DESIRE, HOPE & THE RESURRECTION

resurrectionmatt2017

What if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself

 

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2019

John 11:1-53

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac, or maybe a demon. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.

I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will do so again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.

Jesus was at least two days of traveling away from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:

Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. What kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.

Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Jesus, typically, doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him. You see, Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection.

We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die. This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12:24, ESV)

This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than the seed was. In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)

When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”

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.  (Col 3:2-3, ESV)

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Gal 2:20, ESV)

Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible].  We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.

You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see this, when it came to their brother. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:23-27, ESV)

I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet.

Before we are too old, we learn that life is full of disappointments. We find out we can’t fly. Animals don’t talk. Mom and Dad are really going to stay divorced. Work is hard, as is managing money. The odds against winning the lottery really are one-hundred million to one against it (or even worse). My marriage isn’t perfect. I can’t make a living doing what I love to do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. So, we adjust our expectations. We adjust them radically downwards. Chocolate cake is doable. I can dream of having chocolate cake, and I think I can make that dream happen. I can’t be fulfilled in my work, but I think I can manage to be pleasurably distracted by TV, or computer games.

But what if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? The great philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote:

What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean, unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything within his reach? (Pascal, Pensées)

When we get honest with ourselves, we know that the world doesn’t seem right. We have a deep restlessness. As I said, we cover it up with things we think we can realistically get for ourselves, like work, entertainment, shopping, sex, food, adventure, relationships – the list is endless. But if we would just stop, and be still, we would realize that there is a deep emptiness in us. That’s probably why we so seldom stop and be still. We often blame the emptiness on ourselves; and it’s true we certainly don’t do ourselves any favors. But the problem is not only just with us. It is that we are out of place. We were made for paradise, and instead we are living on the outskirts of hell. C.S. Lewis writes:

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

Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself. As we follow Jesus, he sometimes asks us to let some things die, so that he can replace them with that which is far better.

Let’s continue with the story:

28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
30 Jesus had stayed outside the village, at the place where Martha met him. 31 When the people who were at the house consoling Mary saw her leave so hastily, they assumed she was going to Lazarus’s grave to weep. So they followed her there. 32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. (NLT) John 11:28-35

Jesus himself understood that this life is deeply troubling. Even though he knew what he was about to do next, he wept. It is entirely good and appropriate sometimes to grieve, to be deeply troubled – even when we have the hope that Jesus gives. This life can be terrible and tragic. Jesus did not pretend that a future resurrection meant that you should never cry here and now. We are indeed living in a place where we were not made to live. Continuing on:

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him! ” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? ”

And there it is: If God is so powerful, why does he let bad things happen? If he is good, why would he allow evil to exist? I think the full answer is beyond our understanding, but one reason is this: if God were to destroy all evil, he would also have to destroy all of us, because none of us is without some evil. Only those who trust Jesus to do it for them can be made holy without being destroyed at the same time. God is patient, waiting for more people to enter through the only door. I know, however that that particular answer, though correct, is not complete. There is more going on with that question than we can understand. I know that Jesus calls us to trust, even when we can’t understand. That is certainly what he was saying to Martha and Mary. Let’s finish this story:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 “Remove the stone,” Jesus said.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? ”
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” 43 After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ” 44 The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” (CSB) John 11:36-44

Now, as amazing as this is, I want to point something out: today Lazarus is dead again. His resurrection was not THE resurrection. It was a miracle that Jesus did to show who he is, and what is coming. But it is important for us to realize that it was temporary, because far too often, what we think we want is for Jesus to fix this life, and what Jesus wants to do is give us an entirely new life that will never be broken again. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We get so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection that Jesus offers us is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had.

The apostle Paul describes both the resurrection that Jesus had, which is also promised to us, when we trust Jesus:

When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 15:36-58)

Are you willing to let temporary things die so that you can receive something that will never die? Are you willing to believe that our deepest, most unfulfillable desires might be signs that we were made for Resurrection life? Especially, are you willing to trust Jesus to be the true Resurrection and Life, to be patient until he brings that Resurrection Life to us? When we are so willing, as Paul writes, nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless!

22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. 25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (NLT) Romans 8:22-25

Let us look forward with hope, because the One who called us is faithful. He has risen!

He has risen indeed.

REVELATION #43: GOD HIMSELF

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If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself. Anyone is welcome to receive this treasure, by walking through the Door – Jesus Christ.

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Revelation #43  Revelation 21:3-7

Last time, we looked in depth at the first two verses of this passage. Because the New Heavens and the New Earth are such a precious gift, I want to take a bit more time to meditate on what we are promised in this passage. Let’s look at verse three:

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.

This is a very ancient promise, one which was given through Moses to the people of Israel:

6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8, ESV)

In Revelation 21:3, we are witnessing the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. God will be our God, and he will bring us into the perfect New Creation that has been promised to us. However, the center-point of this promise is not the land, but rather, God himself. God is the best, highest good in the entire cosmos. There is nothing better than Him. And so, he gives us the best thing in existence: Himself. Earlier, he said to Abram:

​Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward. ” (Genesis 15:1, NIV. This translation is, in my opinion, the most literal rendering of the Hebrew in this particular verse. It implies that the great reward is God himself.)

When we read the promises in scripture, all of the stuff we really want, deep down – like  love, peace, joy, meaningfulness, fulfillment, adventure – these are given to us as by-products of having God himself. When we have God, we have love, joy, peace, adventure, fulfilment, and so on. When we don’t have God, our experience of those things is doomed to be both temporary, and corrupted. When we have God, we have everything. If we think we have something, but we have it apart from God, we really don’t have it. That is why Jesus told these two little parables:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (ESV, Matthew 13:44-46)

If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself.

The next several passages in Revelation are describing what it means for God to be our God, and us to be His people in the New Creation. This is what we hope for. This is what makes our present sufferings bearable. This is why we can have joy in even the hardest situations.

Verse 4 tells us that God Himself “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” In the New Creation, we will have New Bodies which never get sick, never feel pain. Our new bodies can’t get hurt, or be killed. Death itself will be “dead.” We will have no reason to cry or mourn.

Some people may have questions about that last part. What if some of our loved ones are not there? What if they reject Jesus, and so go into the lake of fire? Won’t we cry and mourn for them?

I think we are dealing with matters that we cannot fully understand. I think that’s why we have verse 5, where God says, “The former things have passed away. Behold I making everything new!” Things won’t operate the same way they do here. We will live in an entirely new and different “system,” one which we cannot understand fully at this present time. In present terms, yes, the loss of loved ones to the lake fire would make us grieve. But the New Creation is entirely new. The old ways of looking at things may not apply there.

I have an additional thought about that question, also. I imagine that when we are fully engaged with God, with no sin in the way of our experience of Him, His Joy will fill us so completely that there simply isn’t room for grief. Everything will be so “right,” that even things that might have made us grieve cannot touch us, because then we will fully accept all that God does, and be able to wholeheartedly affirm it as right and good.

Verses 7 and 8 do not seem so positive. I am quite sure that this is referring back to the judgment before the throne in 20:11-15. The Lord is reminding us that these promises are not universal. The only way into the New Creation is through Jesus (John 14:1-6).

Many people say that Christians believe in a mean, narrow-minded God, who only saves those who believe in Him specifically. But the truth is narrow minded. The answer to 2+2 is 4, nothing else, not even 4.0001. Truth, by definition, excludes everything that is not true. That means truth is always “narrow.”

However, actually, everyone who wants to enter the New Creation may do so. The Bible says there is a door in, and that door is Jesus Christ. Anyone is welcome to use that door. But there is no other door, no other way. If someone refuses to come through the only door, then, yes, they will be kept out, because there is no other way for them to get in.

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (ESV, John 14:5-7).

40 For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (HCSB, John 6:40)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (ESV, 1 John 5:10-12)

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture (ESV, John 10:7-9)

No one is kept out because God is mean, they are kept out because they don’t want to come through the door. It humbling to come through the door. We have to admit that we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves (1 John 1:7-9). We have to turn away from our sins, and from living for ourselves. We have to die to ourselves, and to our own sinful impulses, so that Jesus can live through us (Galatians 2:20).

Now, why should this be? Why is it that we must come through Jesus? Why is there no other way?

In the first place, only Jesus makes us truly holy, so that we can be in the presence of a Holy God without being destroyed. Every other religion says that you must make yourself holy, in one way or another. But  a flawed person cannot make themselves flawless. It is a logical impossibility. So, the Bible says, “Let Jesus take care of that, because it is not possible for a flawed person to be flawless.” The Flawless One is our only hope.

Second, this New Creation is described as perfect, and incorruptible. Nothing can go wrong here. No evil will be here, and none of the sorrow and pain that is brought about by evil. If there is to be no evil, there cannot be any person who is less than perfect. If there was, then the New Creation would be no better than this one. Therefore, if a person will not allow Jesus to change them, if they reject the forgiveness that brings holiness and the salvation that leads to perfection, then they cannot be in the New Creation without changing it back into the old creation.

Revelation 21:8 lists some specific kinds of people who refuse to come in through the door. The first is, cowards. Right before this, it says, “those who conquer, will have this heritage.” This refers to the battle of faith here on earth, before we stand in front of the judgment throne. The picture is that one the one hand, we have those who fight the battle of faith with courage and perseverance. Now, this doesn’t mean we fight our own way into heaven. But there is a lot of opposition to faith in this world. The attacks against Christianity are relentless. There is constant pressure to compromise, to give in, and even to give up. Jesus told us it would require that we surrender our very lives to him that we die to ourselves (Matthew 16:24-26). Now, it is his strength that works in us to persevere but there are some who will choose not to, because it is easier. Paul explains that we allow God to work, but it is His strength which works:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV, Philippians 2:12-13)

So, here in Revelation, those obey by allowing God to work in them, and by pursuing his work in them, these are recognized for their courage.

Cowards are the opposite of this. There are some people who may be tempted to say of the Christian faith: “This is hard. I’m not getting enough out of it.” This is a warning to those who are so tempted. In addition, I believe this refers to Christians who are pressured and persecuted by human culture. Particularly in John’s day, Christians may have been tempted to deny their faith in order to avoid persecution and being excluded from non-Christian social circles. God is reminding those that this is a coward’s choice. It is a rejection of Jesus himself. To do so is to refuse to come through the door, because the door costs us everything in earthly terms. But the reason we have to let go of earthly approval is so that we can receive everything through God’s approval.

I am troubled by this today. Many so called “Christian celebrities” seem unwilling, when asked, to make a public statement affirming what the Bible says about human sexuality. If they are afraid of speaking the truth because they might lose their popularity, how much more are they likely to deny Jesus when they might lose their freedom, or even their very lives? I believe this should warn us that being a Christian in a non-Christian culture is always difficult. Cowardice is easy.

I want us to circle back around. It is important to remember that we must come through Jesus, and those who refuse to do so cannot enter the New Creation. But anyone who is willing to come through Jesus is welcome. And the reason for that one door, is so that the New Creation will be a whole new order, with no death, no sorrow, no decay. Instead, we have God himself, and in Him, everything our hearts truly desire, all the treasure of the universe, and more.

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to us today!

Revelation #38: The Danger of Superficial Grace

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It is our job to warn those who reject Jesus, but not to condemn them. On the other hand, when we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry. In Jesus alone is the perfect balance of grace and judgment.

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Revelation #38. Revelation 19:11 – 21. The Danger of Superficial Grace

I appreciate your patience with these sermon notes. I know I am not producing them as fast as before. The truth is, even as I write this, I am in severe pain, sick to my stomach, and I just generally feel awful. I will not allow all that to stop me, but sometimes I simply can’t help from slowing me down.

With the praise in heaven offered at the beginning of this chapter, and the announcement of the marriage of the Lamb, we have officially entered the second-to-last section of Revelation. I am not quite so sure of my own accuracy in dividing up this part of Revelation, but even if I get the chiastic structure somewhat wrong, we can still receive much simply from the text itself. In any case, I call this section: “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” Today, we will cover the first part of the victory of Jesus, which is the first defeat of Satan, covered in verses 19:11 – 20:3.

In the second section of the book of Revelation, we had the seven seals. The first seal was a rider on a white horse. Our analysis of the text showed that that rider represented the gospel going out into all the world. It was an indication that we presently live in a time of grace, a time when no one is being judged for their sins. Instead, God has been appealing for people to repent, and receive the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Now, in the sixth (and connected to the second) section of Revelation, we have a new rider on a white horse. Listen to the description of this rider. He is:

called Faithful and True, and He judges and makes war in righteousness. 12 His eyes were like a fiery flame, and many crowns were on His head. He had a name written that no one knows except Himself. 13 He wore a robe stained with blood, and His name is the Word of God.

Along with the vast majority of commentators throughout history, I believe that this rider represents Jesus. Since no human being is perfect, no human being could judge and make war in righteousness. The description of his eyes matches that of the description of Jesus in the first part of the book of Revelation. But the clincher is the last part: he is called the word of God. Remember, this book of Revelation was transmitted to us through the apostle John. Listen to what John says about Jesus and his gospel:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-18)

So, it is crystal clear that “the word of God,” means Jesus.

In our text today, Jesus has another name, which no one knows except himself (verse 12). I think we are told this in order to remind us that Jesus, being in very nature God, is far beyond our comprehension. We will never be able to fully understand him, and we certainly cannot control him, or judge him. I believe it says that his clothes are dipped in blood to remind us of the sacrifice that he made for us, and for all people.

These things are very important for us as we consider this text. The first white horse came to signify a time of grace, when God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ is given to all the world, and his judgment is withheld. But now judgment is coming and it is coming through Jesus Christ himself.

We have seen all the way through the book of Revelation that time and time again, people are given opportunities to repent. But this text tells us that there will come a day when that time really is over. God’s patience is vast, and he takes no pleasure in the death of the unrighteous.

11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

But in order to bring his people into a place of eternal joy and eternal safety, he must, at last, judge those who reject him. Revelation clearly depicts these two truths: that God is reluctant to condemn anyone, but that there will come a day when he will indeed do so, in order to usher in the new heavens and new earth for those who have not rejected him.

Again, it is Jesus himself who is sent to do the judging. I believe the reminder of his sacrifice (his clothes dipped in blood), and the fact that he has a hidden name, are there to make his right to judge all the more compelling. He is God, we are not, and we can never truly know him, or put him in a box. Also, the fact that he himself shed his own blood for us and suffered the torment of hell for us, makes his right to judge indisputable. He has already taken this terrible judgment upon himself. But if we refuse to let him do that, there is no alternative. We will have to own the judgment for ourselves, which means we become objects of God’s wrath.

This is very important, because Christians seem to be confused about judgment, and the confusion cuts two different ways. On the one hand, some people seem to think that it is their job to bring judgment and condemnation on those who are not Christians. Obviously, this text shows us that that is wrong: it is the right of Jesus, and Jesus alone. I think the following analogy might be helpful:

Imagine that you have a friend who regularly cheats on her taxes. You have another friend who happens to work for the Internal Revenue Service. You know for a fact, from your IRS friend, that sometime soon the government is going to crack down on tax fraud. Sooner or later, if your friend continues her pattern of cheating on taxes, she will get caught, and she will go to prison. Now, it is not your job to catch her, nor to throw her in prison. But what you can do – and what you should do, if you really love your friend – is to warn her about the coming judgment. You aren’t bringing legal proceedings against her, you are not trying to have her thrown in prison; those things are not your job.

However, many Christians seem to be handing out condemnation tickets to non-Christians whom they do not like. But that is not our job; we have no right to do such a thing. What we can do, and should do, is to warn our non-Christian friends about the coming judgment, and to appeal to them to receive the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ instead, while there is still time. There’s a big difference between warning, and condemning. There is a very large difference also, between those who claim to be Christians, and those who do not. If someone claims to be part of the body of Christ, and under the authority of Jesus, and yet they are continuing in a long-term pattern of blatant sin, we do have the right to talk to them. The judging of those who are not believers is not our task. The apostle Paul helps to clarify this. Below, When Paul says “bears the name of brother” we need to remember that most Jesus-followers called each other brother and sister. The word “Christian” was still not widely used. So “brother” means “Christian.” :

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

So it is not our job to judge those who are outside the body of Christ. We are only to warn. And even when it comes to judging those within the body of Christ, Jesus and the apostles gave very specific criteria. It is not a matter of anybody and everybody going around condemning people. There is a very clear process for church discipline. It is mostly a matter for the church leadership, and only in rare cases does it involve everyone in the church.

There is another error that Christians make that this text corrects. Many, many Christians these days seem to think that there is no final judgment at all. They say things like: “It’s all about love. Love conquers all. All we have to do is love. Period.” In a way, they are right. But love is much bigger than they seem to realize. For love to be real, there must be an alternative; and the alternative to loving God is evil. Therefore, as part of his love, Christ brings true, final and complete judgment upon those who reject his loving salvation. Remember the name that no one knows? We cannot put Jesus in a box. Very often, those who want to say that Jesus is only loving, and never judges, are putting him in a box of their own making. This text is crystal clear, for those who reject Jesus, there is a thorough and terrible judgment awaiting.

When we tell people – whether Christian or not – that there is no judgment for sin, no penalty for rejecting the grace offered in Jesus, we are acting as false prophets. Jeremiah spoke about people like this:

14 They have treated My people’s brokenness superficially,
claiming, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

When we tell people there is no judgment for sin, we are treating their brokenness superficially. We are misleading people that God loves, people whom he wants to repent, and that makes him angry.

Isaiah also saw that people did not like to talk about the fact that one day God will indeed judge the earth:

9 For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction.
10 They say to the seers, “See no more visions !” and to the prophets,“ Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. 11 Leave this way, get off this path,
and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:9-11)

People in the time of Isaiah didn’t want to hear about a God who holds people accountable for their sins. Neither do people in 21st century. But we are not acting truly lovingly if we hide the truth.

Paul warned Timothy about people like this, who will go looking for people to affirm their ideas, and avoid those who tell them the truth about God as revealed in the Bible.

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: 2 Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. 3 For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. 4 They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4)

We do no one any favors by hiding the truth. This book of Revelation is as much holy Scripture as any of the Gospels. And, honestly, you cannot read the Gospels, paying attention, without seeing that Jesus judges everyone based upon how they respond to himself. The message of shallow love; love that only affirms and never confronts, is not the message of Jesus. It is true that the Holy Spirit appeals to all people, inviting them in love into salvation through Jesus. But the reason for God’s passionate desire to be reconciled to people is that if they refuse, they will face terrible judgment, and that judgment will come from Jesus Himself. John captures both God’s love, and his judgment, perfectly. But we need to read past the first, very familiar part, and on to the end, in order to get the complete picture.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

So what we do with this? What does it mean for us, as we engage in real Christian community, go to work, spend time with our families, and so on? For me, it is always good to remember the difference between warning, and condemning. Warning someone about a coming disaster is an act of love. When we appeal to people to repent of their sins, and escape judgment, our love for those people should be evident. The less loving my warning sounds, the more likely it is that I am leaning towards condemning someone.

This passage, for me, is still a reminder of the grace of God. Jesus has not yet come as an avenging warrior. We are still in a time of grace. We have seen throughout the book of Revelation that God gives opportunity after opportunity to all people, in the hopes that some might repent, receive his grace, and escape the coming judgment. If there was no coming judgment, all of that would be sort of silly; even pointless. But the fact that there is a coming judgment makes God’s grace shine all the more clearly.

This passage also reminds me that the time of grace will one day have an end. For every single person, that end is no farther off than the end of their mortal lives here on earth. Those who preach love, and no judgment whatsoever, are false prophets; they are treating people’s brokenness superficially. This is not loving at all.

Finally, the purpose of the coming judgment is so that God can bring his people into a new heavens and a new earth; a perfect world without sorrow, hatred, or fear. The end goal of judgment is a glorious, loving future with God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this now.

Fishermen’s Delight (Luke 5:1-11)

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Jesus blessed the fishermen, not to endorse their fishing business, but rather, to lead them to repentance through His goodness. His blessing was not sign that they were doing something right, but rather, a sign that they should pay attention to Jesus, and where He wanted to lead them.

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Single Sermons. Epiphany 5 Series C. Luke 5:1-11

​I could preach four or five different sermons on this text, so we will have to trust the Holy Spirit to say the things he wants to say this time, and leave some for another occasion.

Imagine you own a small business. Maybe it’s a real estate business, or a construction company. You aren’t rich – certainly not in your own eyes – but you have worked hard, and you’ve had a bit of luck (even if you don’t recognize it), and things are going OK. You employ three or four other people. You go to church, like most of your friends and family, and you know a little bit about the Bible. All in all, though you wouldn’t consider yourself wealthy, you are an important member of the community.

Now, imagine that you have one of those periods that small business owners have sometimes. Things just aren’t going right. Nothing disastrous, but certainly, stressful. You go to church, and listen to the preacher. Afterwards, the preacher suggests a certain strategy. His idea sounds pretty stupid; clearly he knows nothing about the way your business works. However, you pray about it, and decide to trust the Lord, and do it. The result is outstanding! You win a contract that will keep you prosperous and well for several months to come.

You probably know someone who had something like this happen to them. Maybe you’ve been in a position like this yourself. What do you think your reaction would be? How would you respond if you prayed, trusted God, and then received a big payoff? I think many people might say some things like this:

“It just goes to show that if you trust God, things will work out.”

“I worked hard on that contract, but it was God who made it happen.”

“I am so blessed that God gave me that sale.”

“God has really blessed me in my business.”

“I was starting to wonder if I should be in this line of work, but God showed me through this blessing that I’m supposed to keep on.”

Many people take this sort of blessing as an indication that they are doing something right, even, something that God wants them to do. They  take their success as God’s endorsement on what they are doing. I am sad to say that I have even seen people become arrogant when God blessed their business. They often begin to look at the world simplistically:

“God rewards you when you trust him, pray and work hard.”

“If you just pray and work like I did, God will bless you.”

Many people may not say it out loud, but sometimes, they may think something like this: “I don’t know what that other person’s problem is. They probably aren’t trusting God like I am.”

It strikes me very hard that the responses of Peter, Andrew, James and John were nothing like this at all. These two sets of brothers were small business owners. They owned their own boats and equipment. They hired other workers. They were church goers and hard workers. After a hard and fruitless night, Jesus gave them a stupid strategy. In the sea of Galilee, the fish they were after only come near the surface at night. It is a pointless waste of effort to throw a net during the day. But they trusted him, and as a result, they were blessed financially. But listen to how Peter responds:

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, because I’m a sinful man, Lord!”

When Peter says “go away from me,” he doesn’t mean that he actually wants Jesus to go away. He is admitting that he doesn’t deserve to be blessed like this. He is saying he doesn’t even have the right to be in the presence of Jesus, because he isn’t worthy. When Jesus blessed Peter with success, he didn’t take it a sign that he was doing something right. Instead, the grace of material blessings given through Jesus led Peter to repent. Peter and the others knew, immediately, that they did not deserve any blessing from God. This blessing did not make them self-satisfied in the least. Instead, they fell to their knees in sorrow for their sin. I find that in my hard-hearted way, I secretly believe that I deserve blessings. I work hard. I trust the Lord. Of course he should bless me. But Peter’s heart was much more sensitive to God than mine is sometimes. He recognized that while he deserved nothing but hellfire, God was blessing him anyway. God’s goodness led him into a holy brokenness. This reminds me of what the Holy Spirit says through the apostle Paul to the Roman Jews:

4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4, ESV)

The ESV Study Bible says this about that verse:

They thought such blessings showed that they were right with God and had no need to trust in Christ, but Paul says the opposite is true: God’s blessings should have led them to repent of their sins.

In the lectionary, one of the other readings for this week is from Isaiah 6. Isaiah was praying, and suddenly he had a tremendous vision of the glory of God. He could have said, “I am such a devout and prayerful person that God chose to give me a vision of Himself.” He might very easily have seen this vision as a reward for his diligent devotion to God. Instead, he said:

“Woe is me for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.”

God’s goodness in giving Isaiah that vision led Isaiah not to be self-satisfied, but to be broken over his sin. I often assume that if I am blessed, it is because I put myself in a position to be blessed. Peter and Isaiah felt the opposite. When they were blessed, they saw the huge gap between their brokenness and God’s goodness. It led them to repentance.

To repent is to fully own the fact that we have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever. Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. But it does mean that we are going a different direction now. It’s as if we were walking on one road, and the we took a turn, and started down a different road, going a different direction. We may fall down sometimes as we walk in the new direction. But we get up, and continue on in the new direction; we don’t go back the other way. Our overall direction is new, oriented toward God, not away from him.

By the way, the New Testament talks about repentance in two different contexts. In several places, particularly in the book of Acts, it speaks of a big act of repentance accompanying salvation. In other words, the process of being saved involves a definitive turning away from sin, and a life oriented away from God, and turning toward God. But many Christians don’t appear to realize that the whole Christian life on earth involves repentance. It is not a one-time deal. In many different specific areas, we need to continue to repent, and allow Jesus to come more fully into our lives. We still give in to the flesh sometimes, and sin, and we must repent of that sin. There are many verses in the New Testament that call those who are already believers to repent, but I’ll give just a few, to save space. In the verse below, Paul is writing to Christians:

9Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. 10For godly grief produces a repentance not to be regretted and leading to salvation, but worldly grief produces death. (2Cor 7:9-10, HCSB)

Repentance is something different than feeling guilty. When you feel guilty, you feel bad about what happened, but you also feel stuck, like there is nothing you can do. Guilt does not motivate you, and Jesus died to take away our guilt. But repentance is motivating. You know you are wrong, and you really want to be different now. You are eager to walk the new way.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus dictated seven letters to Christian churches. In all but two of those letters he calls believers to repent. Here are two examples:

3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; keep it, and repent. But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief, and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you. (Rev 3:3, HCSB)

 19As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. (Rev 3:19, HCSB)

5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:5, HCSB)

Clearly, he is calling those who are already saved to practice ongoing repentance. For me, I need to remember to look at blessings as a call to repentance.

There’s another thing that strikes me about this passage. Peter did not assume that this tremendous blessing meant that God wanted him to be a successful fisherman. In fact, he quit the business that God had blessed; they all quit, and apparently, even before they cashed in on that amazing catch. I think most of us assume that when God blesses us in some particular area of our lives – particularly with something like a promotion, contract or new job or business opportunity – it means that God wants us to keep doing the thing that he blessed. But this is not the case in this text at all. Jesus blessed their fishing business, and the result was that they were fishermen no longer. God’s blessing is not the same thing as God’s endorsement of what he blesses. If we Christians really understood that, we would avoid a host of sin and error. Blessing from God cannot be taken as a sign that he approves of what we are doing, because He blesses even those who have rejected him:

For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:45-46, ESV)

We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. 16 In past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way, 17 although He did not leave Himself without a witness, since He did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.” (Acts 14:15-17, HCSB)

God often blesses us to try and turn our hearts toward him. One of my favorite Hymns is “Come Thou Fount of every Blessing.” In it there is one line that strikes me particularly:

“Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be // Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering hear to Thee.”

Jesus showed the apostles his goodness as way to turn them away from the fishing business, and toward Himself.

In the case of our text today, the blessing of God led to repentance, and to Jesus calling Peter and the others to leave their business and work in full time ministry. For a deeper look at the call to ministry, please go to: https://clearbible.blog/2014/04/01/jesus-and-fishing/

At the moment, I want to point out two things. First, this text shows us that some people are called uniquely to vocational ministry, it also shows us that everyone who trusts Jesus is called to participate in His mission. Not everyone is called to leave his or her career. However, all Christians are called to follow Jesus. For most, that means, among other things, expressing your faith and living for his purpose as you fulfill your everyday responsibilities at home and at work. It means being a disciple of Jesus when you are with your family, your friends, when you are at work, when you are driving, playing golf, fishing – in fact, all the time. It is obvious that all New Testament Christians believed this and practiced it (Matthew 28:16-19; Acts 11:19-26; 1 Peter 2:12-15, 3:15-16).

But there is also a call to unique vocational ministry. In our post-modern, anti-authoritarian culture, we are becoming so anti-institutional that many people have become suspicious of those who are called into vocational ministry. I’m not a fan of institutions or hierarchies myself.  But the bible does clearly teach that God calls certain individuals to specially dedicate their lives to teaching and training other Christians. Not many are:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  (Jas 3:1, ESV2011)

It is unique calling for a small number of people. But some do have it. Right now, I want everyone who is reading this to stop and ask the Lord: “what is your call on my life?” Maybe he wants to affirm that you are called to be exactly where you are. Perhaps, for one or two of you, he has a special call on your life, a call to vocational ministry. If so, this will not be the first time you have heard this. It will strike a deep, exciting and terrifying chord in you. All of us, let us listen, repent, and follow Jesus into all of life.

Unwrapping Jesus

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Isaiah unpacks the greatest gift the world has ever had. 

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Christmas Eve 2018. Isaiah 9:6

I’ve had trouble getting in the Christmas spirit this year. A big surgery two weeks ago kinda put the damper on things. I wish I could sit back and enjoy Christmas, but I don’t feel well physically. As I’ve aged, presents hold less appeal for me, too. I’ve started to think, maybe now that I’m an adult, Christmas isn’t really for me. It’s for the kids. It’s for the homeless. It’s for people who don’t have so much to do, or have enough money to get really cool gifts. But it isn’t for me, a middle-aged responsible adult.

As I’ve prepared this message this week, I realize I’m wrong. I don’t know about presents or “the spirit of Christmas,” but the meaning of Christmas is for me. It is for you too. For all of us. The central thing we Christians celebrate at this time of year is the gift of God’s presence in our lives. And that is for me, not just kids or others. And it really is for us, at all times.

Many years ago, centuries before Jesus was even born, Isaiah, prophesying by the Holy Spirit, described several key components of God’s present to us – Jesus Christ. He wrote this:

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

The first thing we ought to note from this passage is that the child is born “to us” and given “to us.”  God did not come to earth for any other reason than our benefit.  Jesus did not come for himself, nor for “someone else” but to us.  Soren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish existentialist, always encouraged people to read the Bible as if it were a personal message for them.

“When you read God’s Word, in everything you read, continually say to yourself: It is I to whom it is speaking, it is I about whom it is speaking…”

So when we read this passage from Isaiah, the words “to us” are not a mistake.  The son was born to us he was given, to us – the message is for us.  Jesus is not an abstraction that exist for those “other people” – he was not just given to Jews or to those really “spiritual” people.  He was given for you and for me.  This is an important signal, a reminder for those who read Isaiah 9:6 that it is relevant.  The prophecy is not just a fascinating historical event, that was fulfilled two thousand years ago – it is relevant to us in our time, our situations, our individual lives. Christmas is for you. It continues even in these days.

So what exactly is this relevant message?

The government will be on his shoulders.  I grew up in a third world country, where the government was frequently entertaining, but never very efficient.  I remember as a youth of twelve, getting off of a plane in L.A., touching US soil for the first time in several years.  We were to be here for three months.  As the car drove smoothly down the empty, early morning freeway, I thought to myself, “Wow, we’re in America.  The government really works here.”  I suppose it was primarily the absence of potholes on the freeway that inspired that thought.  Since that time, of course, I have become as cynical as the next person about the American government. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but it has been a very long time since I’ve had any confidence that the United States government really operates to the benefit of most of the citizens. Of course, the New Guinean government was worse. For those of you who think you might emigrate if it gets really bad, where would you go? You think anywhere is else is better?

Truthfully, no earthly government is perfect.  However, Isaiah tells us that this child, the one given to us, is the one who is ultimately responsible for everything. The fate of the world rests on his shoulders, not on any government or official.

Our hope is not in our government, or any earthly government – our hope in Jesus.  When Pontius Pilate asked Jesus about government (as a governor, it was topic that interested him) Jesus responded that his  (Jesus’) kingdom is not of this world.  In other words, Jesus is not interested in establishing physical ruler-ship of the world at this time – in spite of the fact that the Jehovah’s witness cult says he is.  He is concerned with the government of our souls, lives and our eternal future.  Whom we pay taxes to is not generally his concern, other than that he wants us to obey the laws of the lands where we live.  The Bible does say that there will come a day when Jesus will return and then he will rule the world as  King might.  However, the time and circumstances of that are not our concern.  We can simply put our trust in him, as one finally responsible for what happens. I know earthly government frustrates us sometimes, but we need to take longer view, an eternal perspective on government.

Now this child, this one given to us, the one who bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, has been given several significant names. First, he is called wonderful.  In many translations it says “wonderful counselor” but the Hebrew is probably more like “wonderful – comma – counselor.” In other words, they are two separate descriptions of Jesus.  Another way to say “wonderful” might be  “miracle-full.”  Jesus, when he lived on earth, was certainly wonderful in this sense.  Many signs and wonders accompanied his birth – the star, the angels, the wise men and so on.  He did many signs and wonders during his ministry – turning water into wine, healing people, driving out demons, walking on water.  And because he is given to us as well, he wants to continue to work wonders in our lives – reconciling and restoring relationships, healing us and even doing more supernatural miracles as well.

Next, he is the counselor.  Counselor has two major implications of course.  It can refer to someone who helps another with inner healing, and also to someone who gives counsel, or advice.  Jesus does both.  Sometimes we might have struggles in relationships, or a question about how to handle a situation.  Sometimes in our small groups, our temptation is to try and counsel each other – but Jesus is the real counselor. Our real job is simply to connect people with Jesus and His counsel.  He has the wisdom of God.  He stands close by, supporting, listening, encouraging, as good counselor would. If we are honest with ourselves and with him, he can lead us into inner healing, both directly, and through other believers. Another connotation of “counselor” is “comforter.”  Jesus offers us comfort as a counselor – he is there to love us and support us in time of need.

Mighty God.  I think that this name of Jesus is put as the third of the five names for a reason.  It stands, alone, in the center of the other four.  The other four all point to it.  It is, in fact – wait for it – chiastic structure. Jesus is not just some benign, divine uncle, simply there to our beck and call.  He is God.  There is an allegiance that his existence demands on our lives.  Yes, he wants to work miracles for us, yes he wants to be our comforting counselor, but also, he is our God.  He wants to be our ruler.  He is not under our control – but he seeks for us to joyfully submit to His control.  At the heart of the truth about this child is the fact that the God of the universe did come himself to be with us.  Christmas, and this child, is about God’s presence in our lives, and His desire to bring us into a relationship with Him, and to become King of our lives.

Everlasting Father. This is interesting. Isaiah is anticipating the birth of a child that hasn’t even been conceived yet, and he calls this baby a “father.” I think there are several things going on here. First, this is a clear prophecy that the messiah will be God himself in human flesh. Only God was known as “everlasting father.” Isaiah is saying, this child, born to us, will be more than human. He will be eternal God come into the world. Second, fatherhood in those days was significant because it had to do with inheritance. All that your father owned was yours also, even before his death. Isaiah tells us that this “eternal father” is born to us. Through Jesus we gain an eternal inheritance that will never fade or spoil. Third, through Jesus, we get the perfection of fatherhood. Fatherhood is essential to the development of children. An absent or negative father can derail a child for life. A positive and present father goes a long way toward giving the child what he/she needs to succeed in life. In this country we are in a crisis of fatherhood.  Many fathers are negative or even absent altogether.  Yet here, the promise is that this Christ-child will make up for what our earthly fathers lacked.  He can and will fill that most essential void in our lives and even in the lives of our children.  He will treat us like a good father should – He wants to be present in our lives, giving us affection and support, protection and guidance.

Prince of Peace.  “Shalom” is the Hebrew word for peace.  It does not just mean absence of war or “inner calmness” – it means, wholeness, wellness, harmony.  At the heart of Jesus’ peace is reconciliation with God.  Without this reconciliation with God, all the inner calmness in the world is pointless.  Through Jesus, through the child, we can have this peace with God, and the wellness, wholeness and harmony that come with it.

I want to return to the part that I skimmed over before: unto us a son is given.

In ancient Israel, it was tremendously important to people that they have a son to carry on the family name. They saw themselves as belonging to God in groups of families, clans, tribes and then as a nation. If you didn’t have a son, your name would die out, and be remembered no more among the people of God. Therefore, this promise of a son would have meant to those first listeners that they would always have a place in the kingdom of God. This promise of a son meant that they would always belong to God. It means the same thing today. “The Son,” is Jesus, and through him we will belong to God eternally. As the apostle John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:11-13

There is a story told about a man who came home from work one evening, tired and worn out, simply wanting to relax.  As he collapsed into the easy chair with the newspaper, his young son came up to him, wanting to his attention.  The father, unable to muster up much energy, found a picture of the world in his newspaper, and tore it up into small pieces.  He gave the pieces to his son and said, “Here’s a puzzle for you do.  See if you can put the world back together.”  He knew this would occupy his boy for quite some time, since the child did not know his world geography very well.  However in just a few minutes, the boy came back with the puzzle completed, all the countries in the right places

“How did you do that so quickly?” asked the father, amazed.

“It was easy!” replied the boy.  “On the back side of the paper was  a picture of a child.  As soon as I got the child right, the whole world was right.”

That’s sort of how it is with Jesus.  When we get THE CHILD right, our world becomes whole again.

Will you receive the promise of a son this year? Will you receive this child, who rules the universe, the wonderful counselor, everlasting father, mighty God, Prince of peace?

Merry Christmas!

PREPARING FOR CHRISTMAS

red lighted candle
Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com

Advent is a time to prepare for the Lord, who has promised to come to you. He is coming, whether you prepare or not, so wouldn’t it be better to ready to let him in?

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2018 Advent Week 2: Preparing for the Lord

A voice of one crying out:
Prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness;
make a straight highway for our God in the desert.
Every valley will be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled;
the uneven ground will become smooth
and the rough places, a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will appear,
and all humanity together will see it,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isa 40:3-5, HCSB)

One of my favorite places to go is the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee. There’s nothing like that first glimpse of the Smokies when you’re driving East toward Knoxville or Maryville and you see those high ridges silhouetted against the sky. From a distance it looks like one long continuous line of mountains all across the horizon. But when you get closer, and actually start to drive into the Smokies, you realize that they are not actually just one unbroken ridge. We go to Townsend a lot, and there’s a road that weaves its way through and in between high ridges and mountains. When you get right to it, some of the ridges are actually closer and some far away. It is only the distance that makes the mountains look like they all start together and are all part of the same ridgeline.
I think this picture describes quite well how Biblical prophecy often works. Most of the prophets were given a vision by God, and that vision was much like a view of the mountains from the distance. They describe what is actually coming, but their perspective is affected by the distance of time. The prophets view the future like we view the Smokies from a distance – all the events were “out there” and they all seemed to be about the same distance away. When we get into the actual events however, we realize that actually quite a bit of distance separates each one from the other.
Very often, in addition to holding predictive prophecies, the writings of those whom we call the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel etc. – also contain messages that are relevant to the people who first heard them. These immediately relevant meanings are meant for us as well.
Let’s look at Isaiah 40:3-5. Isaiah prophesied to the nation primarily during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah, from about 750 to 690 or so, BC. One of the many things he prophesied, was that the nation of Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians, and that many of the people would be taken away to Babylon as exiles (this happened, by the way, in 587 BC, almost 200 years after Isaiah’s time). Looking even further ahead, after his prophecies about the future exile, Isaiah goes on to prophesy about the return of the Jews from Babylon (this also happened, staring in the 520s BC). Isaiah 40 is basically the beginning of the section about the future return from future exile. And yet, at the same time, parts of this passage (and others in this section) are about the future coming of Jesus Christ to earth, which he did, as we know, roughly 2000 years ago, or, about 700 years after Isaiah prophesied. And finally, elements of these prophecies also refer to the time when Jesus Christ will come back again, at the end of time.
Whew! If you wonder how one passage can contain all those elements, just don’t forget how those distant mountains look.
The essential message for those in the days of Isaiah, and later for those exiles who returned from Babylon, was this: God is bringing his glory back to his people. Even in the days of Isaiah, the nation of Israel had clearly become a second rate power. The magnificent days of David and Solomon were history. The one nation ruled by King David had long since been split into a Northern Kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern Kingdom (called “Judah”). These two nations often fought each other. They were dominated by the powers around them – Syria, Assyria and Egypt (and later, Babylon). In fact, while Isaiah was still alive, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was utterly destroyed by Assyria, and ceased to exist. The glory days were over. But Isaiah 40:5 says

“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Something that was lost is going to be restored. Now, “Glory” in the Bible, isn’t just about victory and success and triumph. In fact, the key element to Biblical “glory” is the presence of God. Maybe another way to say Isaiah 40:5 would be this:

“God’s presence will once more be manifest among you. He will be with you in such a way that it is obvious to all people. God has promised it.”

Along with this idea of the return of God’s presence, is the theme of deliverance. When we look at the context of the passage, clearly God is returning, and when he returns, he will bring deliverance. Salvation, would be another word for it.
It is significant that the voice calls in the desert, and the rest of the passage refers to making a way in the wilderness. When we consider the context of exile in Babylon, it may help to know that caravans and armies from Babylon to Israel always traveled North, around the desert, west toward the Mediterranean Sea, and then South into Palestine. When Babylon invaded, it did so from the North. And yet God is coming straight across the desert. The idea here is that there is no delay in his coming and that obstacles will be removed. God will come by the direct route. His isn’t bound by the caravans routes and traditional paths of men.
This passage from Isaiah is used in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers identifies John the Baptist as the one who is calling in the desert, “prepare the way for the Lord…” It is probably no coincidence that John did most of his preaching out in the desert, directly east of most of Israel. John’s ministry took things one step beyond a return from exile. Once again, as a fulfillment of this passage, John was declaring that the presence of God would be manifest among his people. Certainly that promise was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. God was present now in a way that went far beyond what the exiles could imagine.
Each time, along with this promise of God’s manifest presence and his deliverance (in short, his glory), comes an admonition that we should “prepare the way.” I think this bears some looking at, and perhaps has some application for our own lives. One of the primary places where this passage can really be played out is in the human heart. God will come, someday, in the flesh once more and end this world. But he wants to come to you right now in your heart. And the best way for you to prepare for that “someday” is to let him in your heart today.
First, we need to be clear – we don’t “prepare” in order to get God to come be with us. He has already promised to come. His coming is not dependent on our preparation. He’s said, essentially, “I’m coming, whether you get ready or not – so get ready!” We can prepare by learning his word, by telling others about him, by discovering our gifts and using them for his Kingdom. But even more profound than that, this passage gives us a clue as to how to prepare. Isaiah says:

“Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

What he is getting at is this: we need to give God access. The image here is to let God come straight at your heart. Take out the twists and curves we put in to deceive others, ourselves, and even God. Let him get straight to the heart of the matter. I think the way to do this is to be honest with ourselves and with God about who we really are. Sometimes we might not be completely ready to be honest with other people as well. I’m convinced, however that once we make the way straight for God, once we give him unlimited access, we will experience His grace and love to such a degree that eventually we’ll be able to “be straight” with certain other people as well. Giving God clear access to your heart and life is simply a matter of saying “yes” to him. Doing that is the best way I know to receive him now into your life, and also to be prepared for when he comes back to put an end to this world.
Look at what else this passage has to say. God is coming. Give him access. And, “every valley shall be raised up.” Do you have any “valleys” in your life? Are there “low spots” – places where you are lacking or empty? I guess that’s a stupid question – of course there are. God says this. “I’m coming, give me access. And those low and empty spots, those places of weakness and hurt will be filled in. My presence is coming, and it will fill in all of your failings and inadequacies.”
Now for the final thought, which is perhaps not quite as comfortable:

“every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain…”

Are there any places in your life that “need to be leveled?” Any sins that stick out? Bad habits, pride, ambitions that have nothing to do with God? Get ready, because God’s got a big bulldozer. This isn’t entirely a negative thought. No doctor that I have ever heard of can remove a tumor from his or her own body. Sometimes we badly need and even want someone to bulldoze all the junk out of our lives that we can’t quite seem to handle ourselves.
This idea of the valleys being filled and the hills being leveled is really a sort of promise. The passage tells us to “prepare” by making the way straight. But then, when it talks about the valleys and hills, it says “they shall be…” in other words, it is something God will do for us.
Let me give you a concrete example. Most of you know that I struggle with chronic pain. In this struggle, I have often been aware of an opportunity. Actually, let me back up. I have been through hard times in the past, and afterwards, realized that I blew an opportunity to let the character of Jesus Christ be more fully formed in my life, because I spent the time whining and complaining. This time, not perfectly, but more often than in the past, I am aware of the choice I have, and instead of fussing, I am saying “yes,” to God. As I do that, God has been giving me something so precious – a deep knowledge of his love, and a sense of being so very close to Him. I don’t know how else I could have received it, other than saying, “In the middle of this pain, I say “yes,” to you, God. Instead of griping at you, I say, “do your work in me.” I know I’m not doing this perfectly, but even so, I can sense mountains and hills being torn down, and valleys being filled up inside me. I sense the presence of Jesus with me, more and more.
All of this, is essentially the promise of Christmas. Christmas is an old word meaning: Christ-Mass. It was the communion celebration of Jesus Christ. We are in the Christmas season right now. Use this Christmas season. These next two weeks, as we get excited, use the fun of Christmas to welcome Jesus, to give him access, and to watch in wonder as he works in your life to bring you closer to him. All you have to do is believe it, and don’t shut down the work that he is doing in your life.
Let’s celebrate the fact that Jesus is coming straight at our hearts. If we allow him, he will raise up the valleys, and fill in the rough places, and – this is the big one – he will live within us. The glory of God will actually dwell inside of us by the Holy Spirit – just as it did with Mary, 2000 years ago.

Revelation #34. The Dangerous, Good God.

MARTIN_John_Great_Day_of_His_Wrath

The first readers of Revelation would have seen this judgment as a good thing, precisely because it is a God thing. I’m reminded of a concept from the beloved books, The Chronicles of Narnia. The children discover that the King of the World is a lion. They are shocked. “But is he safe?” they ask.

“Of course he isn’t safe,” reply the citizens of Narnia. “He’s the King. But he is good.”

Our passage today shows us that God is not safe, and that God is good.

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Revelation #34. Revelation 16:1-21

There is a strong parallelism between the third section of Revelation (the trumpets) and where we are this time, the fifth section: the bowls of wrath. Let me draw it out for you:

  • Trumpet 1: Hail fire and blood fall on the earth. One third of the earth is burned.
  • Bowl 1: It is poured on the earth. Painful sores break out on those who followed the beast.
  • Trumpet 2: A third of the sea-life is killed.
  • Bowl 2: Poured on the sea. It turns to blood and everything in it is killed.
  • Trumpet 3: A great star falls on the fresh water. One third of it is spoiled.
  • Bowl 3: The bowl is poured on the fresh water, turning all of into blood.
  • Trumpet 4: A third of the sun, moon and stars is struck.
  • Bowl 4: Poured onto the sun. Its power burns those who worship the beast. They refuse to repent, however.
  • Trumpet 5: The bottomless pit is opened. The destroyer is released. The smoke of the abyss darkens the sun, and demonic creatures are given authority to inflict pain on those who reject Jesus.
  • Bowl 5: Poured onto the throne of the beast, plunging his kingdom into darkness and pain. But people continue to reject Jesus.
  • Trumpet 6: The four demons bound at the “great river Euphrates” are released. Their armies kill one third of the earth. The people refuse to repent.
  • Bowl 6: Is poured on “the great river Euphrates” It is dried up, in preparation for a coming invasion. The great battle, Armageddon, is set up by demonic deception.
  • Part 7 of the trumpets (but not a trumpet itself)*: the seven thunders, and God’s promise that there will be no delay.
  • Bowl 7: Great destruction through storms, earthquakes and 100-pound hailstones. The people still blaspheme God.

*(The seventh trumpet is actually the revelation of the seven bowls of wrath).

Now, the natural question is “What does this mean? Why is there such parallelism?” I have spoken before about a way of writing and thinking called “chiastic structure.” What I have just showed you is a clear example of it. In the overall, big-picture of Revelation, part 3 (the trumpets) is connected to part 5 (the bowls). Each individual subsection of part 3 has a matching subsection in part five.

Many, many commentators believe that Revelation is written with chiastic structure in mind, yet so many disagree with each other on the details of which parts are parallel to each other. The reason I favor my own outline of Revelation is precisely because the bowls and the trumpets are clearly related to each other as chiasms. From there, we can build out to understand the whole picture. If you don’t remember about chiastic structure, I strongly encourage you to go skim Revelation Part 2, for a refresher.

The meaning of Chiastic structure is difficult for us to grasp, because it really is a different way of presenting ideas; we aren’t used to it. You might even say, it is a different way of thinking, or of organizing thoughts. I will freely confess to you, that specifically in Revelation, my own understanding  of how John uses chiastic structure is limited. However, it is clear that he is doing so.

It is tempting to think that John is simply repeating the same information in a different way, but that is not how chiastic structure usually works. In part chiastic is used to repeat ideas, but at the same time, it is used to add new information to ideas already presented. What I mean is, we should not think that the trumpets and the bowls are the same; only, that they are related to each other.

In fact, I believe that the bowls are a completion of what was started with the trumpets. Judgment began with the seals, and only one quarter of the earth was affected. Then came the trumpets, and one third of the world was affected. In the bowls of wrath (sometimes called “the plagues”) the entire earth is affected.

With the trumpets, God allowed, for a limited time, and in limited ways, demonic powers to have authority to affect things. Now, with the bowls, he brings judgment down on those demonic powers, and on those who welcome them.

There is one important theme repeated in both sections. It is that some people, in spite of everything, refuse to repent. Their response to God’s glory and wrath is not repentance, but defiant rebellion. In our chapter today, three times, the people explicitly reject God (verses 9, 11 & 20).

So they blasphemed the name of God, who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory.
10 The fifth poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues because of their pain 11 and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, yet they did not repent of their actions. (Revelation 16:9-11, HCSB)

God is showing everyone that his judgments are right and reflect true justice. In fact, verses 5-7 explicitly tell us that this is part of what is going on:

5 I heard the angel of the waters say:
You are righteous,
who is and who was, the Holy One,
for You have decided these things.
6 Because they poured out
the blood of the saints and the prophets,
You also gave them blood to drink;
they deserve it!
7 Then I heard someone from the altar say:
Yes, Lord God, the Almighty,
true and righteous are Your judgments. (Revelation 16:5-7 HCSB)

Many years before, one who did repent of his sins, King David, said something similar:

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge. (Psalms 51:4, NIV)

Paul writes in Romans:

Now we know that whatever the law says speaks to those who are subject to the law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world may become subject to God’s judgment. (Rom 3:19, HCSB)

This is one of the big themes for the book of Revelation: that God is justified in the way he will judge the world. He will make everything right. Child-molesters will get what is coming to them. Hitler, Stalin, Mao – any such monstrous people, will receive their due. Now, at the same time, anyone who repents and throws themselves on God’s mercy will be saved. But those who reject God, and reject the free, loving gracious salvation he offers, will find themselves crushed by his unchanging holiness. God has given them every opportunity to repent and be saved. Again and again, he delays. He starts by offering kindness to all people. When that time is over, he still does not give up, but tries to bring people to Himself through hardship. Even in this section of  Revelation, where the judgment of God is being executed, he is looking for repentance, though he doesn’t find it.

So, what do we do with all of this? Because of the chiastic structure of Revelation, we often revisit the major themes. I think one thing the Lord may be saying to his people today is to remember his holiness and righteousness. We live in a culture where the ultimate sin is to “judge” someone else. It is absolutely true and right that we humans do not have the right to condemn anyone. But God does have the right, both to judge that someone is wrong, and also to either save or condemn them. We don’t have to decide whom is going to heaven, and whom to hell. However, we should recognize that God does decide that. Though God is love, he is also holiness. Though he forgives, he also judges those who reject his forgiveness. There are some things that are right, and some that are wrong. We are playing with a toxic poison when act as if sin is no big deal, as if God is just a big, warm teddy bear.

The first readers of Revelation would have seen this judgment as a good thing, precisely because it is a God thing. May we do the same. I’m reminded of a concept from the beloved books, The Chronicles of Narnia. The children discover that the King of the World is a lion. They are shocked. “But is he safe?” they ask.

“Of course he isn’t safe,” reply the citizens of Narnia. “He’s the King. But he is good.”

Our passage today shows us that God is not safe, and that God is good. We are meant to read this and realize that we have no hope except to repent of our self-centeredness and sin, and throw ourselves upon His mercy and goodness.

Some of you have already done that, in the sense of becoming followers of Jesus. However, maybe there are ways in which we need to continue doing it. We need to remember that sin is a serious, toxic substance, and the future of those who blaspheme God is judgement. We don’t need to live in fear. Also, God often acts in ways that are hard to understand. In those times we need to remember his forgiveness and mercy are truly ours through Jesus, and that he has shown us the depth of his love for us through the Cross. We can know that even when it doesn’t feel safe, God is good.