1 PETER #12: ORDINARY PRIESTS, SPIRITUAL SACRIFICES

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In Christ, we do not need priests to help us connect to God. ALL of us have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. This means that in a sense, we are all priests. That priesthood extends to the fact that all Christians are called to represent and serve God wherever we live, work and relax.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 12

1 Peter #12.  1 Peter 2:4-5

As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—5 you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 PETER 2:4-5

As in pretty much the entire letter, when Peter writes “you,” in Greek, it is plural. In English it should be “you all,” which is just one more argument for adopting “Y’all” as an actual, proper word. Anyway, Peter is saying that Christian communities are part of something that God is building. He begins the building with the foundation of Jesus – the living stone, rejected by humans – but he is building us Christians, through our local church communities, into living stones, and those living stones are making a spiritual house. Next, he explains that within the spiritual house of God, every single Christian is a priest.

I want to unpack this a little bit. We will deal with Jesus as a “living stone,” next time. Peter also calls his readers (that is, all Christians) “living stones.” He is providing an analogy about the church. If we needed any reminder that the church is not contained in physical buildings, here it is: we, the people who follow Jesus, are the building blocks, and we are being built into a spiritual house, not a physical one. Remember, there were no “church buildings,” until three hundred years after Peter wrote this letter. One of the main points Peter is making is that God lives within the community of his people (not within physical buildings). When we gather together to worship (even when it is on zoom), God inhabits our spiritual community in a special, and spiritual, way. Part of our purpose as Christians is to be a community in which God dwells.

Let’s spend the bulk of our time exploring the fact that Peter calls Christians “a holy priesthood.” In the first place, in ancient times, only a priest was allowed to “approach God” to make a sacrifice. For the Israelites, the priests had to be born into a particular bloodline. Most people were not priests, and as close as they ever could get to the presence of God was to stand outside of God’s temple, in the courtyard. The priests (lucky enough to be born into priestly families) were allotted into divisions, and the divisions were rotated in their service at the temple. The priests had to go through various cleansing rituals in order to be considered holy enough to complete their service of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one but a priest ever got to go inside the temple, and even for a priest, it was probably a once in a lifetime chance, because you were chosen for the duty by random chance.

Most of Peter’s first readers were probably not Jews, so they might have been more familiar with the pagan religious rites of Greece and Rome.  Although perhaps the requirements were not so stringent, certainly, to engage in anything beyond a minor act of worship (like burning incense in front of an image in your own house), a priest or priestess had to be involved. If you really wanted to connect with a deity, or enlist its help, you needed someone in the class of priests. You couldn’t do it directly.

But Peter says: “Now, through Jesus, you are all priests!” This is one of the revolutionary aspects of Christianity: Because of Jesus Christ, by God’s grace, anyone can directly approach God through faith. You don’t need a priest to pray for you: you yourself can pray directly to God. And in fact, the prayers of a Christian priest/pastor are no better than those of any other Christian. Our prayers are heard because of Jesus Christ, not because the one who prays is somehow special. I have non-Christian friends who sometimes say something like this: “Put in a good word at the Pearly Gates for me.” I usually respond like this: “My word is no better than yours at the Pearly Gates. But I can introduce you to the guy I’m counting on to get me in.”

I am a called, trained, and ordained minister of God’s church. That does mean something. It means that I have a particular kind of calling to spend as much time as I can (ideally, all of my “working hours”) teaching people the Word of God, helping them to grow closer to Jesus, and training them to engage in the callings God has for their lives.. The calling to vocational ministry is relatively rare – maybe 1-5% of Christians are called to it. But my calling does not give me some special hotline to God that other people don’t get. It is about my role in the church, and about dedicating myself entirely to God’s service. It most certainly does not mean that people have to use me as an intermediary to talk to God. In fact, there is no point in trying to use a priest or pastor that way.

So that’s the first part of all Christians being the “priesthood of believers:” we all have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. No one is excluded. There is a second thing, also. While it is true that being called to full time vocational ministry is fairly rare, every single Christian is called to live in such a way that God is glorified, and the church is built up. Ephesians 4:11-16 explains:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16, NLT)

This passage lays it out plainly. There are callings and gifts for vocational (full-time) ministry: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. Some people say that all of these gifts are found in one person, and they call this “the five-fold ministry.” Others say that they are all supposed to be in separate people, so that every church should have at least five leaders (one with each of the gifts). My own inclination is to believe that all of these gifts are present, to some degree, in anyone who is called to full time ministry, but that they are not all found in equal measure.

So, for example, I have a friend who is also called to full time ministry. His strongest gift is that of pastor, and he has a clear gift of prophecy, also. He undoubtedly serves the broader church, like an apostle. He can also lead people to Jesus, as an evangelist (and has), and he can teach, but those are not his greatest strengths. Each of us who is called to vocational ministry has a unique combination of these five things. My friend is a bit older than me, and he has observed that over the many years of his ministry, at times he was called to be more of a prophet, and other times more of a pastor, and right now is doing more with his gifts of apostle (serving not just one congregation, but the church at large).

We see that one of the main aims in the work of those who are called to full time ministry is to equip everybody else in the church to also minister in some way. It is not the full time ministers who are supposed to do everything, but rather, we (the vocational ministers) are supposed to train others to use their talents and time to build up the church, and let love overflow to the world. In other words: every Christian is called to minister in some way. This is part of what it means to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God.

Pastors do have a particular and unique calling and gifting. But so does every other Christian! This is Christianity 101. Being a Christian means to follow Jesus, and that involves all of your life. It means your life is now to be used to lift up and glorify Jesus Christ. Paul describes it like this:

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial

(1 Corinthians 12:4-7, HCSB)

This does not necessarily mean that you should quit your job and just “live for Christ.” For most Christians, instead, it means, live for Christ where you are right now. If all the Christians who worked in a factory quit their jobs, who would be left to show the grace and truth of God to the others in the factory? If everyone became pastors, so many important things would be left undone.

12 For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body — so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 So the body is not one part but many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. 19 And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? 20 Now there are many parts, yet one body.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-20, HCSB)

No, for most people, it means that you are called to represent God where you are right now. And, according to the verses above, that role is indispensable. God desires Christians in factories, in offices, in homes raising children, in transportation, in technology, in government, in education, in law, in sales, in small business – the list is almost endless. We are called to be priests wherever we are – that is representatives, and servants, of God. We are called to glorify God, and to touch others with God’s truth and love. That doesn’t mean you can never change jobs, but it does mean that whatever you do, wherever you go, you do it as a priest of God.

The third thing about the holy priesthood is that now we are set apart, special to God, just as priests were considered specially set apart to God. This can offer us a helpful rule of thumb for everyday behavior. You might ask yourself: “Can I say what I am about to say as a priest of God?” In other words, do my actions and words reflect my calling as one of God’s priests where I am? If not, maybe we need to change what we do and say. We can’t make that change without the help of the Holy Spirit, but recognizing the need to change is the first step.

Another aspect of this is integrity. Being a priest of God where you are may get you fired sometimes. I don’t mean that we should be unnecessarily confrontational. We shouldn’t go out of our way to create conflict. But at times, we may find ourselves facing a choice between doing what is right – that is, doing God’s will – or doing what our boss tells us to do. In such cases, being God’s representative may cost us something in material or financial terms. God promises, however, that whatever we lose in this life is more than compensated for:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:18, HCSB)

In addition to being a priest in the workplace, and at home, you are a priest within the body of Christ, as well. That is, you can provide encouragement and support to other Christians in unique ways. You may have a call to lead a ministry to serve the poor, or to teach the Bible to children, or lead worship, or help maintain the physical resources of your church. You are probably called, at least from time to time, to say things to your fellow Christians that they need to hear. We are all called to pray together, and pray for one another. We are called to love one another, and the way we do that reflects the unique way God made each of us. God has designed you to encourage his people, and to help bring them to maturity, in a special way.

Peter says as God’s priests, we offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. There are several important things to understand about these “spiritual sacrifices.” The first thing is they are something different from the actual, physical animal sacrifices common to almost all religions at that time. In the ancient world, most major worship events involved sacrificing animals in the name of one god or another (or, in Israel, the sacrifice was for the God we worship today). Usually, after the sacrifice, the worshippers would eat together, consuming the meat of the sacrificed animal. In the case of non-Jewish worship, any leftover meat was sold in the public marketplace. So, people understood that one of the primary acts of worship was an actual, sacrifice: a physical animal. In some cases, instead of an animal, an amount of grain was used, or a drink was poured out in honor of the deity.

Peter says, now, through Jesus Christ, we are no longer killing animals or burning up food or wasting drink as part of worship. Instead, what we offer God is spiritual. How do we do that? What is a spiritual sacrifice? Paul tells us, in Romans:

So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. 2 Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.

(Romans 12:1-2, GNT)

The spiritual sacrifice we offer is our very selves. We make ourselves available to God: body, soul and spirit. The verse above explains that part of that sacrifice involves allowing God to transform us inwardly in such a way that results in outward changes. . What God wants is our hearts. He wants us to willingly come to him in love, and trust him, even when we have doubts and don’t understand. The transformation begins through God’s Word as we learn it, and believe it.

In case that gets too esoteric and difficult to understand, let’s make it practical. It starts with reading the Bible and believing what we read. And it continues like this: When I believe that all the good in my life proceeds ultimately from God, and I thank him for it, I am offering  a spiritual sacrifice. When I am hurting, and struggling, but I choose to trust that God is good, and is working good in my life – even though I can’t see or understand it at the moment – and I thank him for that good, that is a spiritual sacrifice. The contemporary song Blessed Be Your Name captures both of these types of spiritual sacrifices beautifully.

Blessed be Your name // When the sun’s shining down on me // When the world’s all it should be:

Blessed be Your name.

And blessed be Your name // On the road marked with suffering // Though there’s pain in the offering: Blessed be Your name

There are other types of spiritual sacrifices that we can offer God. When I want to do certain things, but I learn that God does not want me to do that, and I obey him, rather than my own desires or preferences, that is a spiritual act of worship. When I give God my time and energy, to be used as he wishes, that is spiritual worship. When I choose to let God love others through me (though I might prefer not to) I am giving God my spiritual worship through Jesus Christ. Prayer is spiritual worship, as is music. Quieting my mind to listen to His Spirit is spiritual worship.

I hope you can see, that it all comes back to giving ourselves wholly to God in faith, through Jesus Christ. Why don’t you spend some time offering yourself to Him right now?

1 PETER #11: DELICIOUS WORDS

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God’s Word is life to us. Without it, we die spiritually. Though it takes time and energy, when we regularly read the Bible and ask God to speak to us through it, it becomes delicious spiritual food to us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 11

1 PETER #11: 1 PETER 2:1-3

Last time, Peter laid the foundations for authentic Christian community: Truth, and Love. Every Christian is called to be involved in the lives of at least a few other believers in authentic love and the truth of God’s word. He continues the same theme in these verses. (Remember, chapter and verse markings are only there to help us navigate around the Bible. They are not part of the Word of God, but were added almost a thousand years later). Peter begins by describing some of the implications of truth and love. If we are to be in Christian community, we can’t have malice toward one another. We cannot deceive one another, or regularly practice hypocrisy, or envy, or slander. These things destroy both Truth and Love, and they make real Christian community impossible.

All of that is a great example of how our beliefs are connected to our behavior. This isn’t a list of dos and don’ts; it’s not another set of laws to follow. But as sure as night follows day, you cannot Love other Christians in Truth if you are nasty or mean toward them, or deceive them, or live as a hypocrite, or envy, or slander them. Our behavior naturally lines up with what we really believe, and what we really think is important. Our behavior does not save us, but our behavior does tell us how much our faith is having an impact on our lives. If we cannot see any impact at all of faith on our behavior, then we need to revisit faith first. Trying to change our behavior without changing our beliefs, or what is important to us, is doomed to failure.

Peter revisits the truth aspect in verses 2-3: He tells us to crave God’s word like newborn infants crave their mother’s milk. By the way, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, also talk about “spiritual milk.” But both of them describe it as only for spiritual babies, and they rebuke various people for still needing milk when they should be eating solid food. (1 Corinthians 3:2, and Hebrews 5:12-13). Don’t let this confuse you – there is not some universal spiritual meaning for the word milk. Even within the Bible, writers do use the same words in different ways, sometimes, and they use the same words to create different word-pictures. Paul and Hebrews are using the picture of babies and milk to make points about spiritual immaturity. However, right here in our passage, Peter is using it in a different way – to show that we are in desperate need of God’s Word, and we should crave it, and that we need it in order to grow.

This is a powerful picture. In the first place, in those days, there was no such thing as infant formula. A baby needed mother’s milk, plain and simple. Without it, the baby would die. Milk was life to the baby. So, God’s Word is life to us. Without it, we die in our sins. Paul explains it like this:

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

(Romans 10:13-17, NLT)

We have to have the Word in order to have faith. And Peter adds that we need it “so that by it you may grow up into your salvation.” Many other verses also explain that even after we initially have come to Jesus, we need the Word to develop and sustain our faith.

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15:4, ESV)

4 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, 15 and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:14-17, HCSB)

12 For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.

(Hebrews 4:12-13, CSB)

We are only one quarter of the way through Peter’s letter, and we can see that God’s Word – that is the Bible – is a major theme. That’s because it is a major theme to Christianity as a whole. Without God’s word, we have no truth, no reality. With God’s word, when we trust it, we have salvation, and instruction about how to know God better, and how to live as we were intended to live. If you are struggling in your Faith, or struggling to live as a Christian, the very first question I have is this: what role does God’s Word play in your life? Do you read it regularly? Do you ask God for help in understanding when you read it? Do you seek to live by it? Are your values and priorities formed by what you read in the Bible, or by other things? In short: Do you regularly feed your soul on God’s Word?

If you are serious about God’s Word, but you don’t really know how to read it properly, or understand it, PLEASE reach out to me! We can have an email conversation, if that would help you. Or, if you are interested, I have written a book to help regular people understand the Bible, called: Who Cares About the Bible? It doesn’t cost that much, but, in case anyone thinks I’m pushing this in order to make $1.75 (the amount I get, if you buy a copy), I will give you a free copy, if you ask for it. It is also available in ebook form. If you want a free copy, contact me. Or, you can buy it from amazon.com.

Peter adds another thought about God’s word. He says: if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:3, ESV) This a theme that recurs throughout the Bible – that as we engage in faith, and particularly as we receive the Word of God, it brings a sweetness and joy to our souls:

8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

(Psalms 34:8, ESV)

When Ezekiel was called by God to become a prophet, God gave him a special vision involving His Word:

1 He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find here. Eat this scroll, then go and speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. 3 “Son of man,” he said to me, “feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll I am giving you.” So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.

(Ezekiel 3:1-3, CSB)

The scroll, is of course, a pictorial representation of God’s Word. When he ingested God’s word, when he took it into his soul, it tasted sweet to Ezekiel. Jeremiah had a similar experience:

16 Your words were found, and I ate them.
Your words became a delight to me
and the joy of my heart,
for I bear your name,
LORD God of Armies.

(Jeremiah 15:16, CSB)

The writer of Psalm 119 felt exactly the same way:

102 I have not turned from Your judgments,
for You Yourself have instructed me.
103 How sweet Your word is to my taste —
sweeter than honey in my mouth.

(Psalms 119:102-103, HCSB)

Let me put this all together by telling you what happened this very morning. I was doing my normal Bible reading – in which I read through a book of the Bible, a little bit each day. Currently, the book I’m reading is Proverbs. I prayed briefly before I started – something like: “Lord, I need to hear from you right now. What do you want to say to me?”

Then, I started reading from where I left off yesterday. Here’s what I read:

11 I am teaching you the way of wisdom;
I am guiding you on straight paths.
12 When you walk, your steps will not be hindered;
when you run, you will not stumble.
13 Hold on to instruction; don’t let go.
Guard it, for it is your life.

Proverbs 4:11-13

This verse tells me about wisdom. I know the historical context, and I know the context of the verses, because I read the previous chapter yesterday. I know that in general, these verses are telling God’s people to pursue the wisdom that comes from God, which, actually, goes along well with this sermon I am working on. That’s all very great. But this morning, God made this word living and active to me. As I read this with a heart of faith, a heart that said, “I want to hear from God,” these words became God’s word to me, today. It was as if the words in Proverbs were addressed right to me. It felt like God was saying:

“Tom, I am pleased with you. I am here. I am teaching you. I am guiding you. Your spiritual steps will not be hindered, your way is clear. I am bringing you deeper into my Life, my ways. You are on the right path, I have given you wisdom, and will give you more. Don’t be worried – continue on this path. I am pleased with you.”

It’s hard to describe exactly what it means to me, but the main point is this: I felt like God spoke to me directly and personally. He imparted his favor and love to me through the words of the Bible. It was food and drink for my soul; it was sustaining substance for my spiritual life.

I have actually read those verses in Proverbs many times. Certainly, I’ve read the entire book of Proverbs at least four times, or more. But today, verses that I have read before became living and active. The Holy Spirit applied them to me, personally in a fresh way. What I heard this morning was not the universal meaning of those verses for all people and all time. What I heard was God’s Living Word to me, for today.

I have experienced this sweetness, this “taste of God,” many times in my life through studying the Bible. Lest you think that means you need to become a Bible scholar to achieve it, let me say that I experienced it first when I was only a teenager, as I tried, for the first time, to seriously engage with what I read in the Bible. I continued to experience it as a college student. In other words before I could have been called a “Bible scholar” in any meaningful sense, God used His Word to let me “taste and see” that He is good. Even today, what I received from God was not about intellectual understanding, but about receiving His Living Word in faith.

So, if you are a teenager, with no college education, God can still give you tastes of His goodness if you engage with the Bible. If you are an adult with no college education, the same thing applies.

It isn’t about us knowing a lot, but rather, it happens when we genuinely want to know God better, and we seek that knowledge through His Word, and through the community of believers. It happens when we read the Bible with faith that God is indeed imparting His life to us through it.

I invite you, too, to immerse yourself in God’s Word so that you can taste and see that He is good!

1 PETER #7: HOPE RESULTS IN HOLINESS

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Because we have an expectation that our amazing future will indeed come to pass, we will make different choices than those who have no such hope. And that will make us look different, sometimes, even strange, to those who do not share our hope. That differentness is a picture of the holiness of God.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 7

1 PETER #7. 1 PETER 1:14-16

There is a reason we have spent so much time in 1 Peter looking at the hope we have as Christians. In order to understand our next verses, we have to have that hope firmly in mind. After telling us to fix our hope firmly on the grace that will be ours when all things are made new (the revelation of Jesus Christ) Peter goes on:

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

If we did not have the foundation of hope, these verses might sound to us like some kind of difficult and hard duty that we have to perform in order to please God: “Now look, people, you’ve got to do the right thing. You have to be holy. Get it together.”

But we need to remember that all of this begins with the grace that God has already given us, and the hope that we have in Jesus.

Before I go on, let me make sure we define “hope” a little bit. Let’s contrast it to a wish. A wish is something that would be nice if it happened, but for which you have very little expectation. I might wish to win five million dollars at the lottery. I might wish I was six inches taller, or wasn’t losing my hair. I have no real expectation of having those wishes fulfilled. In fact, my wish about the lottery is so weak that I don’t even buy lottery tickets. Wishes don’t change the way we live.

A hope is a reasonable expectation of something that will one day come to be in reality. It is still in the future, but we have a strong belief that it will, in fact, come to pass. Because hope expects fulfillment, it influences and changes the way we behave.

When I was at Oregon State University, I happened to have two friends who were on the women’s gymnastics team. At that time, OSU (Oregon, not Ohio) had a stellar women’s gymnastics program. The team was typically in the top five in the nation, for several years in row, number one, more than once.

One of my friends won the title of top female college gymnast in the country just a month before I met her. My other gymnast friend was a couple years younger, and she went on to win the national solo title the year after I met her. As I mentioned, their whole team also won the gold medal a few times.

Both of these women were part of my “core friends” group. This group of friends would get together, hang out, grab pizza, do Bible study, and even take trips together. But our two gymnast friends lived different lives than the rest of us. I had no hopes of ever becoming a top-ranked college gymnast. But my friends had legitimate hopes of being on the medal podium, when the NCAA gymnastics tournament came around. Their hope led them to make choices that made them different from the rest of us. Sometimes, they didn’t eat the pizza we had ordered. Sometimes, they couldn’t get together with the rest of us, because they had to practice. While the rest of us did our normal things, they spent hours doing abnormal things, like hurling their bodies into the air, twisting, flipping and turning, and landing on their feet.

Don’t miss the point: their hopes directed them to lead different lives. They didn’t practice for hours because “it was the right thing to do.” They didn’t do flips and twists in the air because that’s what good people are supposed to do. They did it because they had a wonderful, amazing hope, one which they fully expected would come to pass: that they would be on the medal podium, come tournament time. And so, they lived in continual expectation of that hope.

Significant hope changes how you live. If you have hopes that are different from those around you, you will live a life that looks different. Peter tells us that we should have every expectation of the fulfillment of our amazing hope. That leads us to live differently, to behave differently than we did before we had this hope. So, in the first place, we need to let go of the way we lived before the hope. At that time, we lived according to whatever passions motivated us. In other words, we lived to satisfy our own desires as best as we could. We decided on hopes that we thought might be workable, and lived for small things, mostly for ways to satisfy our own desires and needs.

Peter tells us that now, we should live as children who love their Father, and want to be like Him. In other words, this change of behavior comes out of love and hope, not law. When I was young, there were two men that I loved with all my heart, and looked up to: my father, and my maternal grandfather. They were different from each other in some ways, but I loved and respected both of them so much, I wanted to be like them. I didn’t try to be like them because someone told me that was the rule. I didn’t do it “because that’s what good people do.” I imitated them as a result of love and respect. I was tremendously blessed by God in that I knew for certain that both my earthly father, and my grandfather, loved me. And because they loved me, I loved them back, and I wanted to be like them.

That’s supposed to be the motivating factor with God. Now, I know not all of you were as blessed as I was by your earthly fathers or grandfathers. Some of you did not have that love growing up. But you can trust the love of your heavenly Father. He proved his love to you beyond any doubt by sending Jesus to suffer death in your place. Let the Holy Spirit pour that love into your heart and convince you of his Father-love for you.

2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:2-5, ESV)

So, we live different lives, holy lives, because we know that God loves us, and we love him back. We live different lives because we have a different hope. Now, let’s talk about holiness for a moment. Peter writes:

15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Remember, one of the key things about holiness is that it is different, set apart. I have previously used the analogy of clothing. Most of us in the Western world have “everyday clothes,” and then also “fancy clothes.” We reserve our fancy clothes for special occasions. They are set-apart – they are different, intended to be special, to celebrate special occasions. When we wear those clothes, we are sending the message that something special and important is going on. Or think of it this way: Many years ago, some friends gave us a very special set of plates, glasses and eating utensils. This set of dishes is very fancy, and each piece needs to be washed by hand. We don’t put those plates in the microwave either. Those dishes are set apart – they are intended for special occasions: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and so on. When we use them, it says: “Pay attention! Something important and out of the ordinary is going on right now!”

In the same way, we have already been set apart by God. We saw in 1 Peter 1:2 that God was the one who set us apart, who has made us holy through Jesus Christ. So, we don’t have to become holy – God has already made us that way. But what we are called to do is live out that holiness, that differentness. And, as I have just mentioned, part of living as holy people is driven by our hope of something different than the world hopes for. If we live according to our hope, we will also be living out the holiness that God has imparted to us. It will look different to the world, not “everyday.” We won’t cheat someone when it’s obvious that we could get away with it – not even the government or a large corporation. We won’t use alcohol or drugs, or sex, in inappropriate ways, (for instance, to numb the pain of this life), but instead we will rely on the hope of the grace of God that is coming. We won’t take the opportunity to indulge our sinful desires, even when we think we could “get away with it” without consequence. Because we have an expectation that our amazing future will indeed come to pass, we will make different choices than those who have no such hope. And that will make us look different, sometimes, even strange, to those who do not share our hope. That differentness is a picture of the holiness of God.

At a few different times in my life, I was making a living apart from ministry. In almost any job I had, others would comment about the fact that I behaved differently from most of our coworkers. I didn’t behave that way simply as a point of honor. I did it because I have a hope that my coworkers didn’t have. The same was true of another group of friends I had in college. These were not my “core group” but they were people I ate with regularly, and with whom I hung out occasionally; I don’t think any of them were Christians. Three of us were named Tom. One “Tom” was in the agricultural program, and wore a Stetson hat, so everyone felt the obvious way to distinguish him from the other Toms was to call him: “cowboy Tom.” They had a name for me, too: “holy Tom.” I don’t remember anyone discussing this much, or asking why they should call me “holy;” everyone else seemed to think it just fit, just like we thought “cowboy Tom,” was obvious. I was the only one who objected to that name. But they could see something that I didn’t yet understand: I was different. I wasn’t trying to be that different – but my hope made me different. In fact, I understand now that it was God Himself who makes us different – that is, holy – when we receive Him in faith.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to say I was in complete control of my behavior, or that I tried to put on a good front to impress people. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. It was the hope I have, and the love that God has for me, that made me look different to my coworkers and friends. They recognized something in me as “holy,” when I was not even consciously trying to look that way.

Remember, this different behavior proceeds not from laws about what we ought to do, but rather from our hope, and from our love for God. If you find yourself struggling to bring your behavior in line, I recommend meditating on your hope, and upon the love of God. There is a place for self-discipline, a place to have integrity for the sake of your own self-regard, but the engines that really drive our behavior should be hope and love. If we have a behavior problem, it might be that we have a problem connecting with the love of God, or with the amazing hope of our future in the New Creation.

So don’t be afraid to read:  “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” I’ll say it again: it isn’t about trying with your own strength to make yourself behave. The key to holiness is hope and love.

That last part “you shall be holy,” is also a kind of promise. We shall be holy, because God has already made us Holy in our spirits, giving us His own Holy Spirit as kind of a down payment on the promised hope.

And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. 14 The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. (Ephesians 1:13-14, NLT)

To encourage our resolve to live different lives according to our hope, let’s end with another statement of that hope:

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. 2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. 3 For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. 4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. 5 God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NLT)

LIVING CRUCIFIED #9: THE GLORY OF GOD

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The most wonderful thing in all of existence is God. He is the most beautiful, wonderful, joyful, exciting, heart-pumping, loving thing in all the universe. When we talk about God’s glory, we mean displaying all this wonderfulness of God to the rest of existence. Nothing is better in any way than God and his glory. God designed it so that we are bound up with his own glory. When the best thing in the universe happens – God’s glory is revealed – that blesses us also. It didn’t have to be that way, but God made it that way.

We were literally made to display part of the glory of God.

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

Living Crucified #9. God’s Glory.

Romans 9:21-24; Ephesians 2:4-7; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 4:6-11; Luke 8:16-17

Some of you may be wondering: what exactly is this sermon series about? I mean the title, “Living Crucified” sounds nice and pleasant and all, but what does it really mean? What’s the point here? In other words, some of you may want the “big picture” concerning this series.

This week I want to back out to a bird’s-eye view. Here’s the really big picture: God is the ultimate good. He is the most glorious, wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, powerful, delightful, honorable, pure, excellent being in all of existence. Because there is nothing better than God, not in any possible way, the best possible thing in the universe is God’s own glory. By “God’s glory,” I mean “displaying the wonderfulness of God.”

If you ask the question: “What is the best possible thing that could happen in this moment?” the answer is always: “For the glory of God to be revealed.” When we share the joy of love with another human being, that is part of the glory of God being revealed. When a doctor, using the capacities and opportunities given to her by God, saves a life, the glory of God is being revealed. When we hear beautiful music, see beautiful scenery, or read wonderful writing, the joy and goodness of those experiences are part of the wonderfulness of God being displayed. Even the sins that entice us tempt us because they are corrupt counterfeits of God’s glory. If we could truly see sin for what it is, we wouldn’t be interested. But we fall for it because it seems like shortcut to the experience of something wonderful – a shortcut to the glory of God. So the glory of God is always the best thing that could happen in any given situation.

Now, here is the amazing thing. God decided to make us – human beings – part of his glory. Our existence, and the way he relates to us, is designed to display his wonderfulness to the universe. However, we need to know that He didn’t have to do it that way. He could just have easily had made us so that destroying us would display his glory. Instead, he made it so that when he is good to us, it accomplishes the purpose of showing his glory. Paul makes this exact point in Romans 9: 21-24.

21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. 24 And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. (Romans 9:21-24, NLT)

Understand what this means: God made it so that when the best possible thing in the universe happens (his glory), it results in good things for us, too.

Let me offer a few analogies to help us understand. Imagine there is an incredibly talented architect. He is as creative as Picasso, and as talented as Michelangelo. He is as detailed and knowledgeable as any engineer, and as practical as a mother on a limited budget. His buildings create a sense of wonder and surprise. They are beautiful, but also very useful and functional. If he wanted, he could work for giant, rich corporations to create stunning corporate headquarters for wealthy CEOs to show off. He could even create buildings that were simply sheer works of art, to be admired by generations to come. Instead, this architect devotes his entire career to creating beautiful, functional housing for people with limited incomes. His work shows off his amazing talent, but he chooses to “show off” in a way that benefits others, especially others who stand in great need. That’s a little bit like God. God could have chosen to show his glory in a way that had nothing to do with human beings. But he chose to show his glory in a way that benefits us.

4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) 6 For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. 7 So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7, NLT)

God saved us – and we contributed nothing toward that salvation. And one reason God did it is so that he can point to us as examples of his grace and kindness – that is, as part of his glory.

Picture a brilliant musician and composer. His understanding of music is deeper than Bach’s. His creativity greater than all of the music producers in the world put together. His music is stunningly beautiful, moving the heart and delighting the mind. He could make millions upon millions as a recording artist. He could show off his skill by recording each part himself. Instead, he writes symphonies that involve every musical instrument known to humanity, and he uses other musicians to play each part. So, when his music is performed, every instrument is involved in demonstrating the glory of this composer, and many different musicians get to be a part of it. So those other musicians get to participate in the glory of that talented composer.

Another one would be that of a stained glass window, or a tile mosaic. Each piece of glass or tile shows one small part of a bigger picture. Each one is interesting in itself, but their main use is to display the larger picture that the artist wants to convey. In the case of the stained glass, the light of the sun comes through each piece in a slightly different way, and they all combine to give one, beautiful and coherent picture.

So God chose to make human beings part of the displaying of his glory.

6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:6-11, ESV)

God desires to manifest his glory through our mortal flesh, yes, even through the lives that we live in these flawed bodies. Remember, we have talked about the two realms? There is one realm that is unseen, eternal and spiritual. There is another realm – the realm in which we live our daily lives. This realm is made up of things that can be seen; things that are physical, and temporary. The things that are true in that eternal realm are more powerful than our feelings and experiences in the physical, temporary realm, because they will outlast the physical. We are to draw life from the unseen realm, and set our minds on it, and focus on it.

However, it would be a big mistake to say that everything in the physical realm is bad, or useless, or meaningless. Because the fact is this: God has chosen to display his glory, not just in the eternal, unseen realm,  but also in the physical, seen, temporary realm. That means that this world, including our temporary, physical experiences have meaning and importance. The temporary realm is a platform to display the wonderfulness of God, and that makes it significant indeed. So, our physical actions and choices are important.

We have seen in several places that one way that God shows his glory through us is by saving us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there is more to it than that. He created each human being to show off his glory in unique ways. When we are crucified with Christ, we are raised to a new life, and the purpose of the new life is to display some unique piece of God’s glory. Since God is infinite, there will never be too many humans to do this. The Holy Spirit tells us that God prepared in advance the ways he wants to use us to show his glory:

For we are his craftsmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of works that are good, which God designed and appointed ahead of time, so that we should spend our lives in doing them. (Ephesians 2:10, my “expanded” translation)

So, for example, part of the way God shows his glory through me is through the teaching of the Bible. It may even be that one unique aspect of God’s glory that shines through me is the analogies he gives me to help us understand things like this. Years ago, a visitor to the church came up to me after hearing me preach, and said, “You’re really good at this.” I don’t know if he realized it or not, but what he was seeing was not me, but the glory of God coming through me, as it was designed to be.

God does not use me to display his glory through building things, or fixing engines. But he does show his glory that way through people whom I know. I just got a text from a friend who fixed the alternator on his boat engine. I didn’t even know boats had alternators! But when my friend applies his skill, and fixes something to the best of the ability that God gave him, it shows a piece of God’s glory. I have a couple other friends who build their own houses, or do other things related to physical craftsmanship. I find myself in awe of them. But, whether I always recognize it or not, what really impresses me is God’s glory shining when they walk in the good works that God designed for them ahead of time. It isn’t really about them, no matter how skilled they are. It is about the glory of God which comes through them.

If music was the NFL, I might be good enough to be a backup offensive lineman (for non-football fans, this is a backup to the least “skilled” position; sort of the bread and butter players). But I know people who are good enough to be the star quarterbacks. The fact that they aren’t actual music celebrities, does not take away one bit from the fact that the glory of God shines through them when they do music. The point is not that we are all famous for our gifts. The point is that we let God’s glory shine through us whenever, and however, we have the chance.

I think that quite often, we lose track of the fact that this is God’s primary purpose. This is what he is up to. And that means, it doesn’t really matter how many other human beings see it, here and now. In the end, God will make it all contribute to his own glory.

Several years ago our church was not yet doing house-church. We were in transition, and sometimes our Sunday morning attendance was rather small. One Sunday, the weather was bad and it was a holiday weekend, and I found myself preaching to just my own family, plus about four other people.

As I was preaching, I was also praying. I said: “Lord, what’s the point here? Do you really want me to do this for so few people?”

His response, spoken into my heart was this: “How would you feel if you were preaching to an audience of one – that is, just one person, but that one person was the president of the United States?

I thought: “It would be an honor, Lord.”

“What about if you are preaching to an audience of one, and that person is Me, Lord of the Universe?”

“Really, Lord?”

“Really. I want to hear this sermon you are preaching. Now stay focused and keep going. I’m listening, and I like what I hear.”

It was a kind of stunning moment. I serve at the pleasure of the Ruler of the Universe. If he wants me to preach to the birds, like St. Francis, then that should surely be good enough for me. I preach not for myself, not even for you who might be reading this, but for my King. If I rely on him as I do it, He will look after how it brings glory to Himself. It may be that at the end, the things we do in obscurity will be showed to the whole universe. Jesus seems to say as much on several occasions:

16 “No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a bowl or hides it under a bed. A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house. 17 For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all. (Luke 8:16-17, NLT) (See also Luke 12:2-9; Matthew 10:26)
22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. (Mark 4:22, NIV)
So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Timothy 5:25, ESV)

Even if only God knows about it, it will contribute to his glory. So, if you are a builder, build for the glory of God, and don’t worry who else will know or see what you have built. If you are an artist, do your art for the Audience of One, and trust Him to look after how it will be part of his glory. Same for you musicians, you craftsmen, even you who delight in sports, or stamp collecting. There was a time in my life, working on my Master’s of Divinity degree, when I realized that all I had really done was go to school. But I believe that being the best student you can be is also something that can bring glory to God. Everyone has some way to let God’s glory shine through.

Quite literally, this is what we were made for.

Next week, I’ll start talking about how we go about this in a practical way, and draw some more connections with other things we’ve been learning so far.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #7: SIN and GRACE

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah #6: THE BIBLICAL GOD IS FOR ALL PEOPLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Spirit speak to you today!

JONAH #2. THE FUTILITY OF IDOLS.

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

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

Jonah #2.  Jonah 1:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about the following questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLOSSIANS #34: THE BEAUTY OF TRUST

Photo by Ihsan Aditya on Pexels.com

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?

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!

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

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

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)