until the ship was far from land to send a storm. It was one that threatened to destroy the ship. The text says:

 “The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship’s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep (Jonah 1:5, CSB).”

“Each cried out to his god.” This is an important detail. Only someone from that time in history would write that without explaining further. But, as I detailed earlier, everyone took it for granted that each nation had its own god. Also, this has another subtle ring of truth. Throughout history, sailors have tended to be an international bunch, with each ship employing mariners from various nations. Even today, on any given cargo ship you will find people from several different countries. So, the book of Jonah also takes it for granted that the sailors would be from several different nations, having several different gods. If someone was making up the story of Jonah, this detail would probably have been overlooked.

The sailors started throwing cargo overboard. This means that the ship was in danger of sinking, and they were trying to lighten the load. Since their cargo was the basis for how they got paid, the sailors would not have done this unless they were in extreme danger. Next, the crosshairs line up on Jonah:

6 The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won’t perish.”
7 “Come on!” the sailors said to each other. “Let’s cast lots. Then we’ll know who is to blame for this trouble we’re in.” So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and what people are you from?” Jonah 1:6-8

The captain found Jonah belowdecks, sleeping. He woke him and urged Jonah to add his God to the list of those receiving petitions for help. In the meantime, the sailors decided that the storm must be supernatural. They cast lots to determine who was at fault. Casting lots was a bit like drawing straws, throwing dice, or flipping a coin. Basically, they would ask a question, and then, in essence, throw special dice to determine the answer. In our “scientific” viewpoint today, the answer should be determined by pure chance. But the people then believed that the gods would determine what happened when they cast lots. In either case, what happened is that that the lot pointed to Jonah.

Once Jonah was identified as the problem, they started questioning him closely. They didn’t start out assuming that he himself was the problem, only that he knew what the issue was. Notice that the questions about where he is from were connected to which God he worships.

9 He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were seized by a great fear and said to him, “What have you done?” The men knew he was fleeing from the LORD’s presence because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you so that the sea will calm down for us?” For the sea was getting worse and worse. Jonah 1:9-11

Jonah’s answer would have been stunning to the sailors. Many of them had never heard of such a thing as a God of everything. Yet, that is what Jonah meant: God was in charge in the heavens, which were, at the moment, blasting them with a great storm. He was in charge of the sea, which was endangering their lives more and more while they shouted at one another through the raging wind. He was in charge of the dry land, which was the place of safety they all wanted to reach. I can see the sailors saying to Jonah: “You mean, there’s a God who is in charge of the atmosphere, the sea and the land – in other words, everything? And you’re telling me that you have provoked that God to anger? Are you nuts? What have you gotten us into?!”

It’s interesting to note that Jonah’s experience has now become aligned with his official theology. Before, though he technically believed God was the ruler of all things, practically speaking, he thought maybe that was a stretch. The Israelites had never, since before Abraham, been involved much with the sea. Jonah probably thought, “In our history, I never hear about God at work out in the ocean. Chances are, if I get out to sea, I’ll be out of his territory.” But now he is realizing, in a very concrete way, that God is indeed Lord of all things.

12 He answered them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea so that it will calm down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this great storm that is against you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they couldn’t because the sea was raging against them more and more.
14 So they called out to the LORD, “Please, LORD, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For you, LORD, have done just as you pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men were seized by great fear of the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
17 The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:11-17

Another reason I think it would be wrong to read the book of Jonah as if it was a parable or allegory is because Jonah is clearly portrayed like a real human being. In some moments, he is a coward, running from God, rather than losing his standing as a hero in his own country. Later on, we’ll see him act like a spoiled child. But here, he has a moment of heroism. Jonah is a complex person, as most real people are. Once he realizes his mistake, he faces the consequences of his actions with true courage – at least this time. He could have lied to the sailors about what was going on between him and the Lord. He could have threatened to them that God would be even more angry if they threw him overboard (which they were inclined to think anyway). Instead, he calmly accepts the blame, and tells them that they must throw him into the raging sea.

The sailors decide to try and make it back to land, rather than do what Jonah says. Before we think too highly of them, verse 14 makes it obvious that at least part of their motivation is that they didn’t want to make God even angrier. Even so, they can’t get to safety. So, with a prayer to God, trying to exonerate themselves, they throw Jonah overboard. Very shortly after, the waves become calm and the wind dies down.

Now we get the next lesson from the book of Jonah: God is indeed Lord of all things, and he desires that all people, not just the Israelites, know who he is, and come into right relationship with himself. The result of the storm and then the calm is that the sailors recognize the God of Israel as the God of all things, and they begin to worship him.

Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. It does say “fish,” not whale. On the other hand, ancient Hebrew had no word for “whale,” so who really knows? The main fact is this: the Lord was the one who directed the fish to be there, and to save Jonah. Now, obviously this was a miracle. The text does not present it as something that happens to people from time to time. The whole incident was arranged and carried out by God’s intervention. If someone were to say: “No one can survive being swallowed by a fish or whale,” I would agree entirely. The only reason Jonah survived is because God superseded the normal laws of nature to make it happen. That is what a miracle is.

In fact, the entire first chapter of Jonah is presenting one major theme: God is in control of everything that happens. That is why he let Jonah get out to sea before stopping him. By allowing Jonah to get to sea, God could show that he can control the weather, the outcome of throwing a pair of dice (casting lots), the movements of living creatures, and the very laws of nature. There is nothing that is outside of God’s control.

I think we have enough to begin to apply to our own lives right now. When we read about the people having different gods, and turning to those “gods” for help, we might be inclined to laugh at them, and consider them ignorant and foolish. But the truth is, people still have many gods today; it is just that they don’t call them “gods” anymore.

Think about the following questions:

“If only I could have _______, then I know everything will be fine.”

“If only [some set of circumstances] were true, I could be at peace.”

“If I could just achieve ____________, then everything would be all right.”

For instance, you might think like this: “If only I had a million dollars in investments returning 10% income, then everything would be fine.”

Or, “If only my daughter married the right kind of man, I could be at peace.”

Or, “If only I could own my own business, then I wouldn’t worry.”

Anything that we put in those “blanks,” other than God, is a false god. Anything that we think of as ultimately good; any person, thing or achievement that we would give up anything that was asked of us in order to have, is a god to us. The message of Jonah is that all such gods are false. There is only one true God, and even if you somehow manage to get that thing or situation you think you need, it won’t save you when the big storm comes. So, what are the false gods that tempt you? Use the “fill in the blank” questions above to think about that.

Second, Jonah was learning that God really is in control of everything. God sent the storm. Nowadays, now that we know how complex weather patterns truly are, it is even more amazing to realize that God sent that storm to that place, and ended it right after Jonah was tossed overboard. His power is truly awesome and incredible.

Yet today, this is a lesson we often forget. On Wednesday, August 19th 2009, at 2:00pm, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, which is not really evangelical, or Lutheran…) was voting to overturn a historic Christian, Biblical understanding of human sexuality. At that exact time, a tornado ripped through downtown Minneapolis, where they were meeting. Their main meeting place was across the street from Central Lutheran Church, a large ELCA congregation, playing host to the conference. The metal cross on top of the church steeple was wrenched downwards by the wind. You can see a picture of it here: https://fratres.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/central_mpls_081809_02.jpg

Now for a loaded question: Did God do that? According to the book of Jonah, we ought to say yes. He is God of sky, wind, earth and sea. Nothing happens that he does not allow. Yet most of the ELCA conference members scoffed at the idea that God sent the storm. No wonder they did not have enough faith to trust what the Bible says about human sexuality.

This doctrine, sometimes called “The Providence and Sovereignty of God,” comes from more places in the bible than just the book of Jonah. It can be difficult to think that God is in control of everything when much of what happens appears to be terrible, tragic, and evil. There is room for complexity here. The biggest thing to realize is that we can’t understand how it all works. We will never truly be able to comprehend how God can be good, and yet allow some terrible things. However, God is not asking us to understand it all, but rather to trust him, and trust that He is in control, even when it doesn’t look like it.

Spend a few moments during the next day or two, asking God where he would like you to give up your need to understand, and instead, to trust him.

Remember Jonah had an “official belief” but practically speaking, he had embraced the belief system of everyone around him. Are there any areas where your Christian belief has given way to the sort of things everyone around believes?

Are there any “false gods” in your life that the Holy Spirit is bringing to your mind? If so, reject them in the name of Jesus, and turn to Him alone.

HOPE CHANGES EVERYTHING

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One of our hopes through Jesus is a physical world created new, and fresh and perfect.

Hope is a surprisingly powerful thing. That is why it is one of the three foundations of the Christian faith. By and large, I think that we Christians do not spend nearly enough time thinking about and talking about our amazing hope. We have only to look at our behavior for evidence of our lack of hope. But when we focus on some of the astounding hopes we have through the resurrection of Jesus, our lives can be profoundly shaped in beautiful ways.

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 Resurrection Hopes

In first Corinthians chapter 13, Paul talks a great deal about love. Near the end of the chapter he says this:

13 Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love ​— ​but the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13:13, CSB)

I hear Christians speaking about love quite frequently. I also hear a great deal about faith. Hope is also one of the three great pillars of Christianity, however, we seem to ignore it most of the time. I think Easter Sunday is a wonderful time to meditate on some of our hope.

There are many reasons why following Jesus in this world is difficult. However, sometimes we make it harder on ourselves by ignoring the astounding hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Trying to be a Christian without a real and living hope is like trying to canoe up river without a paddle. If we are not deeply connected to a powerful, vibrant hope, it is no wonder that we have difficulty reading the Bible every day. If hope is not front and center in our lives, no wonder we struggle to pray regularly.

Let me give you an illustration. A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a sabbatical. I had been in ministry for more than twenty years. Several difficult things had happened during the past ten or so years of ministry. I was battling severe, intense chronic pain, at that time, it had been for two years. I was worn out, and close to burned out. One autumn, Kari and I began praying for the chance to take a sabbatical. Many of our friends and colleagues in ministry had sabbaticals every seven years, and I had not even had one. I felt a desperate need, however, I did not have much hope that it could happen.

During that initial period I prayed, but I didn’t expect much. I certainly made no plans for traveling, and no plans to help the church during my absence, because I really could not even hope that I would actually get a sabbatical.

However, people in our ministry network began to send us contributions toward the sabbatical. More and more came in. We got a large tax refund during the early part of that year. Then, in March, I received a nerve block injection that seem to have potential to reduce my pain for a month or two. Finally, we found astoundingly inexpensive airplane tickets to Europe. Hope began to bloom in my heart.

Once I had hope, my behavior changed. I began to spend a great deal of time looking online at places to go and things to do on the sabbatical. I spent some money on travel gear. Kari and I and the kids spent many evenings dreaming and talking about our upcoming trip. I brushed up on my German language skills. I reached out to old friends who lived in Europe. I made plans with the church for what would happen in my absence. Suddenly the burdens I was bearing seemed less heavy, less important. I began to experience a lightness and joy, even in my everyday life.

Long before the sabbatical actually happened, my attitude was changed by hope. My plans were changed by hope. And finally, my behavior was changed by the hope that I had. I engaged in different activities, than I had before. I even spent my money in a different way once I had hope.

Hope is a surprisingly powerful thing. That is why it is one of the three foundations of the Christian faith. By and large, I think that we Christians do not spend nearly enough time thinking about and talking about our amazing hope. We have only to look at our behavior for evidence of our lack of hope.

When our hope is only for this life, then we spend our money on the things of this life. We spend our time, our energy, our passion on things that will ultimately be useless and pointless. We are not interested in spiritual things because we don’t really have any concrete hope connected with those spiritual things. If we truly had hope in Jesus we would spend our time thinking about Jesus, talking about him, dreaming about our future with him. We would naturally be spending our time reading our Bibles, finding out more about him, and what we will experience with him in eternity.

There are many aspects to the hope that we have in Christ, but since it is Easter, after all, I want to spend the remainder of our time focusing on the main thing: eternal life in the New Creation. I want to focus on just a few of the many aspects of that glorious future. That future is ours only because Jesus makes it possible through the resurrection.

Hope #1: Nothing that is good will be lost. All things will be renewed, restored, or made new.

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, in the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields because of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:28-30, CSB)

5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5, ESV)

19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. 21 For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets (Acts 3:19-21, NLT)

I love reading. Sometimes I will recommend a series of books to someone, and I am almost jealous to imagine them reading it for the very first time. I am often sad to realize I will never again have the delightful experience of “discovering” those books. I think there is something about this hope of renewal that is a bit like being able to experience those wonderful “first time experiences” once again. Everything will be renewed and refreshed in the full Kingdom of God.

As I grow older, loss becomes more and more real. I have lost touch with people who were once dear to me. I have lost a certain amount of physical strength, and athletic ability. I have lost opportunities. In the very business of living, we are often forced to make choices that will include losing something either way. But the promise of God is that he will make all things new. Yes he will make new things. But these promises are also applied to old things that are good and will be renewed. Relationships will be renewed. Part of this promise, of course, is that we will see our loved ones again, all of those who died in faith. There is no need for regret. Whatever you have lost that was good and right will be restored. Even the entire physical earth will be restored and made new.

Hope #2: The end of suffering and sorrow, and the beginning of eternal joy.

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4, ESV)

11 And the ransomed of the Lord will return and come to Zion with singing, crowned with unending joy. Joy and gladness will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee. 12 I — I am the one who comforts you. (Isaiah 51:11-12, CSB)

17 “For I will create a new heaven and a new earth; the past events will not be remembered or come to mind. 18 Then be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I will create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people. The sound of weeping and crying will no longer be heard in her. Isaiah 65:17-19

We are promised a world renewed without sin or defect, and bodies that also have no sin or defect. In the resurrection there will be no more grief, no more pain! Oh if you only knew what that particular one means to me! No more disappointment, no more fear, no anxiety, no loss. No separation from those we love.

Hope #3: Reward for the suffering, hardship and work that we have endured during this mortal life.

A lot of Christians don’t like to talk about this. They say, “Just being there is enough of a reward.” I think that such an attitude should be examined very carefully. The Bible is filled with references to rewards. Salvation, and the Eternal life that goes with it, of course, are not rewards for anything. We can’t earn it. It is the free gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-10). So, any time the Bible speaks of rewards in the New Creation, it cannot mean salvation, or eternal life. But the New Testament does speak of rewards frequently. This is not an obscure, disputed issue. It is a major teaching of Jesus himself.

Here are just some of the many passages that talk about rewards: Matt 19:28-29; Luke 19:12-19; Matt 5:12; Matt 6:1-4; Matt 6:20; Matt 10:41; Matt 16:27; 1 Corinthians 3:10-14; 1 Corinthians  9:7; Eph 6:7-8; Colossians 3:23-24; Hebrews 10:35; Hebrews 11:24-26; Revelation 22:12.

That’s fourteen Bible passages right there, and I could probably dig up a few more. The rewards are there for a reason. There are there to motivate us, and encourage us, and to give us hope.

Spiritual things are often hidden. A woman may be diligent in prayer, but no one else sees it. However, God sees it, and he will reward it (Matthew 6:6). Perhaps a certain man deals with deep temptations, and he battles faithfully to remain true to Jesus. No one on earth knows what it costs that man, but Jesus does, and he will reward it. A lot of what we think and do as we follow Christ is hidden. But it is not forgotten, and the scriptures promises rewards for those things. Some people give up opportunities, or relationships, or money or status in order to follow Jesus faithfully. None of that will be forgotten. All of it will be rewarded. The insults you have endured, the times others have treated you unjustly; the times you have held back when you might have retaliated – all of the sacrifices we make – will be used as occasions for the Lord to heap more blessings upon us once we reach resurrection life.

Personally, I think one reason why many Christians are so worldly is that they think it doesn’t matter how they live once they have received Jesus. They don’t realize that even more undeserved blessing is available to us when we trust the Holy Spirit and live the way he leads us to through the scriptures, and through his immediate promptings.

But it does matter. Listen to what Paul says. The foundation he refers to is salvation in Jesus Christ:

12 Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13 But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14 If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15 But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.
16 Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17 God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. (1 Corinthians 3:12-19, NLT)

He is writing to people who are being saved. But some of them, on judgment day, though they are saved, they will “suffer great loss,” and, essentially, barely be saved. Others will be richly rewarded. If you are content to be “barely saved,” Listen to the text: “Stop deceiving yourselves. You are foolish in God’s eyes.”

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, ESV)

God piles grace upon grace. Even though we don’t deserve salvation, let alone anything else, he allows us to store up even more blessing and heavenly treasure. Don’t be so foolish as to waste that opportunity. Certainly, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can obey the Lord in our day to day life. But we have a certain hope that when we allow the Spirit to work in us that way, he will pile on the rewards.

HOPE #4: An eternal, perfect, physical body to enjoy in an eternal, perfect, physical universe.

Make no mistake: the bible teaches the resurrection of the body. The thing that made Christianity so unique, and (for some) so hard to swallow, is that the first Christians claimed that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Many, many people during that time believed in some sort of soul or spirit, and there was widespread belief that souls or spirits carried on even after the death of their bodies. To claim that Jesus was a disembodied spirit who appeared to many people would not have made Christianity particularly controversial. But when the apostles said Jesus was raised from the dead, they meant physically. They said his body was resurrected. They claimed they had seen and touched not his spirit, but his body. In many ways, his resurrection body was like his previous one. He still had his scars. He could be physically touched and his voice was audible, like anyone else’s. He ate food, smiled, laughed and so on.

In some other ways, however, Jesus’ resurrection body was different. He could make it so that others didn’t recognize him until he allowed it. He could disappear from one place, and appear in another. And for those who wonder if we can fly in the New Creation, remember that Jesus left his disciples by going up into the clouds. I don’t know what that is, if it isn’t flying! We are told that our bodies will be like his. We will experience the joy and glory of God as we eat, drink, laugh, play, use our gifts and abilities and relate to one another. John Piper speaks to this great hope:

The Bible says we are to eat and drink and do everything in our physical bodies to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), which must mean that the pleasures of God or the pleasures that God has built into the taste of food are not designed primarily as competitors with God’s beauty, but designed as means of its communication. He’s communicating something of himself in the good creation that he has made. The creation becomes one of the ways that we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Then the Bible makes it plain that this is not only true now, but will also be true in the resurrection. In fact, that’s why there is a resurrection of the body and not just the immortality of the soul.

(John Piper, “What’s the Appeal of Heavenly Rewards, other than Getting Christ?”. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/whats-the-appeal-of-heavenly-rewards-other-than-getting-christ.  Accessed 5/21/19.  Bold added for emphasis)

Even now we can eat, and as we savor the taste, experience the goodness of the Lord. We can see beautiful natural scenery, or listen to music that touches us, and each one of those experiences are intended by God to connect us to him in deep, meaningful ways, full of variety and interest. Of course, here and now, the connection gets marred by our sin. We eat more than we should, or we eat things that are bad for us. We listen to things that arouse our lusts or angers. Sometimes we are just too spiritually dull to receive these things as good gifts from God. But the time is coming when every bite of food, every note of music, every word spoken or written will be a means by which we are blessed by God and receive more of him. None of it will be touched by guilt or even the weakest remnant of evil. Through our physical bodies, we will receive pure joy, not mixed with anything bad or wrong. Again, this will happen not only spiritually, but also physically.

If we could fully delight in God without bodies, I doubt God would have created a physical universe in the first place. But part of the delight he gives us is physical, and so part of our hope is for a physical future when every physical experience contributes to our delight in God.

We must continue to think about the stunning hope that we have because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. We need to talk about it with each other. Just as we humans delight in sharing memories with loved ones, so too, we ought to delight in sharing our hopes of the New Creation, our hopes of Resurrection. I think it would be terrific if we often had conversations where we say: “I can’t wait for the day when I get to fly.” Or, “I am so excited about being pain-free.” Or, “I can’t wait to make music and delight in music as a vehicle for the joy of God.” Let us encourage one another. One thing is certain: the day is coming for each one us.

Often in this life we know that the presence of God is a good and wonderful thing, but we seldom feel it. In the resurrection we will have bodies and souls that can handle the presence of God. What we have now by faith, we will have then in its fullest reality. The hunger inside our souls will be fully satisfied, and our joy will overflow like a fountain.

Why don’t you set a timer right now for five minutes, and spend that time thinking about the four amazing hopes we’ve just considered. Or, is there another hope from the resurrection that captivates your heart? Ask the Lord to make these hopes real and present to you each day.

THE KING WHO CHANGED NOTHING AND EVERYTHING

palm sunday

The crowd on Palm Sunday was looking for a king who ultimately would have been just a historical footnote. Instead, they got someone who did not change their political or economic situation at all. And yet, he changed the entire history of the world.

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 Palm Sunday 2021

Matthew #72. Matthew 21:1-11

Each year, Christians celebrate and remember the last week in the life of Jesus before his resurrection. We call it “Holy Week.” For Jesus, the week began when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to cries of praise and celebration from the people. By Friday night of the same week, he was hanging dead on a Roman crucifix. On the very next Sunday, he rose from death; one week in total after riding into Jerusalem. Roughly one quarter of Matthew’s entire gospel is about that week, and with chapter 21, we have now entered that section of the book.

It was a kind of Holy Week for the Jews of that time too. The ancient Jewish calendar was different from ours, and sometime in March (it varies from year to year) was the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Fourteen days into the New Year, the Jews celebrated Passover – a feast commemorating their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Following Passover was a week-long celebration – the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Although you could celebrate this wherever you lived, most Jews felt the best place to spend Passover and Unleavened Bread was in Jerusalem. Then, forty days later was the Feast of Pentecost. Picture this time of year a little bit Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States. A lot of people traveled to be with family and loved ones. There was a delicious meal (usually the same food every year) and good feelings and a lot of gratitude. Along with it was the knowledge that you were all probably going to get together again in a bit more than a month, for Pentecost. In Israel, this was the “most wonderful time of the year.”

So there was a big crowd headed into Jerusalem that day, just three days before the Passover and the start the Festival. They were probably in a good mood. They were ready for something new and exciting to happen. Then along comes Jesus, riding on a donkey. Certainly, he could not have been the only person riding a donkey into Jerusalem that day. But Luke records that his disciples started shouting and praising God joyfully. Matthew says that the people directly in front of Jesus and those behind him took up the cry. John records that many of the people there for the festival had heard about Jesus raising Lazarus. So they went out to meet him and joined in the praises. Soon, it was a kind of uproar that stirred up the whole city:

When He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken, saying, “Who is this? ” (Matt 21:10, HCSB)

The people took up the cry of Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9, ESV2011)

That particular prophecy of Zechariah was all about salvation and deliverance. Many Jews probably felt it was fulfilled in some ways when the Maccabaeus Family led the rebellion that freed Israel from Greek rule, some hundred and sixty years before the time of Jesus. Now they were thinking that maybe God was going to do the same thing to the Romans and to king Herod, through this Jesus. They were thinking salvation all right, but political salvation.

Now the truth is, I think most of the crowd was cheering in ignorance, and for the wrong reasons. After the crucifixion, the entire number of Jesus’ followers was about 120. But this crowd sounds a lot bigger than that. It would take more than 120 people to shake up the whole city. So a lot people were cheering who didn’t know Jesus very well, or only knew of him. It was party time, and they were partying. It sounded exciting. They thought maybe they had a new Judas Maccabaeus on their hands, and maybe they were going to be free from the oppression of Rome and king Herod (Herod was not a Jew).

But why did Jesus participate in this? What Matthew records makes it sound like Jesus planned it: apparently Jesus had arranged the donkey ahead of time, and even agreed upon some sort of “password” with the owner of the animals. Luke and Mark also suggest that it was intentional on Jesus’ part. But the crowd had all the wrong reasons, so why did Jesus do it?

Matthew records one of the reasons: it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9. Some of that prophecy certainly sounds like military deliverance from oppressing nations. In fact, it mentions war against Greece, so some of it may indeed have been fulfilled by the Maccabaeus Family. Remember, however, biblical prophecies usually have multiple layers that are not necessarily fulfilled at in one piece. And there are other clues in Zechariah 9 that show us that, whatever else it was about, it was also about Jesus.

It says that the one coming to Jerusalem on the donkey is righteous. Who else is truly righteous besides Jesus? It says he is the true king. Who has the right to claim kingship, but him? Judas Maccabaeus, more than a century before, was never a true Israelite king, because he was from the tribe of Levi, not the tribe of King David, which was Judah. The prophecy says he is bringing salvation, and that he is humble and peaceful. Zechariah 9:11-12, a few verses later, also says this:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zech 9:11-12, ESV2011)

Prisoners are set free and given hope – because of the blood of the covenant. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to shed his blood, to create the New Covenant, sealed with his blood, brought about by his death. Certainly, at the time, no one else knew that, but Jesus did. And later, John writes, the disciples remembered it (John 12:16).

So, in this act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving the praises of the people around him, Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, and giving anyone who cared to think about it a clue that he was the promised Messiah.

I think Jesus did this for other reasons too. It was time for him to give up his life for our sins. I think he was deliberately provoking the Jewish leaders into taking the actions that would lead to his crucifixion. Up until this very last week of his earthly life, Jesus had kept a fairly low profile, and avoided popular acclaim and confrontation with the Jewish leaders. But now, I think he was deliberately antagonizing them so that they would do what had to be done.

Finally, if Jesus really is who we believe he is, he was always worthy of worship at any moment in time. So, it is only good and right that as people come to celebrate the Passover, they worshipped the true Passover lamb who would give his life so that they could be spared. It is entirely appropriate that people worship him. He said as much to the Pharisees who criticized him.

Now, as I have pointed out, even those who praised Jesus, did so with quite a bit of ignorance. Frankly, I don’t think most Christians get the point any more than the First Century Jews. The Jews got all excited about Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and I’m sure many of them forgot that it was really all about God’s deliverance. We have the same issues in America with Christmastime and Thanksgiving. We get all happy and excited, but often neglect real thankfulness or real remembrance of Jesus. And we do the same with the beginning of Christian Holy Week.

Most churches I’ve been to wave palm leaves around at some point in the Palm Sunday service. I’ve been in churches where they brought in live donkeys and camels for the occasion. People shout and jump and sing, just like the Jews did on that first Palm Sunday. Just like the Jews did in ignorance. But we should know better, now.

It reminds me of Elijah’s experience with God:

Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the LORD’s presence.” At that moment, the LORD passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:11-13, HCSB)

We look for God in the excitement, the noise, the action. And there is some of God in that, sometimes. But Elijah found that the heart of God was something, deeper, quieter, more meaningful. It wasn’t wrong for the Palm Sunday crowd in Jerusalem to have a raucous celebration. It wasn’t wrong for them to want deliverance from the Romans. But the real thing, the most important thing, was deeper than that. Two-thousand years later, Judas Maccabaeus is sort of a footnote in the ancient history of the Greek empire; many of you may not have heard about him before today. And that’s what the Jews were looking for – another person to give them temporary relief, another person who would end up as just another historical footnote. But they got someone who would not change their local political situation at all. Instead, he changed the entire world.

I think we need to take notice of this. Too often, our vision is too small and limited. We just want Jesus to give us a better job, or more compliant kids, or to “fix” our spouse. Those aren’t necessarily bad things to want; it’s just that the vision is too small. What he wants to do inside our soul and spirit is so much bigger than a temporary situation fix. He has a permanent solution to the holes inside our hearts. He has brought us hope, and grace and love and permanent salvation; he has sealed it with his blood.

Zechariah’s prophecy says: “Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation.” I say the same thing: Jesus is coming to us. Do you recognize him as your king, the one with the right to rule your life? Are you willing to be part of his real mission, not to temporarily change a little corner of your world, but to bring hope and salvation to all people for eternity? Are you willing to receive not just what you want, but what he chooses to do in your life and with your life?

Right after “Palm Sunday,” Jesus made this comment:

“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. Where I am, there My servant also will be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24-26, HCSB)

Jesus literally gave up his life. The result was eternal salvation for billions. He invites us to join him – not necessarily to literally lose our physical life (though he has called some to martyrdom) but to surrender our hearts and minds and wills to him, so that in return we can receive his salvation and honor.

The party is fine, as far it goes. The celebration is fun. The happiness is good and right and genuine. But let’s use this text as an opportunity to go deeper, to engage with the real mission of Jesus, and to receive him as our true king.

COLOSSIANS #37: STAY SALTY!

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As Christians, we need to be aware that not everyone thinks or believes like us, and we should be wise about how we treat others. We should do our best to let the fruit of the Holy Spirit guide our interactions with non-Christians, so that those relationships are marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Relying upon the Holy Spirit, we should learn how to share the reasons we have for following Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 37

COLOSSIANS #37. COLOSSIANS 4:4-6

5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6, ESV)

Paul is offering some final instructions. His first thought is that we are to be wise in our interactions with those who do not know Jesus. What exactly does the Holy Spirit mean us to get from this?

First of all, a reminder about wisdom. Wisdom is not just knowledge. Some people know a great deal, but they are not wise at all.I’ve met a few Christians who could quote all sorts of Bible passages from memory, and yet, they did not apply those verses to their lives. Even though they had knowledge, they were foolish, not wise.

Wisdom is the ability to use whatever knowledge we do have, and to apply it to our lives and actions in a right and thoughtful way.

Paul tells us now to apply what we know of Jesus to our relationships with those who do not follow Jesus. I think some of this means we should be careful not to act like hypocrites. If we talk a Christian talk, but then treat people badly, this amounts to being foolish in our interactions with other people. We should think through how our words or actions might reflect upon Jesus and his other followers.

Some people will be antagonistic to Christianity, no matter what we do. But at least, let it be for the right reasons, and not because we have been cruel, or rude or unkind or stupid. Don’t let our actions become an occasion for someone to think badly about Jesus Christ.

There’s another aspect of walking in wisdom toward outsiders. That is, we should be aware that those who are Christians, and those who are not are different. Yes, we should treat those who don’t follow Jesus with grace, and kindness and respect. But we also need to remember that we have given our ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ, and that makes us different from those who have not. We need to be careful about absorbing the values and priorities of those around us. Being wise also involves being different.

Some of the ancient church leaders, writing about this verse, advised Christians to be careful about how they engaged in business, and also about with whom they did business. They thought it was wise to minimize interactions with certain types of people. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are people who are deliberately looking to pick a fight with Christianity and Christians. Sometimes, such people might even be motivated by politics or ideology. If you sense someone actively trying to make trouble with you about being a Christian, sometimes it’s best to remain polite, but keep your distance. As Paul says, be wise about how you interact with outsiders.

Our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, and to our beliefs. Even as I write this, there is a bill called the “Equality Act” that has already passed the US House of Representatives. The law will punish churches and Christian charities for abiding by Christian doctrine in the way they minister to people. If it passes the Senate, it will be technically illegal for some doctors, nurses, and others, to allow their Christian beliefs to shape how they help the people they serve. It will restrict Christian organizations from expressing certain Christian beliefs, and  require even Christians working in private organizations to treat people in a way that conflicts with what the Bible teaches. This will be true even of organizations who receive no funding from the government. It even sets a precedent for making certain kinds of speech illegal.

All this is to say, even now, the time has come to be wise about who we express our views to, and how much we say to certain people. Especially, this applies to what we do in our interactions online.

Now, this does not mean that we should keep quiet about Jesus. I’ll explain more about that in a minute. But it does mean that when we interact with others, we should let the fruit of Holy Spirit be evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23). And also, we should be wise about choosing our time and opportunities to tell others about Jesus.

After telling us to be wise in how we relate to outsiders, he adds: “making the best use of the time.” The Greek word for time is not just the passing of minutes, hours, and days. It is a word for a specified amount of time, a pre-determined “season.” The word “making the best use of,” means we should use this specified season as fully as we can, and not let it go to waste. So, what is “the time” or “the season,” that Paul means? What does he mean that we shouldn’t let it go to waste but should make it worthwhile? To understand all this, let’s look at something written by the apostle Peter, when people asked him when Jesus was going to return:

8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. 9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. (2 Peter 3:8-9, NLT).

So, the “season” that we are in, the time that we are to make use of, is the remaining time we have on earth. It is our life, for as long as Jesus allows us to live, or, perhaps, until he returns again. The way we are to make use of it is by helping other people to follow Jesus.

Remember that this whole section of Colossians began with this statement:

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, ESV)

We already have “one foot in heaven,” so to speak. Our real life, our best life, is already secure with Christ at the right hand of God. That life is eternal. That life is more powerful than the one we live here and now in the flesh. One day, when Jesus returns, we will step into the fullness of that life. At this present time, we have it only in the spirit realm. Our flesh, that is, our present mortal bodies, cannot inherit that eternal spirit-life. Our bodies of flesh are corrupted. Our souls are caught between the good, powerful pure eternal life of the spirit, and the corrupt, sinful, dying desires of the flesh. So we fight a battle in our souls. Anchored here by our bodies of flesh, we experience pain and heartbreak, temptation and sorrow and cruelty and injustice. But we have a promise that when Jesus returns, he will grant us new bodies, bodies that are not corrupted by sin. These new bodies will be a perfect fit for the spirit life that has already been given us. Then, there will be no more pain and suffering, no more heartbreak, no more disappointment, anger, rage, fear, or anything we think of as bad, wrong, or evil.

But right now, in this present life, we have a part of the new life in Christ, but only a kind of “down payment,” not the whole thing. You might say that we are stuck in a kind of in-between time. It is about this in-between time that Paul says: “making the best use of your time.”

So, in our text for today, Paul is saying this: “As long as we are stuck here, let’s make the most of this in-between time. Let’s not let it go to waste. Let’s make it count for something.” And, of course, the way to make it count is to use it to point other people to the Life that is in Jesus.

Next, the text says:

Let your words at all times be gracious, salt-seasoned, knowing how to give the best, well-considered response to each person. (Col 4:6, my translation).

Our words are to be gracious, and seasoned with salt. Have you ever had a conversation with someone, and afterwards you felt almost the way you do after a delicious and healthy meal? You are strengthened, and satisfied and encouraged. That is the way we are to be in our talk with others, especially with outsiders.

In my own conversation, I struggle with this. My language is not generally full of obscenity, or coarse, crude talk, or innuendo. But sometimes, I wonder if maybe instead it is just sort of tasteless. Even though I sometimes struggle to make small-talk, I also struggle to move a conversation beyond small-talk. But this idea of “salt-seasoned” conversation means it should be meaningful. So, what can I do? As with all of this part of Colossians, it is meant to cause us to rely upon Jesus. Once I know what Jesus wants, I need to be willing for that to happen through me. Next, once I am willing for my talk to be gracious and salt-seasoned, my part is to rely upon Jesus to make that happen. In real life, for me, that usually means two things. The first is that I say a quick prayer during a conversation, just a silent prayer in my head, like: “Lord bless and use this conversation.” Next, I try to find a question that will give the conversation an opportunity to become more grace-filled and meaningful. Often all I come up with is: “How can I pray for you during the next few days?” Or, sometimes, the Lord will put an idea or question in my head that helps move the conversation to a more meaningful level.

We are also told to give a thoughtful response to each person. Peter says something similar:

Peter writes about this also:

15 Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. (NLT, 1 Peter 3:15-16).

. There was an old saying that used to be common in some Christian circles: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” I detest that saying. Words are necessary. The gospel is not “preached” unless there are also words.

3 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.”
14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”
16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “LORD, who has believed our message?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. (Romans 10:13-17, NLT, bold formatting added for emphasis)

How can anyone believe if they have never heard the Word of God? “And how can they hear the word of God unless someone tells them?” So, tell them. Yes, be wise about when and how you tell them, but tell them.

It is a good idea to think about why you follow Jesus. Although Jesus gives us forgiveness and eternal life, following him also means we give up the right to arrange our own lives the way we want to, and instead, die to ourselves, and live as he leads us. We must have a reason for making that choice, which leads us away from self-centeredness, and the pleasures of sin. It’s good for us to think through what our reasons are, and then also, to think through the best way to explain those reasons to different types of people. Then, when the time comes, we’ll be ready.

By the way, when it comes to giving your reasons for why you trust Jesus, you shouldn’t try to sound like anybody except yourself. Don’t come up with someone else’s reasons for why to follow Jesus; instead, think through why you follow him, and, figure out the best way to explain that to others. As you learn and grow in Jesus, you will know more, and what you say may be more profound, but don’t pretend to know something you don’t. We are all finite human beings, and God is infinite. Therefore, there will always be things we don’t understand, and questions for which we don’t have answers. I think sometimes, people respect us more when we honestly admit it when we don’t know. But at the very least, you do know your own reasons for trusting Jesus. and you can share those.

  • What helps you to live wisely in your interactions with those who aren’t Christians?
  • We live in an in-between time, when part of us is redeemed, and part of us is still waiting. How does that encourage you? What helps you to remember this truth?
  • Share some examples of salt-seasoned, gracious conversation.
  • Practice sharing the reasons for the hope you have in Jesus. Use your own words, and your own understanding.
  • Practice asking each other possible questions that outsiders have. Think about the best ways to respond.

COLOSSIANS #36: THE LIFE SPIRITUAL

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We are called to live a life bathed in prayer and worship. This is something to persist in, persevere in, even when answers don’t come easily. We are to watch over and guard our spiritual lives, and pray also for the teaching and spreading of God’s word. We cannot do any of this on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit in us to live this way.

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COLOSSIANS #36. COLOSSIANS 4:2-4

After dealing with seven whole verses last time, we will turn our focus to three more verses: Colossians 4:2-4. As always, remember the context. This is part of what it means to do all things for the sake of Jesus, and in reliance upon Jesus. Chapter 3 started with the general idea: since our real life is hidden with Christ in God, focus on the things above, where Christ is, where our real life is. Then throughout chapter three, Paul began to spell out some specific scenarios, so that we could understand what that idea means in our relationships with other Christians, and then in our family relationships, and following that, in our relationships at our jobs. Now, he caps off the entire section with 4:2. The Greek uses only seven words in this verse, but four of those words are densely packed with meaning. So, I offer you my “amplified” translation.  Again, I am not claiming to be a Greek scholar, but I want us to understand what this sounded like to the first people who read it:

“As to prayer and worship – in fact, your whole spiritual life – be always sticking with it, be continually persevering in it, staying awake and alive in it, guarding your spiritual life, all with thankfulness.”

I “translated” it this way so that we can see several important things that we might otherwise miss in English. First, the word for “prayer” includes more than bowing our heads and reciting words to God. It points to the entire life of worship and devotion to God, both for individuals, and for the church as a whole. So it isn’t only about “saying prayers.” It is also about worshipping God alone while you are driving, and worshipping God with other Christians while you sing with your church. It is about asking God to intervene in specific ways, and is also about keeping an informal conversation with God going at all times. It is talking about life with a Christian friend, and then praying about your concerns together before you move on. It involves reading the scriptures, and talking about God with fellow Christians, as well as those who don’t believe yet.

Second, in my translation, I make it clear (as the Greek does) that this should be an ongoing, never-ending process. This isn’t a religious duty that you do, and then you’re done. Of course, that should be obvious by now, since Paul has been applying faith to all of life. But these verbs are in the present tense, active mood, which means these are real, actual, actions that should be carried out continually. It isn’t theoretical, or abstract. It is also ongoing.

Now to a couple of the important words. The word translated by the ESV as “continue steadfastly” is the same word used in Acts 2:42, where it says “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer.” The idea behind the Greek term is a that a group of people are together earnest, persevering, diligent and utterly committed to something. In other words, they didn’t just “say a prayer.” They were earnest and diligent about praying; they persisted and persevered in their prayers, even when they did not receive immediate answers. They didn’t just “listen to a sermon.” They diligently persevered in learning what Jesus said and did, and what it meant. They persisted in applying it to their lives, even when at first it didn’t feel like it made anything better.

I think this idea is very important. What we really believe as Christians is that spiritual reality is more real and important than what we call “physical” reality. I don’t mean the physical isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; but Christians believe the spiritual is the more powerful of the two and certainly the more lasting. That means we persist in our devotion to spiritual life even when the physical reality is whispering to us that we are stupid and silly to do so. We persist in this because it makes a difference in spiritual reality Eventually, that difference will also affect the physical realm, but even if it does not do so during our lifetimes, we trust in what we don’t see. That is what faith is: “the reality of what is hoped for; the certainty of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Next we have the term “being watchful.” This word is used fairly often by Jesus himself, when he teaches us to be alert and expectant about his return to earth. Peter uses it in his first letter:

8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 5:8-9, ESV)

So the word means to remain awake and alert, to be diligent in guarding or watching over something. In this case, we are to be alert and diligent in watching over our spiritual life with Jesus, our life of prayer and worship, both public and private and all the time.

And we are to do this, with thankfulness. This is the seventh time Paul has mentioned gratitude in this short letter of  Colossians. I think we should pay attention. Our entire spiritual life – and even the guarding of our spiritual life – should be deeply soaked in thankfulness to God. Bible scholar R.C. Lenski says:

This indicates Paul’s meaning: our great thankfulness for all that Christ has done for us and all with which he has filled us (2:9); see also 3:15, 17. He has freed us from all superstitious fears; he has placed us into the pure and happy Christian life. Cling to him in prayer and watch that nothing removes us from him and constantly thank him for all that we have in him. (Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament, Colossians 4:2)

I have said it before, but I even need to remind myself, so I’ll remind you too: Thankfulness helps us to take hold of spiritual blessings. Sometimes we don’t know exactly how grasp the wonderful promises of God in scripture. We struggle to make them real in our life. Thanksgiving is the answer. Thanksgiving makes us like sponges, so that we can absorb the goodness that God is showering on us through Jesus Christ. Sometimes, it seems to me that we pray for things that are deeply concerning to us, and when we are done, we feel no better. I wonder if perhaps that is because we are not thanking God at the same time. Perhaps if thankfulness was a part of all our praying, we might find a greater rest for our souls through prayer.

Paul adds something interesting in verses 3-4:

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (ESV, Colossians 4:3-4)

In addition to the life of prayer and worship, Paul asks Christians to pray for him, and for his ministry of declaring God’s word. I do not think that we still need to be praying for the apostle Paul. But I think we can learn a few things from these verses. First, though Paul is gone, the ministry of declaring God’s word clearly remains. I think it is still good and right and appropriate for us to pray that God’s word will be made clear all over the world. All Christians should be interested and invested the spreading of God’s word, and all of us can be involved in that through prayer.

In addition, part of that includes praying for the individuals who are called to the ministry of teaching God’s word. In fact, I ask, without embarrassment, that you include me in those prayers. God has called me to make his word known, as clearly as I can, to the best of my ability. You may have noticed that the name of my sermon blog is “Clear Bible.” That comes directly from this idea here in our text. Obviously, I am not the only person called to this – not remotely so! But as you pray for God’s word to made known all of the world, I deeply appreciate it if you include me in those prayers.

I think this also gives us a standard for the declaration of God’s word. It should be done clearly. One of the reasons I was never able to become an academic theologian is because I am impatient with the tendency of such people to make the bible more obscure, rather than clear. The Bible was not written for scholars, but for ordinary people, and the ministry of the word should help make it more clear. That doesn’t mean there is nothing complicated or difficult in the Bible, but a minister of the word should be able to help others through those parts, not make it worse.

On the other hand, I do think that those who declare God’s word should have at least some education, especially training in how to interpret the Bible, and how to communicate with people, including how to adapt your communication to the people whom you serve. I have met many preachers who have no training in these things, and frankly, in their own way, they are as bad as the overly-academic types. They don’t understand the word well enough to make it clear in all of its fullness and grace. If you have never learned about the culture of Bible times, if you know nothing of the Biblical languages, or history, or if you don’t know the basics of how to study something, you are sure to misunderstand many parts of the Bible. If you are also a preacher, you are going to pass those misunderstandings on to others. You will tend to be more easily influenced by people around you. Instead of diving deeply into God’s word, you will tend to accept and repeat whatever interpretations are most popular among your peer group, and you won’t be equipped to evaluate whether or not they are true, good and helpful.

You see why Bible teachers need prayer? It’s a big and important responsibility. Along with praying in general for God’s word to be taught clearly, and along with praying for the specific Bible-teachers in your life, I think from these verses we can see that it is important to pray for the word of God to spread all over the world.  Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations. He gave John a heavenly vision where people from all ethnic groups would be together in heaven. In order to make those things a reality, the word has to be brought to people who have never heard it before, specifically, people in places of the world where Christianity has not yet been present.

I believe God sometimes makes concrete changes in the world through prayer; that is, in response to our prayers, he makes things happen, or stops things from happening.  What an honor we have to be part of God’s work in the world! But persisting steadfastly in prayer and worship also changes the hearts of God’s people. It deepens our connection with God, and, if we do it with thankfulness, increases our peace and trust in him.

As usual, all of this seems like a tall order. It is not something we can do on our own, with our own willpower. Our failings in the life of prayer and worship should draw us back to Jesus. We need to lean in on his grace, and lean on the power of the Holy Spirit to make us into people who are devoted to prayer.  We can’t do it on our own, but the power of the Lord in us can make us into the people he wants us to be.