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

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 9

1 Peter #9.  1 Peter 1:17-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter continues:

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

1 Peter 1:20-21

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

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

And he created us anyway.

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

Now, why would God do this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Romans 8:16-19, NLT)

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

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

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

NEW YEAR: 2022. KILL THE RESOLUTIONS!

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download New Year 2022

NEW YEAR’S 2022

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

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

New Year’s resolutions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Galatians 2:20)

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

Colossians 3:1-4, says this:

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

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

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

I’m so glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHRISTMAS 2021: THE WILD GOD

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Christmas 2021

Christmas Eve 2021. John 1:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hebrews 2:14-18, NLT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Romans 8:31-39, CSB)

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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.

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 #34: THE BEAUTY OF TRUST

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Dancing takes a certain kind of surrender and willingness from one partner, and attentiveness and gentle guidance from the other. . So it is with men and women. Both sacrificial love and trusting submission teach us to be like Jesus, to show the world what Jesus is like. The heart of submission is both humility and trust. When you submit to someone, you are entrusting yourself to that person.

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 34

COLOSSIANS #34: THE BEAUTY OF TRUST. COLOSSIANS 3:18-19

This our third message on Colossians 3:18-19. If you have not read the other two, please go back and do so before you read this one. In this day and age, we need a great deal of background and information to discuss issues regarding women and men.

We have so far learned that the Bible teaches us that God created male and female genders for a purpose, and that purpose is to reflect God’s image in the way that male and female relate to one another. This time, we will consider Paul’s instructions to wives:

18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. (ESV, Colossians 3:18-19)

I have to admit, verse 18 makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately for those who don’t like it, this is not the only verse that says something like that. There are seven different passages in the New Testament that specifically teach about male-female relationships, and all they all have the same consistent message. A lot of people claim that these types of verses were written as instructions to obeyed only in the context of the chauvinistic first century culture. In this view, they are just there to tell people to fit in with the culture around them. Of course, the idea of conforming your behavior to ungodly culture is the exact opposite of everything else in the Bible. There are other big problems with that idea. Dozens of books have been written to try and interpret these sorts of verses in some way or another that makes them inoffensive to 21st century Western culture. I’ve read probably eight of those books, plus numerous articles. From the standpoint of solid biblical scholarship, they are horrifying.

I don’t have time here to go into all the reasons that we must take these verses seriously. I have actually, literally, written a book about this subject. It is called In God’s Image, and it is available in print or ebook from Amazon. I will only say that all of the ways of “getting rid of” these verses, or avoiding their plain meaning, lead us logically to dismiss not just these verses, but the entire bible also. I wish it wasn’t that way, but there it is.

I’ll say one more thing about this. I think almost anyone who read my previous message on Colossians (message #33) would approve of it, and perhaps even feel very strongly that men really need to hear the command to love sacrificially.  But if we get rid of “wives submit to your husbands,” we also have to get rid of “husbands, love your wives sacrificially.” We saw last time that that the command to husbands is deeply bound up with how Christ loves the church. In that word, there are beautiful parallels calling men to live for others rather than themselves. There are compelling pictures of how Jesus loves his people. Go back and read that message, and see if it would really be worth getting rid of all that that command means.

We have already seen the context of the “wives submit” verse here in Colossians. It comes as part of the section where we live new, different lives here on earth because we know that our real life is hidden with Christ in God. After dealing with some of what that means, Paul writes:

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

So, the way we relate as male and female is part of doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. It is part of putting off the old way of life, and living the new way, in dependence upon Jesus, with our real treasure in heaven. This is anything but an instruction to fit in with the culture. It is obviously an instruction of how to live out our new lives with Jesus. So, rather than making this meaningless, let’s see if we can also find something good and helpful in Colossians 3:18, which is, after all, part of God’s Word.

In the first place, let’s make sure not to misuse “wives submit to your husbands.” This does not mean that wives should tolerate any form of abuse. Your husband does not have the right to hurt you physically, or make you do something you don’t want to do. You should not tolerate emotional or verbal abuse, either. These verses do not give your husband the right to tell you what to do, or to arrange how you spend all your time. These verses do not say: “Your husband is the dictator of your life.” Unfortunately, some men have abused these verses that way, but they will have to give an account of themselves before God himself, and I would never want to trade places with them, come judgment day. We must always keep in mind God’s instructions for husbands. If husbands love their wives sacrificially, as the Lord tells them to, there will be no abuse, nor even misuse of “wives submit to your husbands.”

One problem we have in applying these verses is that in our culture, the word “submission” is not very positive. We think of it as something degrading or humiliating. But that is just our culture, at this time in history. There are cultures in the world even today where people think of submission as a positive thing. Just as people in our culture think it is positive to act in ways that are kind and loving, so people in certain cultures think it is positive to show respect and submission. Those folks are eager for the chance to show that they are submissive and respectful, just as we might be eager to show that we are loving, caring people. So, when you hear “submission,” and think “yuck,” understand that such an attitude is neither necessary, nor universally correct. Maybe there is an opportunity here to broaden your wisdom and understanding, and learn from other cultures.

Another thing we need to get correct is the understanding that submission has nothing to do with equality, or inequality. We all have to submit to lawful instructions from police officers. Does that mean that all police offers are better than everyone else? Does it mean they are more valuable, or smarter, than all of the rest of us? Does it mean there is fundamental inequality between us and the police? Of course not. But the police have certain responsibilities that the rest of us do not, and it helps everyone if we cooperate with them.

Biblical submission has nothing to do with equality. But it does have to do with the fact that men are given some responsibilities that are not given to women (as in the police officer analogy, above). There’s something very interesting about the first sin, recorded in Genesis 3. Eve is the one who listens to the serpent. She is the one who takes the fruit and eats it, and then she is the one who entices Adam to do the same thing. Even so, it is Adam who is held primarily responsible for the fall of human beings into sin. God holds Adam accountable first, before Eve, and then pronounces the judgment on him last. He begins and ends with Adam. The New Testament writers affirm this idea. The New Testament clearly blames Adam, not Eve, for sin entering the world (1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Romans 5:12-19). How can this be? How can it be Adam’s fault, if Eve was the first one to actually listen to the serpent, and then take and eat the fruit?

The reason is given in Ephesians 5:22-24:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV, Eph 5:22-24)

When it says the husband is head of the wife, part of what that means is that the husband is responsible for the leadership and direction of the couple, and their family. He will be held responsible even if he refuses to accept it. Adam tried to blame Eve, in Genesis 3, but God didn’t buy it. Adam was supposed to protect Eve from the temptation of the serpent, and lead her. Instead, he stood by and said not a word while his wife was corrupted. He avoided his responsibility. Adam was blamed for failing to lead. So too, men will be held responsible for loving their wives sacrificially, and part of that loving also means gently pointing them toward God.

So wives, bear in mind, your husband will be held responsible in some way, even if you insist on doing it your way. It seems only fair that you allow him to have the final say in decisions for which he will be held accountable. This doesn’t mean every little decision, like where to go out to eat, or what brand of cat food to buy. But recognize that your husband has a responsibility that you don’t have.

Just as Jesus is the example of love for husbands, so Jesus is also the example of submission for wives. Jesus submitted himself to the Father, and came to earth in humility, depending upon the Father, rather than his own resources. From this we can see that the heart of submission is both humility and trust. When you submit to someone, you are entrusting yourself to that person.

As we did last time, I want us to consider a passage that teaches at greater length on this same issue. Peter, when he speaks to this issue of husbands and wives, starts with the example of Jesus, in 1 Peter 2:21-25:

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 (ESV, Peter 2:21-25)

He goes on:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.  For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. (1 Peter 3:1-6)

So Peter says the example for wives in submission is Jesus. And one important thing about Jesus is that he entrusted himself to God. So wives are to entrust themselves to God, in part, by trusting God’s work through their husbands. Peter gives Sarah (wife of Abraham) as an example of what he means. Abraham felt called by God to leave their home and family and travel to a place neither of them had ever been, a place that God did not even clearly specify. What did Sarah do? She said yes. She did so, not necessarily because she thought Abraham knew what he was doing. But Sarah trusted what God was doing, and so she went along. Abraham made some questionable decisions later on. Sarah went along with it, trusting that even though Abraham might be making a mistake, God was still in control, and she could rely on God to protect her.

Sarah was also a woman who spoke her mind. On several occasions, the Bible records that she made her views known very clearly to Abraham. But once she had clearly spoken her mind, she trusted herself to God, trusting that God could and would be with her, even in her marriage to this imperfect man, Abraham. And God honored Sarah for this sort of trust. His promise of a child was not just to Abraham, but to Abraham and Sarah. When Abraham had a child without Sarah, God said, “No. My promised child will come through Sarah too, not just Abraham.”

So when you submit, you are not saying, “My husband is the perfect man who never makes any mistakes.” You are saying, “I am entrusting myself to God, and to the work of God in and through my husband.” It is a call to trust God.

Men often need to be motivated to step in and move forward. They don’t enjoy being criticized, and so many men would prefer their wives to take over and do everything. That way, they (the men) will be able to relax, and avoid all sense of blame and responsibility. Nagging has rarely had the power to correct this attitude in men. But what if, instead of telling him to do it, instead of nagging him about it, you communicate clearly that since he is the husband, you will trust him to take care of it? Offer your opinion, expertise and assistance, of course, but make sure he knows that that the buck stops with him. Give your love and support, but don’t let him pawn off his responsibility on to you. Trust is a powerful motivator.

Another part of godly submission is this: the two of you belong together. You, as an individual, are not just living your own, pursuing your own hopes, dreams and goals. No, when you are married, you move together in the same direction. Wives should have clear, weighty influence upon the hopes, dreams and goals of the couple. They are, after all, half of the whole “oneness” created by marriage. But godly submission also means that wives, entrusting themselves to God, should remain open (perhaps more open than they would normally be) to the influence of their husbands as they build their lives together. Of course husbands and wives often have different interests and pursuits. That is normal and healthy. But when it comes to the big stuff, like what you value, and how you will raise children, and how you will pursue God’s work in your life: here, couples should be united as possible. The husband’s part in that unity is to love to the point of self-sacrifice. The wife’s part is to trust God and her husband to the point of godly submission.

I have often felt that this whole thing a bit like dancing. When both people try to lead in a dance, it doesn’t go very well.  The movement doesn’t flow with the music and everything is quite uncomfortable and jerky. When the dancing couple recognizes that, and one lets the other lead, both bodies begin to flow with the music.  One gives gentle cues, perhaps with a nudge to the back or by pressing lightly in one direction or another. It’s as if the two become one body, moving beautifully. I know some men might say, “I don’t know how to lead. I’d be happy for her to do it.” But God’s command to men is to step up and take responsibility, using your strength and initiative to love sacrificially. Some women may say, “I don’t want to be led. I want to be in control.” But God’s command to women is to learn to trust.

Dancing takes a certain kind of surrender and willingness from one partner, and attentiveness and gentle guidance from the other. So it is with men and women.

There is no guarantee, of course that your husband will love you sacrificially, the way he is supposed to. And there is no guarantee for men that their wives will love them by trusting, the way they are supposed to.

However, if you wives want to increase the likelihood that your man will try to love you sacrificially, try trusting him in biblical submission. If you husbands want to increase the possibility that your wife will trust you by supporting and encouraging your efforts, by respecting you, try loving her sacrificially.

In any case, that’s all we can do. Men you do not have the right to try and compel your wife to do what you want. That sort of thing is abuse, and is both sinful and illegal. What you do have the right and privilege to do is to love your wife sacrificially, and to trust God to be at work in your wife.

Women, you don’t have the right to try and compel your man to love you sacrificially. That sort of love can’t be forced, anyway, and if you try to get it through manipulation, you’ll find the result isn’t real love. What do you do  have the right and privilege to do is show your love for your husband by respecting him, and entrusting yourself to his loving leadership. There is no guarantee that your husband will do everything the way you want it done. There is no guarantee that he will respond to your warm invitation and your willing giving-up of control. But you also entrust yourself to the One who will never fail you.

Let me offer you a real life example of all of this.

Some dear friends of ours came over a while back to share a struggle they were having. I’ll call them Will and Jane (not their real names). Will felt very strongly called by God to do something (it wasn’t sinful or bad). It was something he wanted to do anyway, but he sincerely felt that God wanted it, too. The thing he wanted to do would have a significant impact on Jane and also the rest of the family. Jane wasn’t OK with it. Will and Jane agreed to pray about it for a while, and then after a while they came to us to discuss it. Jane had done her best to go along with Will’s proposed plan. She had prayed, and asked God to change her heart, but after six months, she still wasn’t OK with what Will wanted to do.

Now, how would you apply these verses today? Jane could have dug her feet in and said, “You have to love me sacrificially, so you can’t make me go along with this.” Will could have insisted and said, “You have to submit to me, and so you have to go along with this.”

But that approach is not at all what the Bible is trying to say. The Bible doesn’t tell Will: “Your wife has to submit.” It tells Will: “You love sacrificially.” The Bible doesn’t say to Jane: “Your husband has to give up everything for you.” No, it tells her to  express herself, and then to entrust herself to her husband’s love and God’s plan to work through and with her husband.

These Bible verses tell Jane to submit to her husband. So she explained to him very clearly exactly how she was feeling. She described how troubled she was about what Will wanted to do. And then she put herself in Will’s hands. She made it abundantly clear what her own position was, but when she had done so, she still left the decision to Will.

These Bible verses tell Will to love his wife. So, he explained why he felt so strongly about his position. He explained his process that led him to believe that God wanted him to do this. And then, when Jane couldn’t seem to change, he made the decision to love his wife sacrificially by not making her go along with something that she was not ready for.

Everything I’ve just told you is true. I didn’t give you details about what it was Will wanted to do, but it was nothing sinful. I didn’t give you their real names. But this really happened. This is a beautiful example of Sacrificial love and Loving Submission in action.

Jane gave us a beautiful picture of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. She really didn’t want to go the direction Will wanted to go. So she poured out her heart to Will. When she was done, she trusted him with what she had said, trusting that God would be at work in what Will decided.

Will gave us an example of Jesus loving his people sacrificially. He saw that he could not move forward without hurting Jane. So, he gave up his own desire to make sure she felt secure and loved.

Both sacrificial love and trusting submission teach us to be like Jesus, to show the world what Jesus is like. Would you trust him today by trying these things?

This is Not How it was Supposed to Be

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Sometimes it seems like so much is wrong, so many things are not the way they are supposed to be. It feels like the world is spinning in chaos, out of control. But God is still in charge. He is working out everything according to his plan, and that is good for all who love God. During that first Christmas, it seemed like nothing was working out the way it was supposed to. But God was powerfully working all things according to his plan.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Christmas 2020

Christmas 2020

This is not the way it was supposed to be. Not still. Not at Christmas. I don’t know when you’ll read this sermon, but you probably won’t hear it on Christmas Eve, gathered together in the same place with your church, the way it was supposed to be. Here in my church, we’re supposed to be gathered all in our big living room, a little crowded. The fire is supposed to be crackling, warm and orange with the smell of woodsmoke and winter. Candles and Christmas lights are supposed to illuminate the faces we have come to know and love. Our voices are supposed to rise in three dimensional sound all around us. We’re supposed to share stories and snacks and laughs as we hang around afterwards and talk.

Instead we’ll have Christmas Eve via Zoom. This, this looking at each other on a flat screen, tinny voices playing through computer speakers, never shaking a hand, never patting a shoulder, never hugging; this distance is not the way it was supposed to be.

It may surprise you to learn that Christian History is full of “this is not the way it was supposed to be’s.” Abraham and Sarah weren’t supposed to be so old, and they thought they were supposed to have more than one child. Jacob wasn’t supposed to marry Leah. Joseph wasn’t supposed to be sold as slave, and later he wasn’t supposed to be thrown in prison too – he deserved none of it. The people of Israel weren’t supposed to be slaves in Egypt. The twelve tribes weren’t supposed to be oppressed by the surrounding peoples. The shepherd boy wasn’t supposed to fight the giant warrior. The anointed King, David, wasn’t supposed to have to run for his life in the wilderness. The prophets weren’t supposed to be rejected.

I’m sure a lot of the people involved in the very first Christmas might have felt the same way. Let’s hear from some of them, and imagine how they might have been thinking:

(Zechariah and) Elizabeth: We were supposed to be parents. We would have a house full of laughing, running children. Little girls that I would teach to sew and cook and clean. Little boys that Zechariah would teach to care for the animals and the house. Boys and girls both that we would teach the Law and the Prophets. Instead, now we are old. It is a joy, I am sure, to have a child, even now, but we were supposed to be young and fit. We were supposed to run with our children, and take them on picnics, and journeys to the temple, and play. But now, our bones are old, and we need our rest. This is no time to have a child. This is not how it was supposed to be.

Joseph: This was not the way it was supposed to be. On my wedding night, I was to be the man of the hour, honored, celebrated. I was supposed to be serenaded by the wedding party outside my house. Then we were supposed to process through town singing songs and laughing and joking, and then we’d arrive at Mary’s house. She would come out, radiant, beautiful, perfect. We’d join hands and parade joyfully back to my house, the toast of the town, and then the feast. We would laugh and dance and eat until our stomachs and hearts were full to bursting. Then, we would go to the marriage bed, pure and uncomplicated, and consummate the joy of God’s gift of marriage.

Instead, we had to leave Nazareth under a cloud of shame. No procession, no singing, dancing or feasting, just contempt and disgust on the faces of our friends and families. Mary’s young body is already stretched and changed by a child, and I’ve never even so much as kissed her lips. Instead of a parade of laughter and joy and singing, we are on this journey of cold and hardship and not much to eat, going to a town I barely remember from my childhood, a town where no one knows us enough to take us in, a town where we can’t even find paid lodging at an inn.

And then this! This birth. Mary heard from the angel, and I heard from the angel, and at least we knew this child was to be special. This is God’s own king, the promised Messiah. But there is not even a cradle or bed for him. We have to make do with an animal’s feed stall. No kings or princes are here, only plain shepherds who are even worse off than ourselves. Surely this is not the way it was supposed to be.

We all have those moments: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This wasn’t supposed to happen. One of the most powerful scenes in Forrest Gump (my favorite movie of all time) is when Lieutenant Dan Taylor pulls Forrest out of bed in the middle of night. Taylor has just lost his legs in combat. He feels that his destiny has been stolen from him, and with that he has lost not only his legs, but everything that matters in life. He says in despair. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to me.” And later: “What am I going to do now?”

My own life feels like it has plenty of “this was not the way it was supposed to be” factors. I wasn’t supposed to be facing the rest of my life with grinding, unrelenting pain. My son wasn’t supposed to be diagnosed with a serious lifelong illness, nor another of my children with her physical struggles. Our church wasn’t supposed to do life together through a computer screen.

I’m sure each one of you could list all sorts of this is not the way it was supposed to be’s for your own lives. I can think of several big ones for some of you. Sometimes it seems like the whole of 2020 is one giant “this is now how it was supposed to be.”

The ultimate: “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be,” occurred almost two thousand years ago now. The God of the universe wasn’t supposed to come into the world, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to die, certainly he wasn’t supposed to die like that, because of injustice. He wasn’t supposed to be the victim of a cruel, tortuous murder.

Or was he?

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.
God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.

(NLT, Ephesians 1:3-11, italic formatting added to some parts for emphasis)

So many things that seem like they weren’t supposed to happen, at least not like this. But God makes everything work out according to his plan. We are never outside of God’s reach. Even when everything screams at you that it was not supposed to be this way, God is at work.

It is good and healthy to leave room for grief and sadness about how it was supposed to be. It is not wrong to mourn the things that are lost, to be upset about the way things turned out. That’s one of the things I love the most about that scene from Forrest Gump. It gives the grief room to breathe, but sorrow is not the last word. When the grieving is done, we find that God is still at work. The world is not spinning away, flying by accident out of His reach. No. every moment that seemed like it wasn’t supposed to be that way turned out to be God working all things out according to his plan. He tells us himself that this is true:

28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. 29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

(NLT, Romans 8:28-30)

R.C. Lenski, the great Lutheran Bible scholar, has this to say about these verses:

So here the thought is simple and appropriate: God’s loving providence takes perfect care of those who love God. The idea is just as natural as that a father should keep his own beloved and loving children…

“All things are working together for good,” all of them without exception operate together to produce “good” in the sense of what is beneficial for God’s lovers. This includes every kind of painful experience in Christian lives, all those that press groans from our lips and make us groan inwardly in unuttered and unutterable distress. Some of the things that Paul has in mind he states in v. 38, 39. The Old Testament story of Joseph is a striking example of the mysterious and the wonderful way in which God makes the evil done to us eventuate for our good. Another instance is the story of the persecution precipitated by Saul. It scattered the great congregation at Jerusalem to distant parts, it seemed to be a calamity but served only for the good of the church by planting it in a hundred new places to flourish more than ever.

(Lenski’s commentary on the New Testament, Romans 8:28)

Maybe, just maybe, God is still in charge. Maybe, just maybe, when things go wrong, God is still working all things out according to his plan. Maybe, just maybe, the Bible is true when it tells us that God’s plan creates the best possible good for us.

God’s son was more innocent than the youngest, sweetest child. His life was more precious than all the children in the world together. He deserves more honor than all the heroes in history put together. Yet he was beaten, mocked, insulted, spit upon. He was whipped and nailed to one of the most horrific instruments of torture ever devised. Surely that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

But it was.

In that horrendous moment of shocking injustice and gruesome, violent, torture, God was working out all things according to his plan. It was surely the most appalling this is not the way it was supposed to be moments that ever occurred in history. And yet it was also the moment that God used defeat evil, to allow justice and love to exist peacefully together forever.

Return again to that scene on that cold night in Bethlehem. The son of God entering the world in an obscure town in an obscure country, not even recognized by the people right next door, let alone the powerful and influential people of the world.

If we humans were setting it up, there would have been a warm, bright room in a palace in the most important city in the world, and servants standing by, and a doctor and nurses and a host of people making sure everything went just right. But in reality, they didn’t even have a proper room. No bed, no clean sheets. It seemed they were abandoned and forgotten, alone.

But in all of it, God was working out everything according to his plan. What looked like a mistake, an oversight, a failure – was actually the unseen hand of God.

God is still at work. He is working out everything according to his plan, and for the good of his people. Much as we may feel it sometimes, we are not abandoned, not alone, not forgotten. From the distance of two-thousand years we can look back at Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and say, “Don’t sweat it. God is in control. I know it seems weird, but actually this is exactly the way it is supposed to be. I know you can’t see it or feel it at this exact moment, but you are right in the heart  of God’s plan.”

Perhaps we can see the faithful, powerful working of God that very first Christmas, and step back and say the same thing to ourselves, and to each other. It seems like it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It looks like we are alone and abandoned. But that has never stopped God. In fact, it is in the moments like this when he seems to work most powerfully.

All that was required for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph and Mary, was to trust God. He said he would do it. He assured them that he had a plan, and he would carry it out. That is all that is required of us, as well. Look back at that first Christmas, a birth that looked like it happened at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way, and learn to trust that nothing is beyond God’s reach. He is working out all things according to his plan. All that we need to do to be a part of that, it to trust Him. Will you do that right now? Take a moment of silence and tell him that you do trust him, and you will continue to trust him, with his help.

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #4: SECOND CHRISTMAS

Enjoy Christmas this year.  But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. The promise of second Christmas can sustain us and help us to be at peace and gracious to others, because we can trust the one who made the promise.

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 Advent Week 4

2 Peter 3:1-18.  Advent Week 4, 2020

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come?  I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story.  It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday.  In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun.  He needs it.  His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it.  Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed. 

As I have pointed out during the past few weeks, Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.”  He said he would return some day.  In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas.  We want the gifts we might get:  eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost.  Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting.  That sounds like a present we could really look forward to.  In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this.  I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas.  What if, when it comes, we are disappointed?  What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)?  I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories.  I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it.  The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful.  In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this:  will heaven really be all it cracked up to be?  I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so.  Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this:  will we really get the present we want?  Or will we be left out?  Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long?  Is the promise really for me?  Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18.  When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes.  No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more.  So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise.  They were excited, but also worried.  Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

1.  Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come.  Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back.  But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us.  A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa.  If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return.  It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever.  God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids.  But he has not forgotten or changed his promise.  He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15).  He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing.  So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him.  We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.

2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

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.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The  biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfilment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

3. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)”  Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above.  It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.

4.  The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly.  Too many people get the cart before the horse.  We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises.  No. It goes like this:  because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers.  We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him.  The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children.  Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents.  But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around.  They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return.  Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children.  The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this:  if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives.  Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant.  Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable.  God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others.  There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

5.  We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.  18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard.  We are not invincible.  We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin.  However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure.  He tells us to grow in grace.  What does that mean?  I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are.  Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent.  There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you.  Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you.  These verses are about the end of the world.  But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year.  But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #2: THE SEASON

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The Lord wants his people in every generation to live as if he will return soon. This has a tremendously helpful focusing effect, clarifying what is important, and allowing us to live for what is best. We are to receive him into our own lives, and into the world in which we live.

Due to my medical issues we are reusing some advent sermons from a few years ago. This is advent week 2, for 2020.

Advent Week 2. Matthew 24:36-44

As you are probably aware, there are only eighteen shopping days left until Christmas. This is the season when we remember how God selflessly surrendered the powers of his divinity and came to us as a helpless human baby. We typically commemorate this by generously cursing the people who steal our parking places at the mall, and mediating peacefully on new credit card debt while we drift off to sleep.

Of course, there is something else we can do as the days lead up toward Christmas. We can spend the time and energy in expectation. We can focus on the coming of some really cool Christmas presents! Ha Ha! Just a little pastoral humor for you there. Actually, while the time leading up to Christmas can be a wonderful time of remembrance and focusing on Jesus’ birth, it is also a time that can help us think about Jesus’ next physical visit to our world – his triumphant return. In fact, that is the traditional purpose of the church season of Advent, which we are now in.

As we read in the Bible about the things that led up to the birth of Jesus, it becomes obvious that the people living at the time did not know exactly what was coming, but all the signs and prophecies pointed to this: God was going to act in History. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Anna and Simeon – all experienced things and remembered prophecies that encouraged them to get ready for the Lord to come to his people. None of them understood completely how it was all going to play out, but they believed and they acted in obedience and prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

Now, where are we today? Jesus has already come as a baby. He grew up. He sacrificed his innocent life for us. And he was raised from the dead, and left our world physically. It’s wonderful to remember that. It helps our faith. I also want to encourage us to also do what those faithful believers did before that all happened – to prepare for the coming of Jesus. In our case it is not his coming as a baby, but rather his coming into our lives personally, and of course, his triumphant return to earth. To help us do that I want to look at some things Jesus said before he left us. Please read Matthew 24:36-44 in your Bible.

This teaching of Jesus occurred during the week before he was crucified. Just prior to saying this, Jesus said that it will be possible to notice and consider “the signs of the times” that indicate his return is near. His next statement is this: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Now, I have met people who like to describe in detail what everything will be like just prior to the ending of world. I’ve met others who feel that they can guess with some degree of accuracy when it will come. I think, if we consider carefully what Jesus is saying here about his return, we will realize two things:

  • 1. It is possible to recognize the “season” just prior to Jesus’ triumphant physical return to earth.
  • 2. It is not possible to accurately predict specific details about the future, just prior to the return of Jesus, nor the exact time it will happen. Even Jesus himself did not know, prior to his leaving our world.

I think the Lord has set things up like this because he wants his followers to live in a state of continual expectation of his return. Look at this way: if we knew that Jesus would come back exactly at 9:00AM on November 2, 2027, I think we would all relax a bit and say, “well, I don’t have to bother about that for quite a while yet.” Let’s face it – some of us wouldn’t start to get ready for his return until 8:15 that morning. But if we look at this little passage, we can see that the point Jesus is making is that we should always be ready. The fact is this: it could be any day now. It could be today.

Jesus indicates that the season of his return can be recognized. Are we in that season? I think so. I recognize, however, that the apostle Paul thought so too. Fifteen hundred years later, and 500 years before now, Martin Luther thought he was living close to the end times. This doesn’t discourage me in the least, because I believe Jesus wants every generation of his followers to live as though his return is imminent. Some of the things that indicate to me that the season of Jesus return might be near are these: the formation of the Jewish nation in 1947; The dramatic increase in the number of lives lost through war in the twentieth century; the incredible spread of immorality and godlessness in the world. I think huge natural disasters like the tsunami a few years ago, and even the pandemic of 2020 are also significant.

But even if I am mistaken in one sense, consider this. It is entirely accurate to say that, for all intents and purposes, Jesus will return by the end of my lifetime. When you die, it has virtually same effect, for you, as if it was the end of time, and Jesus has returned. At the time of your death you will meet Jesus face to face. Your existence on the old earth will have ended for you. If you think this old world will keep spinning in space for another 4 billion years, fine. But you won’t be on it for much longer, all things considered. It is not given to us to know when we die. I may get in a car wreck next week, and for me, Jesus has returned. So you also must be ready, because “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus says it will be like the days of Noah. Virtually every culture that keeps any sort of history, has a historical tradition that includes a story very much like Noah and the ark. The Samburu people, living in the near-desert of Northern Kenya have a flood story. The people of India have one too, as do those in Indonesia, and around the world. There is debate about whether the flood was worldwide or local, but the historical and genetic evidence is that all people on earth are descended from one family, a family which apparently survived a great flood. The people in the days of Noah were warned about the flood. It didn’t seem to them like anything would ever change. Noah took 300 years to build the boat, and probably even he wondered if it would really come. But one day it did, and it destroyed everyone but the family that believed and prepared for it.

The return of Jesus may seem like it is a long way off. It may seem like things will never change. But those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

So how can we be ready? How do we “keep watch” as Jesus said? First, we need to receive and welcome Jesus as he comes to us right now.  Consider Hebrews 3:7:

“So as the Holy Spirit says, Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion”

2 Corinthians 6:1-2 adds this thought:

“As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Jesus’ coming happened yes, at Bethlehem when he was born as a baby. And yes, He will come again in Judgment. But right now, He comes to us every day. He comes to us to spend time with us. Maybe that is time in prayer and meditating on the scriptures, or time going for walk and talking to him as well as listening to him. He comes to us, wanting to bless other people through us. Are you receiving him today? Maybe you’ve never received him into your life at all before. If not, please pray a simple prayer, something like this: Lord Jesus, I want to receive you in my life. I need your forgiveness and love and grace. Please come now and take over my heart and my will, and live your life through me. Thank you for hearing and responding. AMEN.

There’s really no point in getting all excited about the return of Jesus if we aren’t interested in the ways he comes to us right now. But if we have received in him into our lives, I think, as I said earlier, he would like us to live each day in expectation of his return. How would you live today if you knew, absolutely for sure, that Jesus was coming back at 11:00PM tonight. Would you express your love to your friends and family? Who would you spend time with? What would you say to people? How would you spend your time on the last day in history? Now, why can’t you do some of that every day, no matter how many or few days you have left? Why can’t you regularly tell people about Jesus? Why can’t you always affirm your loved ones and express your love for them? Why can’t you just avoid sin, just for today? Why can’t you fully surrender to Jesus every day?

It’s not a gimmick – Jesus really is going to back, whether we are ready or not. Instead, it’s grace – he’s told us he is. He wants to live his life through us, in the expectation of what he will do when he comes back. Will you let him?

ADVENT #1: TOO OLD?

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Due to the changing of the season, and upcoming medical procedures, we will observe the church season of Advent this year, using sermons I have prepared in the past. I will be continuing to work on our Colossians series as I am able, and we will return to that book after Christmas.

This week we will look at the father of John the Baptist: Zachariah the Priest.

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Advent 2020 #1 .  Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

Bear with me a few moments while I explain what we call “The Church Year.” After Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, Christian churches began to have more contact with one another, and it wasn’t long before “the church” was also an institution with an organizational structure and a hierarchy. There were, of course, a lot of negatives about this. However, one of the positives was a sense of unity that extended among virtually all Christians. One way that unity was preserved was through having all churches reading the same scriptures as other churches each week; this later became known as “the lectionary.” The lectionary was organized around “church seasons.” There are some small variations, but in general the seasons are: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and “after Pentecost,” (sometimes call “ordinary time”). Each season has a kind “character” to it. For instance, Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus and the significance of His incarnation. Lent is a time many Christians use to reflect on the suffering of Jesus, and to engage in personal repentance. Easter is about the resurrection, and so on.

I want to emphasize that these church seasons are not given to us by the bible; they are traditions, and no true Christian would say that it is necessary to observe them in order to be a follower of Jesus. One of the negatives of the church year is that it means that huge portions of the bible will never be read in churches which strictly observe it, since those churches focus only on the lectionaries given for each season. Even so, I think we can benefit at times from the traditions associated with the church year.

For me particularly, Advent is one of the seasons that I find very helpful. Advent actually marks the beginning of the church year, and starts four Sundays prior to Christmas. I use the season of Advent, with its traditional readings, to help me get the most out of what the rest of the world calls “the holiday season.”

The focus of Advent is helpful to me, because it takes my eyes off of the commercial aspects of Christmas and the holidays. It even takes me out of simply sentimentally reflecting on the birth of Jesus Christ. The theme and scriptures of Advent remind me that Jesus has promised to return. They encourage me to focus on what Jesus is still doing, and will do in the future. It keeps my hope focused on eternity, and my work focused on how God would use me here and now.

Now, I am going to go ahead and show the weakness of the church year by using some scripture that is not in any of the traditional Advent readings. I think, however, that these verses can help us get our focus in order for this season.

One of the overlooked figures surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ is the father of Jesus’ cousin John. John’s father was Zechariah, a priest. In the year when both Jesus and John were born, Zechariah was chosen for the rare honor of offering incense during the sacrifice. Priesthood was determined by birth – they had to be descended from the first priest, Aaron. Each priest served with others in his division for two weeks every year; Zechariah was in the division of Abijah. Duties were assigned by random lot. Jewish documents suggest that at that time, a priest would have such an honor only once in his entire lifetime, and many priests never had the chance. To be chosen for this duty would be the highlight of Zechariah’s life.

One interesting note is that from all this we might take a stab at finding out what time of year Jesus was actually born. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple. The Jewish new year varied a little bit each year, but the best guess for that year would be that Zechariah encountered the angel sometime in May or June. Luke says “after those days,” Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived John. Five months later, the angel visited Mary, and then Luke says “in those days” Mary came to Elizabeth’s house. So if it all happened immediately, that would mean John was born in April of the following year, and Jesus in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a lag time of just two months total in those two flexible periods, then Jesus was indeed born in December. The exact date of his birth doesn’t really matter, of course. I just think it is interesting, after all the years I’ve heard “Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas” to find that the evidence shows it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that he was born, if not on December 25, sometime close to it.

Back to Zechariah. The innermost part of the temple was called “the holy of holies,” or, “most holy place.” In it (originally, before they were lost) was the ark of the covenant, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. This was where the Hebrews believed that God’s presence remained. A thick curtain separated the “most holy place” from the “holy place.” In this second, larger space stood a table with bread, which was renewed every seven days. Also here was a seven branched golden lampstand (something like a Menorah) and finally, the altar of incense. Zechariah would have been accompanied into the Holy Place by two assistants carrying coals and incense, whom would withdraw and leave Zechariah alone in the sanctuary to complete the ceremony. Meanwhile, a large gathering was worshipping out in the courtyard, which means it may have been a Sabbath day.

Now, I want to set the stage a little bit. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “blameless.” I don’t think Luke means they never sinned, but rather, they conducted themselves in faith and integrity for their whole lives. This is significant when we learn that they don’t have any children. In the first chapter of Genesis, God blessed the first human beings and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” For thousands of years, Jewish culture saw this as a sign that children are God’s blessing; they also believed that when people could not have children, it was because God was somehow displeased with them. Many people felt that such couples must have sinned in some way, so that God prevented them from having this blessing. It is true that Abraham and Sarah did not have children until old age, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel also was barren for a long time before Samuel. Even so, it is virtually certain that their childlessness was a source of very real emotional pain for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They must have wondered what they had done wrong. It is quite possible that others in their community thought that they had been particularly sinful, for God to withhold children from them. Zechariah and Elizabeth may even have felt angry with God – after all, they had lived in faith and integrity, but still, God withheld this blessing from them. By the time Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple, both of them were obviously older than normal child-bearing age. In fact, a fair description of them would be “old.”

In temple alone, Zechariah would have been praying for the worshipers and for the nation of Israel. At this point, an angel appears to him. I think it is interesting to note that Luke records that it appears “to the right” of the altar of incense. There is nothing particularly significant about the position of the angel, and that reinforces the authenticity of this scripture. Luke is carefully recording a story that had been told and remembered in detail, even unimportant details. For me, it is one of those hundreds of little things that rings true in the biblical accounts of history.

As recorded elsewhere in scripture, the appearance of the angel was awe-inspiring, provoking a kind of fear. Like so many angels before, this one begins by saying: “Do not fear.” The angel goes on, telling Zechariah, “your prayer has been heard,” and then explaining that he is about to become a father. One thing that isn’t clear is what Zechariah’s prayer actually was. As a priest, it was his duty to pray for the people. He might also have been praying for himself and his wife. The fact is, God’s answer, foretold through the angel, addresses both Zechariah’s personal desires, and his prayers for people of God. On the personal level, Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have the joy of parenthood. On the larger level, their child will be used by God to do significant spiritual things for the people of Israel. By the way, this follows a familiar pattern from the Old Testament. Sarah and Abraham longed for a child of their own, and in finally fulfilling their desires, God began the nation of Israel. Samson’s parents were also childless until an angel announced to his parents that he would be born; but Samson wasn’t just for his parents – he would also be used by God to deliver Israel. Hannah was full of grief because she could not have children, and finally God answered her prayers and gave her a child, Samuel. But Samuel was not just a blessing to his mother – he became one of the greatest prophet-leaders in history.

In light of all the people in Israel’s history who had famous babies after long barrenness, Zechariah’s response might seem surprising. He questions how it can happen, since both he and Elizabeth are getting along in years. But at another level, I think it is entirely understandable. First, there is the issue of age. In ancient Israel, older people were given respect, and yet, at another level no one expected much of them. Healthcare then was not anything like it is today, and people then could not expect to remain active as long as they do today. So, Zechariah knows that he is nearing the twilight of his life. Since that is the case, why would God possibly choose him, not only to be a father, but to be the father of someone that God was going to use in great ways? It just didn’t seem likely. In his response to the angel, he mentions Elizabeth. It is clear that he thinks of her in the same way as he thinks of himself: too old.

Second, and I am reading into the text a little bit here, I wonder if Zechariah, at some level, thought that God was being too good to him. Here he was, in the holy place of the temple, standing where very few Israelites would ever get to stand in their lifetimes. He is been blessed with this great honor, and now God is coming along saying “I’m going to bless you even more.” It just seemed too good to be true.

Third, in spite of the fact that in the past God granted previously barren women the ability to have children, he certainly did not do that for every barren woman in history. In addition, all of that happened a very long time before Zechariah was born. The latest incident that I mentioned above was that of Hannah and Samuel, and that occurred about 1000 years before Zechariah stood in the temple that day. In other words, though I’m sure Zechariah believed that God had done this sort of thing in the past, and he probably even believed that theoretically, God could do it now, it was a whole different thing to believe that God was actually going to do it now, and for him. I mean, I have a hard enough time believing that God will repeat miracles that I have seen with my own eyes in my own lifetime, so I can’t blame Zechariah for saying “How can I know this will happen?”

Now, I want us to see how God responds to Zachariah’s weakness. First, of course, Zechariah is rebuked for his lack of faith. Then, as now, the Lord is seeking people who will trust him wholeheartedly, and he makes it clear that Zachariah failed in this. This is an important message for us: all the Lord wants from us is trust. He wants us to trust his promises, to trust his goodness, to trust his word.

But I want us to see the incredible grace that God gives to this old man. First, we need to understand, it was not that Zachariah had no faith at all, but his faith was weak. I’m sure he wanted to believe it. He did not say “I don’t believe a word of it.” Instead, his question was: “how can I know for sure?” God’s response is both a rebuke for Zachariah’s failure to trust wholeheartedly and at the same time a gracious answer to Zachariah’s desire to know for sure that God was going to do this:

20Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20, HCSB)

Do you see what is going on here? His lack of faith is both disciplined, and answered. The angel made it so he couldn’t talk. Certainly, this must have involved some hardship for Zachariah, but it was not, after all a very terrible thing, and it was temporary. I think most of us could learn a lot, and even perhaps find some unexpected peace, if we were forced into nine months of silence. [Spouses, insert your jokes at each other’s expense here] At the same time, the fact that he couldn’t talk would have been a constant reminder to him that the words of God were true and trustworthy. Even while disciplining Zachariah, God gave him the answer that he desired.

Afterwards, when the child was born Zachariah demonstrated his faith by naming him what the angel told him to name him. At this point, he was released from his silence. Luke records that Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to praise God. I think this is very important. When Zachariah was focused on what he wanted, and upon his own unworthiness and unfitness, his faith was weak. But now his focus is all on God; his focus is not on the gift of his son John, but on the giver of the gift: God himself. The words he spoke at this point have lived on for 2000 years in Luke’s gospel.

So, what is all this have to do with us? What would the Holy Spirit say to you through the Scriptures?

The first and most obvious one to me is that God can use anyone. Think about what God was doing at this point in history. He used an Emperor to take a census which ultimately caused the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy. He used an unwed teenage girl to become the mother of his own Son. He used a humble carpenter to become the stepfather of the son of God. And he used an old man and an old woman who had already had a full and blessed life to bring even greater blessing into the world: John the Baptist, who in turn prepared the way for the Messiah.

Not too long ago, Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player, died. One of his famous sayings was: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” For a guy who said a lot of silly things, that one is very profound. If you are alive enough to read or listen to this sermon, it ain’t over for you, not yet. The Lord still wants to bless the world through you. Before you say, “But how can he possibly use me?” I want to remind you that that is more or less what Zachariah was asking. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how he will use every single person. However, I do have a suggestion: pray. Prayer, in and of itself, is a powerful force for God’s work in the world. When you pray, you invite God into the things you are praying for, and he shows up where he’s invited, and where he shows up, he does his work and accomplishes his purposes. When you pray you are partnering with God to release his power into the world. Every single one of us can pray, which means that God can use every single one of us in amazing ways. In addition, it was as Zachariah prayed that the Lord showed him what else he wanted to do in and through his life.

Another thing I get from the story of Zachariah is that God is good; so very, very good. Zachariah had already received the honor of burning incense in the holy place. He lived a long and full life. Then he was promised a son, and when he doubted the promise he was given a sign to show him that it was true, and to help his faith. This is one blessing after another heaped upon Zachariah and Elizabeth, even towards the end of a blessed life. This encourages me to trust the goodness of God.

Finally, Zachariah reminds me to focus more on the giver then on the gift. John was a tremendous gift for Zachariah and Elizabeth. But by the time he was born, Zachariah had learned that the greatest gift he would ever have was the grace and love of God, and nothing could ever take that away. I hope and pray that you and I can also have that same perspective.

As we consider that Jesus not only came 2000 years ago, but also promised to return, let’s try to learn from Zechariah. God is still working in the world. He wants to involve you in what he is doing, no matter how unqualified you might feel.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.