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.

COLOSSIANS #31: ALL OF LIFE

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For Christians, all of life is about Jesus. We live for him, we live with him, we live in dependence upon him. It is when we try to compartmentalize Jesus, and have him in just one area of our lives that we turn into religious hypocrites. When are “part-time Christians,” we have times when we act like Christians, and other times when we are not “in Jesus-mode,” and we act differently. This sort of hypocrisy does you no good, and it turns off those who are not Christians.

Tom Hilpert

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 31

Colossians #31.  Colossians 3:17

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV, Colossians 3:17)

The Greek in this verse emphasizes all things. A literal-ish translation might be “in all things whatsoever…” Maybe another way of putting it would be “in absolutely everything…” Every single area of our lives should be involved in honoring Jesus. There should be nothing at all in our lives that cannot be done in the name of Jesus. If there is, we should either not do it, or change how we do it, so that we can do in a way that honors Him. If you needed any more reminders that following Jesus involves every area of your life, every moment of your life, here it is.

This can be really clarifying. Can I do my work in the name of Jesus? Can I be angry at another driver in the name of Jesus? Can I go swimming in the name of Jesus? Can I fill out a form for the government in the name of Jesus? Can I sue someone in the name of Jesus? Can I ride my bike in the name of Jesus?

Sometimes the answers are obviously yes, and at other times, obviously no. At other times, we have to apply it with careful, prayerful thought.

This will come up a bit later in Colossians, but one helpful question to ask is: “Could I be proud of this job if I was doing it for Jesus?” Because, in fact, you are doing it for Jesus. All things whatsoever, we are to do in the name of Jesus. Life is to be lived because of Jesus. It is to be lived with Jesus. It is to be lived through Jesus.

To be crystal clear: this doesn’t mean everyone should quit their jobs and join a monastery or convent. It means that we are to live every moment of our ordinary, everyday lives for and with Jesus, depending on him as we do. My work as a pastor might be directly connected to Jesus, but I also write mystery novels, and even though they are “ordinary” novels, I need to learn how to write them for and with Jesus, depending on him as I do. I also have had a few years when I wasn’t a pastor. During that time, one thing I did was business consulting. I would travel from business to business, helping them learn to cut costs, work more efficiently, and generally become better at what they did. In general, I think I did it in the name of Jesus. In other words, I tried to work as Jesus would work if he was a business consultant.

For example, on one particular job, I helped an industrial plumbing/welding contractor. I did a lot of good work for the owner in several different areas of his business. I wasn’t teaching him to rip off other companies, I was just showing him what he needed to do if he wanted to stay in business and earn an honest living. In fact, in some instances, I was showing him how to avoid getting ripped off himself. I spent three weeks with that client, and I felt like I could do that work in the name of Jesus. I had helped someone become better at what he was supposed to do.

However, while we were wrapping up the job for that owner, I got a call from the corporate office of my consulting company. They knew I had developed a good rapport with the client, and they thought I might be able to convince him to pay us for more consulting time. They wanted me to pretend that there was still a lot of work to be done, and that we could help him even more if we stayed on longer. The thing is, the owner didn’t need more consulting at that point. We had given him our best help, and more, at that point, would have just been racking up our consulting fees to no purpose. We would have been billing him for “busy work.” It would not have been illegal, but it wasn’t ethical. One of my superiors made it clear that he would be very upset with me if I didn’t make it happen. However, in my understanding, my ultimate boss is Jesus, and I felt I could not rip off the client in the name of Jesus, so I politely failed to make it happen. You might say, I did some business consulting in the name of Jesus, and I also stopped doing some business consulting, also in the name of Jesus. I listened to my earthly bosses and did what they asked as long as I could do so in the name of Jesus. But when I could not, then I chose to do what honored Jesus the most. I was prepared to lose my job over it, but as it happened, I got an offer of a promotion instead.

To be clear, I’m not saying that doing everything in the name of Jesus will always result in you getting a promotion. In some cases it might lead to you getting fired. But we do need to live with an understanding that Jesus has the ultimate say in our lives, and everything we do is to be with and for him. To put it plainly: following Jesus should be a lifestyle.

The alternative – living for Jesus only part of the time – leads ultimately to tedious religious duty and often hypocrisy. If take this approach, we have times when we are living for Jesus, and other times when we are not. One of the problems is, when we are “off” of our religious activities, we say and do things that conflict with who Jesus is, and we could rightly be called hypocrites. Even when we do serve or worship Jesus, we do it out of obligation, and often we can’t wait to get back to our “real life.”

A lot of people prefer fitting Jesus in as just one component of a busy life. They have softball on Thursday nights and Saturdays, date night Friday, work throughout the week, and church on Sunday. When they are at church, they are doing their religious thing, but it never occurs to them for Jesus to be present at work, softball, and date night. Christianity is an important thing, sure, but they want to keep it in a limited place. It’s just one thing, they think, out of many good and important things.

But Jesus rejected the idea of being just one component of life. This is what he says:

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. 26 For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life? (CSB, Matthew 16:24-26)

For those who want to be Christians, all of life is about Jesus. He isn’t just one important piece of a fulfilling life. He is the life. Again, his words:

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

He isn’t part of life. He is the life. So, let’s understand this. Take the lifestyle I described above. It’s still fine and good to play softball. It’s not only fine, but good and right to go to work, and contribute to society, and to support yourself and/or your family. Date night is good, too. But a Christian does all of these same things with an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all. So, at work and at softball, a Christian works and plays in ways that bring honor to Jesus. In the same way, a Christian avoids working and playing in ways that reflect poorly on Jesus.

Let’s get even more specific. A Christian at work can’t be dishonest with her boss, or her clients. She doesn’t get to do shoddy work, either. Maybe nobody at her job cares, but she’s working in the name of Jesus, and he knows and cares, so her work should reflect that, regardless of whether the people around her notice or not.

A Christian at play doesn’t get to cheat, even though it’s only a game, and all his teammates are doing it. He uses the kind of language that honors Jesus and blesses those who hear him (Ephesians 4:29). He doesn’t do this only with the church softball team, but everywhere he works and plays.

Christians on a date enjoy the relationship that God has given them, and they enjoy it in ways that honor Jesus. So, if they are not married to each other, they honor Jesus by staying out of bed. If they are married, they may happily enjoy the gifts of intimacy that God has given to bless marriage. But either way, they recognize that God is part of their relationship; he is there with them, and they honor him by being kind and loving and respectful toward each other, and celebrating the joy he has given them in each other.

Now, we don’t do all these things (or avoid doing other things) because of some legalistic rule book. We do it because Jesus wants to express the power of his life through our lives. This is how Jesus wants to live in you, and through you. I personally think Jesus enjoys it when we do a good job because of him. I think he likes being there when we play softball (or whatever). I’m sure he enjoys date nights and family times, and many of the things we do. He is not asking us to just sit around and “be holy.” He is saying, “In whatever you do, make room for me. Let me be in it, let it be for me, and as you rely on me.”

Let me be honest. There are times in my life where, if this text were describing me, it would say: “Everything whatsoever he does, in word and in deed, he does for the benefit of himself, complaining to God the father that he doesn’t give enough help.” I’m just guessing here, but perhaps  this describes some of you, also. (That was sarcasm. Of course it does. We all fall into this).

Let’s back up and address this. Our natural inclination is to live for ourselves. We require others to treat us according to what we want and need, no matter what might be going on in their own lives. In fact, we often demand it. And we often expect that our own failure to meet the needs of others can be excused because of the struggles we have, even though we don’t give others the same leeway in meeting our own needs. Sometimes we don’t demand our way, but that makes us feel self-righteous, as if we are self-sacrificing martyrs just for not requiring the world to conform to our own desires. This self-centeredness is wired into these mortal bodies that we inhabit. We only live for Jesus to the extent that it does not conflict with our own strong desires.

It’s important to understand how serious this issue is. We cannot do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus until and unless this self-centeredness is addressed, but we can’t seem to break loose. Jesus himself provides the way, as we learned earlier in Colossians:

11 When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.
13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. (NLT, Colossians 2:11-14)

When we came to Jesus, he pronounced the death sentence on our own way of living for ourselves. He himself was killed for our sins, and he included us in his own death and burial. Our real life is now with Him. Remember, this section of Colossians that we are in begins like this:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT, Colossians 3:1-4)

We need to remember and recognize that the selfish way of life belongs to a body that began to die the moment it was born. That way of life is passing away. It can’t last for more than a hundred years or so, and often doesn’t make it nearly that long. It is literally a dead end.

However, we can live every moment whatsoever in the name of Jesus when we focus on the new life he has given us. We set our sights on the realities of heaven (that is, the New Creation). We recognize that all of our legitimate needs have been met in Christ, and our illegitimate needs belong to a body that is temporary and dying. We take our needs to Jesus, not demanding, but humbly trusting he will do what is best for us, even when we don’t understand what that is.

The year our son turned five, I saw something interesting happen. Like pretty much all kids, he was often selfish, often very upset when he didn’t get his own way. When he turned five, he was old enough to understand that his birthday was his special day, a day when everyone else would be celebrating him. He looked forward to it. When the day came, he was confident that others would be giving him attention, looking out for him and treating him well. He knew that we might go easier on his behavior. But instead of acting out, he became so kind and gracious. A number of times, something happened that normally would have upset him. One of his siblings accidentally broke one of his toys. He graciously forgave her. Another sibling got upset about something, and he tried to comfort her, rather than getting us to focus on himself. It seemed like because it was his birthday he knew, at least for that day, that his needs would be met, that he didn’t have to worry about himself. So, he was able to let things go, and able to act kind, and unselfishly.

It should be the same with us. The God who created the universe has declared that we are special to him. He has provided all that we need for an eternal life of joy. We can know that we are celebrated, that we are safe. We don’t have to demand that our needs be met, because God has already met all our truest and deepest needs. Trusting this, we can now do all things, absolutely everything, in the name of Jesus.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this is the third time in the last three verses that tells us to be thankful. I have said before that thankfulness opens the door to help us receive the things that God is giving to us in the spiritual realm. I said recently that thankfulness is also the gateway to peace. In addition, thanksgiving is the beginning of what it means to do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus. When we thank him, it helps lead us away from unselfishness. It helps us remember everything good in our lives comes in him and from him, and so encourages us to live more and more not for ourselves, but for, with, and depending upon, Jesus

COLOSSIANS #29. THE KEY TO MEANINGFUL, LASTING PEACE.

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Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best. But Jesus offers us peace in a different way. The way of Jesus to surrender control to him. This requires that we trust him. It means we must trust him to have our best interests in his heart, and the best interests of those we love. It means we must trust that he is able to what is best. It means we trust that his timing is better than ours. It means we must trust even when – no, especially when – we do not understand what he is doing.

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 29

Colossians #29  Colossians 3:14-15

14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.

Starting in verse 12, we were told to “clothe ourselves” or “put on” seven different aspects of the character of Christ. This is what it looks like when Christ lives both in each of us individually, and among us corporately:

Compassion, kindness, humility, patience, gentle restraint (meekness), bearing with one another and forgiving each other. Paul caps off this thought with the following:

“And above all these, the love; it is binding all together to perfectly complete the purpose.” (my “literal” translation)

By the way, when I offer my own translations of various Bible passages, I am not claiming to be a better Bible translator than those who work on the major English versions. Sometimes, however, those who create translations cannot get at the “feel” of the Greek text, because to do so would not be proper English, and more than a few sentences of it would be hard to read and understand. The main thing I want us to see is that love not only binds people together, it also fulfills the purpose of the character of Christ in Christian community. The idea here is very much like the one that Jesus spoke very plainly

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV Matthew 22:34-40)

Paul summed it up like this for the Galatians:

14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV Galatians 5:14)

He explains more clearly for the Romans:

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV, Romans 13:8-10)

In other words, if we really love another, we will be compassionate and kind with one another; we will be humble, patient, meek; we will bear with one another and forgive one another. Love is at the heart of the character of Christ, and so love – and all that loving each other means – perfectly fulfills Christian community.

The next line is this: “And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.”

There are two ways in which this peace should be applied. The application is peace among members of the church. There can be no doubt that this is part of Christian peace. The Holy Spirit is speaking through Paul to Christians who are members of house churches. They are actively involved in a small Christian community. He says that peace should rule between members of these communities – because we together, as one body, have been called to peace. To look at it another way, if we put into action all of what Paul has been saying so far about having compassionate hearts, being kind, gentle, forgiving and so on, we will be at peace with one another.

The second way peace should be applied is within the heart of each individual Christian, because he says that peace should rule our hearts.

Before we go on, let’s talk about what exactly the bible means by “peace.” I think there are three parts to it. First, peace means the absence of strife and worry. In other words, if you have peace, you will be free from conflict, and free from worry, or anxiety. This should be obvious. If you are at peace with someone else, you are not fighting with them. If you are at peace within yourself, you are not worried or agitated.

Second, peace is also the positive presence of calmness or tranquility. Peace is a powerful force that brings rest and quiet confidence into our hearts.

Finally, when the bible talks of “peace” it is often referring to our relationship with God. Peace with God means we are no longer “fighting” with him, or at odds with him. We know that because of Jesus, all is well between us and God.

I think it may be helpful to understand what prevents us from having peace. First, deep in our hearts, we have decided we will do everything we can to get what we want, even if it is not what God wants. For whatever reason, in some area of our lives, we have decided that what we want is non-negotiable. We don’t mind using God to try and get it, but if he won’t help us, we plan to make it happen anyway. Sometimes, maybe it is not something we want, but it is something that we are afraid of. It works the same way, however: we have decided that we must prevent something, even if God has decided to allow it. If God won’t get with the program, then we’ll try to stop it on our own.  

If we are doing anything like this, peace will never rule in our hearts. All the pressure is on us. It is all up to us to either prevent the bad thing from happening, or make the good thing happen. Even if we enlist God’s help, we will not permit him to be in charge, because we must determine the outcome. If we let God be in control, he might allow an outcome that we think is unacceptable.

From all of this it is clear that one the great barriers to peace is our demand that we must be in control. The beginning of peace is to give up control. The Holy Spirit makes this clear by saying “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” It is something we have to allow. We have to stop preventing Christ’s peace from entering.

I want us to dig deeper. Why must we be in control? What is it inside of us that wants to take over, and do all that we can to get our own desired outcome? Selfishness might be part of it. But I think the deepest problem is this: we don’t really trust God.

One of my own biggest barriers in the past was that I thought if I let God be in charge of my life, he would make me miserable. I would have live somewhere I didn’t want live. I would have to do things I didn’t want to do. Now, there is a certain kind of truth to that. I am by nature introverted and selfish. When God called me to be pastor, I had to open up life not only to God, but also to other people. I had to have more chaos in my life, and some heartache that maybe I could have avoided (watching people I had grown to love as they made bad choices). But when I surrendered fully to the Lord, I found tremendous joy in his will for me. I see how empty and vain my life would have been had I insisted upon my own ways. God may have you go through something, or do something, that you don’t want right now. But when we surrender fully to him, when we trust him and give up control, there is a joy that outmatches the hardship.

I certainly never wanted five years of unbelievable pain (I still sometimes say to myself: “This is unbelievable!”). But I have found joy in the midst of this pain. It is not as hard as it sounds, because, by and large, the peace of Christ rules in my heart. I am literally squirming in pain as I write this. Even so, I am at peace. I can’t imagine how angry and depressed I would be if I was still trying to control the outcome of this pain; if I did not trust Jesus fully in the midst of it.

Another issue in trusting God is that sometimes we are not fully convinced that he is good, and that he is working for our good. We think maybe we know better than he does.  We think maybe if we let go and trust him, he may not prove trustworthy. And as long as we insist upon our own expectations and desires, it will indeed often seem like God is letting us down. But when we fully release ourselves in trust to him, we will find that He is indeed good, and his ways are best.

This is not complicated. It is often hard to do, but it is not difficult to understand. If we want the peace of Christ, we must give up on trying to control life, and we must trust Jesus to do what is best, when it is best. We must give up upon insisting that we get we want. We must also give up trying to control things by preventing anything negative from happening. We have to trust God more than we trust ourselves. We have to recognize that if we have Jesus, everything else is ultimately OK. We will certainly have times where we do not understand what God is doing (or why he is not doing something). But we have to trust even when we don’t understand.

I know this is hard to do at times, but we also need to remember that our own sense of being in control is an illusion. You can’t actually prevent a loved one from getting sick. You can’t actually prevent your child from being killed by a drunk driver. You can’t actually insure that you won’t get ALS, or Alzheimer’s. Jesus said:

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV John 14:27)

How does the world offer peace? Only through control:

Are you afraid of being alone all your life? A dating app will help you get control. Afraid of being judged for how you look? We’ve got your health clubs, your make-up, your clothes, your hairdresser, everything you need to get control of the situation. Afraid of getting sick? We’ve got your supplements, your diet programs, your exercise regimens, pharmaceuticals, and much more. Most of it is only $19.99. Are you worried you’ll be stuck in a terrible marriage? Our divorce lawyers will help you take back control. Concerned about finances? We’ve got spreadsheets, tax advisors, financial planners, investment opportunities and much, much more.

Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best.

But Jesus gives peace in a different way. He says “Let me handle it; I will take care of it it my way. All you have to do is trust.”

The Holy Spirit tells us to let peace rule our hearts. This is the opposite of us being in control. It is no mistake that right after, he adds, “And be thankful.” Thanksgiving is a gateway to peace. When we thank the Lord, we are recognizing that he is in charge, and that he is trustworthy to do for us what is good. If you are struggling to give up control, struggling to trust God, I highly recommend developing a habit of thanking God for everything.

When I get up in the morning, I’m usually pretty miserable. I don’t sleep well, so I’m very tired. The night time is my longest stretch between doses of pain medication, and I’m usually in a lot of pain. So I don’t feel thankful at that time of day. But you know, I can thank Him for coffee. I wouldn’t survive without it at this stage of my life. Then, of course, electricity is required to make coffee (we don’t have gas appliances), so I can thank him for electricity. Kari usually greets me right away when I get up, and I can thank the Lord for her. Basically, what I am saying is that we should start with anything at all we can think of about which to thank the Lord. As we thank him for little things, more things keep coming to mind. If we do this consistently, it becomes a wonderful habit, and it helps us to trust more, to give up control more, and therefore to allow the peace of God to rule our hearts.

In addition to thanksgiving, reading the Bible is helpful for letting the Peace of Christ rule our hearts. There are more than 80 verses in the New Testament alone about peace. I want to leave you with a few to meditate on:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Philippians 4:6-7. Note that thanks-giving element in there!) 

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (ESV, Romans 15:13)

23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it (ESV, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #28: PRACTICAL THOUGHTS ON FORGIVING OTHERS

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Forgiving someone is the opposite of saying “it’s OK.” The only reason to forgive someone is because they truly hurt you. By definition, no one deserves forgiveness. We need to forgive for our own sake, because the alternative is bitterness and bile in our own souls. There is no way to get the person who hurt you to bear the pain that they caused, not even if they are willing. It’s like trying to get someone else to bleed for you. Jesus empowers us to forgive, and gives us a basis for forgiving others.

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 28

COLOSSIANS #28. FORGIVING OTHERS, PART 2

Last time we started to look at what it means for Christians to forgive. Forgiveness is as much, or more, for our own sake, as for the sake of the person we forgive. When we do not forgive, our anger and bitterness binds us to the person that we are not forgiving. We cannot let go of them, because we cannot let go of the hurt they have caused us. Usually, the idea of being bound to the person that hurt us is repulsive – that’s the last thing we want! But the only way to become unbound is to forgive. Also, when we refuse to forgive, we are closing our own hearts to the forgiveness that God offers us. If we harbor unforgiveness, it may be because we don’t really believe and trust that we are truly forgiven ourselves. We don’t really believe and trust the good news, and that means it does us no good.

This is deadly serious. Jesus said it was so serious, that if you are on your way to worship God, and you remember there is something between you and another Christian, don’t go to worship until you have settled it:

23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. (NLT, Matthew 5:23-24)

You may not realize it, but this is even a bigger deal than it sounds like. At the time Jesus said this, he was talking to people who lived way out in the country, many days’ travel from the temple in Jerusalem. If someone was offering their gift on the altar, it meant they were at the temple in Jerusalem. Reconciling with the person who hurt them might mean not just leaving the altar, but leaving Jerusalem, and taking an extra journey of several days to go back home, find that person, and then reconcile, and then return again to Jerusalem. Remember, there were no telephones or internet, or even motorized vehicles in those days. Jesus is saying, “take an extra week or more, if that’s what it requires.”

So it is extremely important – earth-shakingly important – that we forgive others.

Let’s talk about exactly how we go about forgiving others.

In the first place, let’s consider what happens when someone hurts us. They cause us some sort of emotional or physical harm. Without asking our permission, suddenly they are forcing us to bear emotional pain that is their fault. They were the ones who did the thing, but now we are the ones who have to live with the pain of what they have done.

What happens naturally, is that we want them to pay. We want the person who hurt us to bear the “cost” of that hurt. We want them to suffer the consequences. Unfortunately, that can’t be done. The nature of being hurt is such that the one who does the hurting is not the one who feels the pain.

This is true in the physical world, also. If I cut you with a knife, it is your skin that carries the wound, and your body that bleeds. Even if it was an accident, and I wish it could be different, I cannot bleed for you, or carry the wound that is yours. You could cut me, but it’s not the same thing. Even if you cut me back, you still have to bleed from the wound that I inflicted on you. My pain does not ease your pain. This is exactly how things work emotionally and spiritually. There is no way to get the person who hurt you to bear the pain that they caused. Not even if they are willing.

So, when we refuse to forgive, we are trying to get something impossible from the other person. We are trying to get them to pay in a way that is simply impossible. We might inflict new wounds upon them, but that doesn’t help our hurt to feel better. And when we keep trying to get the impossible from someone, we are forever bound to them. The only way to end the cycle is to forgive. The only way to finally get healing is to forgive.

Sometimes, we get confused about how to forgive, and what it means. Forgiving someone is the opposite of saying “it’s OK.” No, the only reason to forgive someone is because they truly hurt you. By definition, no one deserves forgiveness. Forgiveness is releasing the “debt” incurred by someone who treated you in a way that is inexcusable. There is no justification for the way they hurt you – that’s why forgiveness is needed. So, to forgive is not at all to say “This didn’t matter,” or “No worries.” The first step in forgiving another is to recognize that they truly hurt you, and the way they treated you is not justified.

The next step is to release them from the “debt” they incurred by treating you badly. When you cut me down in front of other people, it creates an “emotional cost.” Suddenly, I have to deal with all sorts of negative feelings about myself, and about you. I have to deal with the fact that other people might now look at me differently than they did before. These are emotional and relational burdens that you just dumped on me by your cruel words.

If I don’t forgive, then I will treat you in a certain way, think about you in a certain way, in order to try and get you to “pay” for what you did to me. As we have already learned, however, that simply can’t be done. You cannot pay the cost of your hurt, not even if you wanted to. Again, as we have already said, trying to get you to pay will only create a negative bond between you and me. When we don’t forgive, we are always trying to get something out of the person who hurt us, some sort of payment for what they did to us. Our unforgiveness keep us tied to them. The only way to be separate from them is forgive, to release them from the emotional debt they incurred with us when they hurt us. Sometimes people say that you must forgive someone for your sake, not theirs. This is part of why that is true.

Deep feelings about forgiveness are not necessary. Forgiveness is, first and foremost, an act of will. That act can be immensely powerful, even if no emotions accompany it. When I was in my twenties, I found myself battling with a certain sin. Whenever I was tempted, I failed. I went to a counselor, and we discovered that I had not forgiven a certain person from my childhood. I did not even have strong feelings about what this person did to me. The counselor walked me through forgiving that person, and I had hardly any feelings at all as I determined to forgive the person, and release them from all emotional “debt” they had incurred. When it was over, however, I found that the sin I was battling with had lost its power. Now, I was still tempted, but I was able to easily overcome the temptation. That is the power of forgiveness.

If someone has come into your thoughts as you read this message, I want to encourage you to forgive that person. It is a simple process, though sometimes difficult emotionally. I encourage you to do the following steps out loud, perhaps with a spouse, or with a trusted Christian friend of the same sex with you to encourage you, and witness your declaration of forgiveness (I don’t mean the person who hurt you. I mean someone who can support you as you walk through this process).

First, we need to confess that our unforgiveness is a sin. As Christians, it is wrong for us to withhold forgiveness from those who hurt us. As we learned from the previous message in this series, it is outrageously offensive that we would withhold forgiveness from others after God has forgiven us. So, begin by confessing that your lack of forgiveness is a sin.

Next, we state, as clearly as possible, what was done to you that needs to be forgiven. Say who did it. Speak out loud what exactly hurt you, and why it was painful for you. State clearly that what was done to you was wrong. It is not acceptable, not OK. It should not have been done to you.

As much as possible, try to mean what you say, and say what you mean. You might be gritting your teeth, and saying, “I still feel angry, but I have determined in my will to forgive Jane. So I am forgiving her.” Rely fully upon Jesus as you do it. You might say something like: “I do not have the power to forgive Jane. But in the name and power of Jesus, I forgive her, trusting Jesus to make it real for me.” Go on to formally release the unforgiven person from the emotional debt that they have incurred. You might want to say something like: “I hereby declare that I forgive Jane for this. I say that Jane no longer owes me anything. She cannot pay for the wrong she did me, and I release the debt. We are done with this. I am done with it. I am letting it go. I rely on the power of Jesus to make my forgiveness real.”

Sometimes, it helps us to know that Jane’s debt really will be paid for. That is why we have Jesus. Jesus died for your sins. He also died for Jane’s. If she is a Christian, Jesus paid for Jane’s sin. Are you going to say that he should pay for your sins, but what he did is not enough to pay for Jane’s? Certainly not! And if she is not a Christian, we ought to have nothing but pity for Jane. She will indeed pay for every last thing she has done, and she will pay forever and ever. Surely, that is good enough.

If the old anger and bitterness comes back, remined yourself that it is over. You are done with that, now. Jesus has paid, for it, and if Jane rejects that, Jesus will make sure that Jane pays back every last bit of every debt she incurred.

Now, what does this mean, going forward? What if Jane does exactly the same thing to you, two days after you have forgiven her? Remember the standard that Jesus gave Peter, when Peter asked about this very thing? Peter wondered how many times he needed to forgive someone who kept on hurting him. Jesus’ reply was “a perfect number, multiplied by a multiple of a perfect number.” In other words, “over and over and over again, ad infinitum.”

Let’s say it is our imaginary friend Jane again. She has a habit of cutting you down in front of other people, especially people whom you love and respect. You forgive her, and sure enough, next time you are together in a group of friends, she does it again.

There is nothing sinful about confronting someone who hurts you over and over again like this. The confrontation should be loving, and done in a spirit of forgiveness. As much as possible, stick to talking about how you feel when Jane cuts you down in front of others. It might even help if you try consciously to start your sentences with, “Jane, I feel hurt and belittled when you talk that way about me in front of others.” You ask her to please stop the behavior that hurts you.

The best case scenario is that Jane stops, and through your forgiveness of her, you become close friends. The worst case scenario is that she keeps it up, or does it even more. If that is the case, you still need to forgive Jane. It would also be wise to stop inviting Jane to be there with you and your friends, or to avoid situations where you will be with Jane in a group of people. This is not unforgiveness. You still must release the “debt” Jane incurs when she hurts you. But it is not wrong to try and avoid situations where Jane has the chance to keep hurting you. It is OK to distance yourself a little bit.

If the hurt is taking place within your small Christian community (house church, or small group) you might need to follow the protocol that Jesus lays out in Matthew 18:15-20. After talking privately (and not before!), if that doesn’t work, bring another member of your church/group and talk with Jane again. If Jane continues to do this, and the person you brought along can see that this is so, then bring up the matter in front of the whole church. In this context, it would be happening during a house church meeting, in a group no bigger than could fit in your home. If, after addressing it in front of the church, Jane continues to put you down, the church might ask her to leave the group until she can learn to control her tongue. You must forgive her, even if you have to take steps to distance yourself so that you are not continually hurt.

By the way, we should not look for perfection in a scenario like this. In reality, probably Jane apologizes when you confront her, and she is genuinely sorry. Even so, old habits die hard, and she might forget at times, and say something before she stop herself. Again, you need to forgive her. If she seems to be working on it, even if she often fails, it is good to give her a chance.

Sometimes a person like Jane might absolutely deny that she has done anything wrong. If that is the case, you still need to forgive her. The course of wisdom would suggest that you also reduce all contact with her to a minimum.

Being hurt in marriage is a lot more complicated. We must forgive, as the scripture says. But it is more difficult, and also dangerous for the marriage, to start avoiding each other, or avoiding any deep conversation. In the case of abuse, of course, the abused party should distance herself immediately, and not return until the abuser has received professional help. In the case of adultery, the wounded party is free to leave the marriage (but not required). In all other cases, we need to stay and work it out. We can still try to avoid the sorts of situations that usually result in us being hurt, but we don’t have the option of just giving up on the relationship. I recommend professional counseling if your marriage is a source of continuing and ongoing emotional pain.

Once again, let us wrap it up by looking at the cross. Jesus, by the cross, made possible your own forgiveness. It is only by the cross that we can forgive others. The cross assures us that God takes seriously the sins of those who hurt us. It also humbles us, and helps us recognize that we cannot hold grudges against those who hurt us. And through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his Holy Spirit, God gives us the power to forgive others. Let’s always remember to ask him for it!

COLOSSIANS #26: LIVING THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST IN YOUR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others. Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all?

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Colossians #26.  Colossians 3:1-14, especially 12-13

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

We are now deeper into a section of Colossians that tells Christians how we are to act. But we need to remember the basis for the way we act. It is not in order to get God to let us into heaven. It is not to prove our worth in any way, or get God to be pleased with us. Instead, we behave in certain ways because God has already forgiven us, and imparted to us the character of Christ. This section of Colossians shows us what the character of Christ looks like in each one of us. Particularly for this time, it shows us what the character of Christ looks like as we live in community with other Christians.

In several key places Paul has given us reminders that our behavior should be the result of what God has already done for us:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him Colossians (2:6)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (2:9-10)

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

So again here, Paul gives us the reason for our changed behavior:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on…

We relate to one another as the New Testament tells us to because we are God’s specially chosen people. He has made us holy, and he loves us dearly. Therefore, this is what it looks like to reflect the character of Christ that God has already given us.

Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others.

Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all? Since Jesus is now in us,  through the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we just sort of “naturally” behave according to God’s intentions? Why all these verses about what to do, and what not to do?

I think there are three things that might help us with this question.

In the first place, in this mortal life, before we enter the New Creation, we live under the influence of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, we are not in neutral territory. There are other influences on us, telling us lies, making us feel left out, encouraging our sinful impulses. Even if we “naturally” know how to live in the character of Jesus Christ, there is tremendous pressure to live for ourselves, or for the things the world values, or according to the lies of the devil. With so many voices speaking loudly against the things of God, it is important for us to have clear guidance about how to live, so that we know what is true, right and good, and what is not.

There is another thought. Picture a dog with its food. Imagine trying to train the dog to share its food with other animals, or even just other dogs. For many years we had a wonderful dog, named Mario. He was a truly sweet-natured animal. He was kind and protective, not only toward the humans in our family, but also toward all of our (many) other animals. I had no qualms leaving him alone with our three year old daughter, or even little babies. But there was one thing that brought out savagery in Mario, and that was if any other animal approached his food dish when he was eating. My point is, it would be difficult to train most dogs to share their food. It’s unfortunate, but true, that really the only way to do it would be to make the dog so afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t share, that it obeys the master’s command to share. In other words, the dog never actually learns to want to share. It merely learns that it is more painful to be selfish than it is to share. To put it another way, the nature of the dog does not become sharing. The nature remains selfish. Only its behavior is conformed to the master’s desire.

In contrast, picture training a young child to share her toys. This is also challenging, and in some ways, much more difficult than training a dog, because you don’t want to use fear or coercion, and you want not just a changed behavior, but also a changed attitude. However, there is something in the child’s nature that is not in the dog’s. It is possible for a child to learn to enjoy sharing, to want to share. But even though that potential exists in her nature, it takes teaching and training to bring it out. So, our nature, because of Jesus, has been changed from one like a dog’s, to one like a child’s. Even so, we still need teaching and training to learn how to use the potential of our new nature.

Here’s one more analogy that may help. The entrance requirements for the United States Air Force Academy are extremely high. You have to be smart, and prove that you can do well academically. You have to prove that you have leadership potential. You have to prove that you are person of character and integrity. You have to have sponsors – including a member of congress. Now imagine a young cadet. He has the smarts. He has the leadership potential, the character, and the sponsorship. He is fully qualified. He has what it takes. He has applied, and he has been accepted. So now, he is cadet in the Air Force Academy. The fact that he has what it takes is now taken for granted. However, he must now learn how to use what he has. Even though he is accepted as a cadet, he must learn to apply what he “has” to being an officer in the Air Force. And the process doesn’t end when he graduates. Once he graduates, he becomes a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He has the commission, he is an officer. Even so, has really only just begun to learn how to work and live like an officer.

So it is with us, who have trusted Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have what it takes. We are fully qualified to in God’s kingdom, to manifest the character of Christ. We have been accepted. Even so, we still need to learn how to use what we have been given. We need to learn to live according to the grace we have been given.

We have been  talking about what it means to live out the character of Christ. First, Paul explained some things to put away from us: sexual immorality, covetousness (greed) malice, obscene talk, and so on. Now, he is telling us something to “put on.” So, first, he covered the negative: “Don’t do certain things,” and now he is talking about the positive: “Do these other things.”

The things we are to do are focused on our life together with other believers. It is not wrong to treat strangers this way, but this text, and many others like in the Bible, assume that we belong to small group of other Christians – that is, a house church. The way we treat others begins in the house church. It doesn’t end there – we should treat all people well – but it starts with us learning to live with each other in the love of Jesus Christ. If claim to love “the world” but don’t actually live in loving relationships with other believers, we will be hypocrites. Also, when we understand that this was first to be practiced among a group of other Christians that was small enough to fit in your living room, things make more sense. It is difficult to have a compassionate heart for all of the other 4,987 members of your mega-Church. In fact, when we try to apply it too broadly, Bible passages like this one become meaningless. How can you be kind and humble and meek and patient with hundreds of people whom you don’t even really know? No, Christianity was always meant to be practiced primarily with a small group of others who became your spiritual family. The word “family” is meaningless if we apply it to so many relatives that we are talking about hundreds of people. The things that go along with our understanding of “family”  necessarily mean a fairly small group of people. It should be exactly the same with “church.”

I am not saying it is wrong for mega-churches to exist. But where they do, they ought to get their members into small groups where real-life faith can be worked out together in real community. Many of the best mega churches do exactly that. But until and unless you get involved in a small Christian community where you know everyone, and they all know you, these teachings in the New Testament will be quite difficult to actually apply to your life.

The first thing is “compassionate hearts.” A more literal translation might have something like: “compassion straight from your guts.” The word used for “heart” is actually “internal organs” and it means a deep, powerful feeling. Compassion means that you “feel alongside with” another person. Sympathy means you feel for someone, but compassion is feeling with. Thankfully, other parts of the Bible explain this clearly:

5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV, Romans 12:15)

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

3 Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (ESV, Hebrews 13:3)

We are supposed to be so connected to the other Christians in our local Christian community (that is, our house church) that we “feel with” them. If they are happy, it should cause us to be happy. If they are suffering, they should know that we are so connected that we hurt too.

Kindness is the next thing listed. There is no mystery here, I think we all know what it is. Again, our biggest need is not to understand it, but to actually practice it with other believers, first, and then, also the world. I think one of the easiest ways to be either kind, or not, is in our words. Sometimes it feels so satisfying, so powerful, to say unkind things to or about another person. But this is not what the life of Jesus in you wants to do. A kind word at the right time can build up a person more than we can possibly imagine.

Humility is all about allowing  God (not ourselves) to defend our “rights,” and to trust him to make sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Even if that doesn’t take place in this mortal life, we trust that God will make it right in the New Creation. With that sense – that we don’t need to defend our own rights, or pride, or honor – we can deal with each other humbly. We don’t need to insist upon our way, nor make snide comments when our way is not taken, and things don’t go smoothly. We can be right without rubbing the faces of others in that fact.

Meekness is a word I’ve struggled to define for many years. The closest I can come is a mix of gentleness and humbleness. Humility and meekness do not mean that we have to look down upon ourselves, or believe that we are always wrong, or not worthy of respect. If you look at the life that Jesus lived on earth, we can see what both humility and meekness look like. Jesus was (and still is) King of the Universe. Yet, he did not insist upon his rights, or his own way. He dealt gently with people who did not respect him – and there was, literally, no one worthy of more respect. He presented the truth clearly, but did not try to force anyone to comply.  He did, at times, force people to make a decision about Himself. Even then, he gently spoke to them until they had to face up what he was saying about himself. At that point, they had to choose to either believe, or not, but he did not force them to believe.

Jesus was, by definition, always right, but he did not rub anyone’s face in that fact. He knew who he was, certainly. He didn’t feel badly about himself, nor have low self-esteem. He didn’t pretend he was wrong. But he didn’t either insist that everyone recognize his rightness, or give him what he truly deserved.

I think we all know what patience is. But I want us to think about what it means to be patient with each other in Christian community. It might mean smiling and waiting it out when someone tells you the same story you’ve heard fifteen times already. It could mean remaining calm and hoping for the best when someone in the group fails to make the best choice – for the twentieth time in twenty days. It means everyone sticking with each other even when it seems like things aren’t going anywhere. It means sticking with individuals in the group when they continue to struggle with the same things for months – or even years – at a time. It means continuing to commit to the group even when there is a season when it feels like you aren’t getting a lot out of it. Your presence there may be the main reason someone else is getting a lot out of it, and what goes around comes around – but not usually very quickly.

Bearing with one another. No one is perfect, but when you get to know a group of people really well, you find that they are all a group of especially imperfect people. We need to bear with one another’s idiosyncrasies and bad habits, and socially awkward graces and body odor, and bad cooking and so on.

We have plenty to chew on for this time. Ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say to you right now? How does he want you to take action on these things? How is he calling you to trust him today?

 

COLOSSIANS #25: HOW DOES CHRIST-IN-YOU WANT TO RELATE TO OTHERS?

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COLOSSIANS #25. COLOSSIANS 3:6-11

6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

We are continuing from last time, when Paul started warning about the dangers of lawlessness. We need to remember that we don’t avoid sin, or do good, so that God will accept us or forgive us. Our acceptance and forgiveness are already assured by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus and what he has done. But just as in a marriage we live not just for ourselves, but also with and for our spouse, so it is with God. We live not for our own selfish desires, but with and for Jesus, who loves us and gave himself for us. We have entered into a kind of spiritual marriage. Earthly marriage changes the way behave. So does this spiritual marriage. But we change (in both cases) because of love.

[By the way, the Bible often says things like “brothers” when it means “both men and women.” It says we are all “sons of God through Christ Jesus,” because there was a special significance attached to sons, but the concept applies to both men and women. Women need to learn to understand that these concepts are not about gender, but about who we are in Christ. So now, men need to understand the same things when it comes to the concept of spiritual marriage. We are all (both women and men) the Bride of Christ. It is not about gender, it is about the kind of relationship we have with Christ.]

Last time Paul listed some of the changes that take place because of our spiritual marriage to Christ, and they were changes in our desires, and how we acted (or did not act) on them.

Now Paul continues and talks about how our relationships with each other should change. In the first place, we must put away all anger and wrath. I might have translated these words, anger and rage. Paul says we should “put them away.” The Greek does not mean “put them away” like putting away socks that you will use again. It means, “send them away from yourself;  distance yourself from them.” Now, the truth is, at times Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5). So, not all anger is sinful.  Paul says it this way in Ephesians 4:26-27:

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

Clearly there are times when anger is not sinful, since God himself gets angry at times. Of course it is right to be angry about injustice. Who would not be angry to hear about someone abusing a child, or stealing from the poor, or treating someone like  a second class citizen just because of their ethnicity? Who would not be angry if someone wrongs them badly?

But we must set a limit to the anger. Paul says, deal with it before the day is over. We are not to nurse anger, or feed it, or dwell on it. Get it out of your system, and send it away. Sometimes, to do that, you might need to express your anger to the appropriate person. Do so as soon as you can do it calmly, and then be done with it.

Malice is the next thing we are to send away. Malice is when you are deliberately trying to hurt someone, whether through words or actions. It indicates evil intentions. Sometimes people who are malicious may ask a question or say something that is technically innocent (on the surface) but it is said to hurt someone.

Slander is actually the Greek word from which we get our word “blasphemy.” Slander/blasphemy is saying something about God or someone else that is not true. I think it includes incidents where you say something that you don’t know to be true. In other words you are telling a lie or something that you know might be a lie about God or another person. So, perhaps I wonder if someone is having an affair. If I tell others that this person is having an affair, when I don’t know it is true, that is slander/blasphemy. Paul doesn’t mention gossip in this context, though he does in other letters. Gossip is repeating a fact that is not yours to repeat. So, to use the affair example, if I know for certain someone is having an affair, it is still not my business to talk about it with someone who does not need to know it.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is obscene talk. He says something like this also in Ephesians:

29 No foul language should come from your mouth, but only what is good for building up someone in need, so that it gives grace to those who hear. (CSB, Ephesians 4:29)

I am both astounded and disappointed at how many Christians completely ignore both our verses today, and Ephesians 4:29 above. I have met probably more than a dozen pastors, and know of many others, who freely swear, tell dirty jokes and generally use foul language. They tell me that they are just trying to relate to “the people.” By this logic, they should commit adultery so that they can help adulterers!

A lot of people use foul language more or less as a habit. You get used to using certain words, and they sort of slip out of your mouth before you realize it. I am not deeply concerned about this, though, I think our scripture today is telling us that it isn’t a neutral habit and we should do what we can to change it. I think Ephesians 4:29 (above) gives us the important thing: the way we talk should uplift people and give grace to those who hear. I think we can say that in general, the F-word does not give grace to those who hear, nor do any of the other words. I think it is safe to say that the life we have in Jesus is not consistent with dirty jokes, or suggestive sexual language, or racial slurs, or insults, or demeaning labels. I think a big part of the problem is this: if these things come out of you, that means they are inside you in the first place. Jesus put it like this:

14 Summoning the crowd again, he told them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 15 Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
17 When he went into the house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a person from the outside can defile him? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated” (thus he declared all foods clean ). 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23

Another thing Jesus said:

33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. (ESV, Matthew 12:33-35)

I’m not trying to make anyone feel terrible about themselves. But what comes out of our mouths is an indication of what is in our hearts. Again, swearing is sometimes nothing more than a bad habit, and you shouldn’t stress too much about it. But it is a habit that you ask the Lord to change in you.

When I’m working with someone, and they hit their finger with a hammer, and they swear, I don’t think much about it. But when someone hits himself and does not swear, that gets my attention. In some jobs or circumstances, you can say a lot by not saying certain things, if you catch my drift. Many times, I have ended up having spiritual conversations because people noticed that I don’t swear. I will freely admit that it is easy for me not to swear, because I never got into the habit in the first place. But I think our language can say something about Jesus to other people. More often than not – maybe 75% of the time, at least, I find that those who don’t swear are Christians.

The final thing Paul puts here is “do not lie to another.” Part of the Greek word for “lie” is “pseudo.” The word goes beyond simply telling  a lie, and includes any kind of deception or falsehood and could even include “putting on a false front,” or hypocrisy. This is really important. We cannot grow together as a community if we are not honest with each other. Sometimes we are afraid of honesty, because sometimes it brings conflict. But listen, dear friends, listen well: Conflict is unpleasant. But when you have walked through conflict with someone else, and resolved it, you are closer than you would ever be if you never had issues. We are God’s children together forever, so there is no question of conflict destroying your Christian community, provided we go about it in a godly way. And so honesty, even when it leads to conflict, leads ultimately to greater love for another, and a greater sense of support and encouragement.

Verses 9-10 are extremely important in order to put all in this context:

…seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

This is the key. Remember, this all builds upon what we have already learned. I don’t want anyone to confuse all these commands with some kind of legalism. Instead, these things are a guide. They show us what the character of Christ looks like. They show us how to put to death the old person, and let the new us, in Christ, be manifested more and more. We are being renewed in the knowledge in the image of our Creator. This isn’t about following rules, it is about allowing the Holy Spirit to renew us in God’s image. In a sense, it is about “unpacking” the gift of Christ in our everyday lives.

This also gives us a diagnostic tool. If there continues to be anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk, if we continue to deal with others in hypocrisy and deception, then there is some sort of problem. The life of Christ is not flowing out into our souls and then changing how we live in the body. The problem might be that we don’t truly believe who Jesus Christ is, and what has done for us. It could be that we are feeding our souls with the things of the world and flesh, instead of the things of the spirit, like the Bible, Christian fellowship, prayer, worship and music.

I am quite sure that the actual Colossians, the first readers of this letter, would have understood these things to be especially important to how the lived in Christian community with each other. That is why the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write verse 11:

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV, Colossians 3:6-11)

In Paul’s world, there were many divisions and distinctions between people that threatened real Christian community. Greeks considered themselves to be cultural elites. Jews thought they were better than all others, because their ancestors were chosen to be God’s people. “Barbarians” had a different meaning than we might imagine. It meant nothing more or less than someone who didn’t speak Greek, and was therefore not part of the Greco-Roman culture that dominated that area of the world in those days. Scythians were the real barbarians. They were white-skinned Europeans who lived far to the northeast, in crude huts, with a brutal, primitive, savage tribal culture. Perhaps a few made their way into the civilized world of the Mediterranean and became Christians. Slaves, were not exactly the sort of slaves that lived in nineteenth century America, but their freedom was certainly limited. We will talk more of slavery later in the letter, but in some ways, the big difference between slave and free in those days was that slaves had less money.  All these were ways of dividing people from each other in Paul’s time. But the Holy Spirit, through Paul, says, that these are meaningless distinctions. The only important thing about all people is where they stood in relationship to Christ. There is only in Christ, and not in Christ. And in Christ, there is no distinction worth mentioning.

In our day and age, we are tempted by divisions also. Some people consider themselves intellectuals and elites, and they might be tempted to think of themselves as better than others. Some might have a strong religious background, and so look down on people who only started following Jesus after many years without him. Some might be Westerners: part of the Western European culture that has dominated the world for the past four hundred years or so. Others might be from non-Western countries. Others still might come from very primitive places in the world. Some might be in economically difficult situations, while others have more money than they strictly need. Unfortunately, in America, as other places in the world, we also allow ethnic differences (which some people call “race”) to divide us.

I want to speak, very briefly, about racism. This scripture shows us that it is a sin when we use peoples’ ethnic background or appearance as a means to judge them, put them down, or divide us from them. Paul says very clearly that these things don’t matter: in Christ, we are all the same. In Christ, the important thing is that we belong to Him. I think there has been some confusion about this. Sometimes, in the United States, it seems like we are supposed to be especially sensitive to a person’s ethnic background. The Bible seems to be saying the opposite. I’m not saying we should insult each other with racial slurs. Obviously, the rest of this passage calls that sort of thing sinful. But I am saying, that in Christ, race is not important. Any way we have of making it important pales in comparison to the oneness we have in Christ.

Sure, we can celebrate the heritage of our historical cultures, but in America, even that sort of thing has had the tendency to divide more than to unite. In Christ there is neither black nor white. The idea that blackness or whiteness is somehow important, is, I think, one of the great lies of the 21st century. Let me put it this way: anything that starts you thinking about “them” and “us,” can become a real problem. I realize that racism is a thorny and difficult issue, which I will not solve here. However, I have seen race relations between blacks and whites deteriorate during my adult life, and that deterioration was accompanied by the idea that we should be especially sensitive to a person’s race, as opposed to simply striving to see every person as a person, regardless of his or her appearance. Also, when I was young, tension between American Asians and American whites was almost non-existent. However, as our culture has drawn more attention to race, and insisted upon “sensitivity,” racial tension has grown up between these two groups, where previously there was very little.

What we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years has surely not been working. Could we find a better place than scripture for guidance? In Christ, there is no black or white, Asian or Native-American, man or woman. Christ is all, and is in all. None of these things are supposed to matter. None of them should make any difference to the fellowship we have in Jesus.  None of them may be used as excuses for anger, rage, malice, slander, obscene talk or deception, or anything else that interferes with our one-ness in Christ.

What if, in listening to this message, you realize that engage in some of these sins, or allow these differences between people to be important? What then?

First, do not panic. The presence of sinful flesh does not, all by itself, mean that you are not a true Christian. But a true Christian responds to sin by repenting, and giving Jesus permission to change him or her. Repentance is not about generating will power in order to avoid sin in the future. But repentance agrees that what the Bible calls sin, is in fact, wrong. A repentant heart wants to change, and gives God permission to work so that it can be changed. The main questions are: do you agree with God that your behavior needs to change? Do you give him permission to change you? Do you believe that he can and will change you through the power of the Holy Spirit? Will you try to go along with the changes he wants to make in you?

The change may not happen as quickly as we think it should. That’s fine. I don’t think it is up to us evaluate how much and how fast we change. But, is there any movement in a direction that looks more like Jesus and less like your sinful flesh? We don’t get to decide how much progress we make, only that there is movement in the right direction. The good news is given to us right here in these verses:

you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

And…Christ is all, and in all.

For anyone who is in Jesus, the putting off of your old self and the putting on of the new is a present, spiritual reality. You are being renewed in knowledge after the image of  God. Maybe not as quickly as we think it should be, but it is happening to us, and our main job is to not fight with God about it, but let him do it. For those who are in Christ Jesus, he is all to us, and he is in all of us.