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:

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Colossians #29  Colossians 3:14-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul summed it up like this for the Galatians:

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

He explains more clearly for the Romans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the world offer peace? Only through control:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #24: THE TRAP OF LAWLESSNESS AND THE SOLUTION OF LOVE

god's love

How can we avoid legalism, and trying to earn points with God, but also avoid lawlessness and sinning?

The answer is love. Love is at the heart of Christianity because love is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and what it means to have faith. Love not fear, nor selfishness, is what changes us and radically influences our behavior.

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Colossians #24. Colossians 3:5-7

 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. Colossians 3:5-7

We are taking things in small bites, but it is very important to remember our overall context. Paul started this section by saying: “In the same way you received Christ, now walk in him.” He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ; and the fullness of Christ dwells in us. Through faith, by God’s grace, we were buried with Jesus by baptism, and raised to new life. Our old life, the sinful flesh, has been put to death. Paul then began to discuss one potential problem in the Christian life: the issue of legalism. Legalists don’t fully believe in the work of Jesus. They think perhaps that they can add to what Jesus has done. They want to be in control of their own fate, and they often want to control the behavior of others. But Paul demolishes legalism by reminding the Colossians that in Christ we have nothing left to prove. We can’t be righteous enough to please God. We don’t follow God according to the ways of the world.

Last time we talked about the amazing truth that our real life, our true life, is found not in external things, but in Jesus Christ. It is already there, waiting for us. It will be fully revealed in all its glory at the same time that Christ is revealed in all of his glory. This is because part of the glory of Christ is what he has done for us. Real life comes from God, into our spirits, and from our spirits into our souls, and from our souls, it influences how we behave.

So, while some of this might be hard for us to hear, let us not forget the message of grace and life that the scripture has been hammering into us for many weeks now. Context is everything.

With all this in mind, Paul now begins to address a second potential problem in the Christian life: lawlessness. Remember the picture of following Jesus as a road? On one side of the road is a deep and dangerous ditch called legalism. Now, Paul begins to address the deep and dangerous ditch on the other side of the road: Lawlessness. In many ways, lawlessness looks like the opposite of legalism. Instead of following rules, like legalism, lawlessness rejects any kind of standard for behavior at all. A lawless person might think like this: “Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus did everything for us. There’s nothing for us to do. Therefore, I can live in whatever way pleases me best. I know I’m not married to this person that I’m attracted to, but I can’t earn points with God anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and have sex with her. And with anyone else I feel like.” Lawlessness says: “Paul just wrote that restraint and self-discipline don’t help us in our relationship with God, so I’m not going to restrain myself at all. If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I can get something I want, I’ll get it. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it.”

Lawlessness is lazy, and, above all, self-centered. Like legalism, the heart of lawlessness is being in control. Lawless people might think that they are the opposite of “in control,” but behind the “anything goes” behavior is an attitude that says: “No one can tell me what to do, or not do.” Like legalism, lawlessness says, “No one is the boss of me. I’m in charge of my own life, so I can do what I want.”

Unfortunately, most public schools in America, along with most universities, indoctrinate young people with the ideas of lawlessness. They tell people that the most important thing is to be true to yourself. In other words: “Make sure that you do what you really feel like doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Do not accept any standard for behavior except what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone else impose any kind of standard on you.”

Legalism had a tiny bit of truth behind it. So does lawlessness. It is true that Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. If we trust Jesus, we are thoroughly forgiven, and we can’t add anything to what Jesus has done for us. In Jesus, our sins are not counted against us, and the righteousness of Jesus is counted for us.

But we need to understand something: if we truly believe this, our behavior will change. If we truly love Jesus, the most significant part of us will not want to sin at all. If we belong to Jesus, we have accepted him as our Lord and King, and we have given up the right to live for ourselves.

I’ve used this illustration before, because the Bible uses it in many places. Picture a marriage. Two people love each other, and they agree to give up their lives as single people, and from their wedding day forward, they make a new life together. Part of marriage means you give up some of the independence you had as a single person. Now, you organize your life not only to please yourself, but to please the two of you together. When you were single, you might have gone out with your friends, and stayed out late. But when you are married, you decide together what you will do with your time. You don’t stay out all night unless you have talked it over and agreed with your spouse. You don’t spend your money as if it was all your own. You prioritize together how you as a couple will allocate your resources. You do things for each other and with each other because you love one another. Sometimes, you do things you would rather not do because you love your spouse. At other times, you might refrain from doing something you would like to do, because you love your spouse. You don’t behave in these ways because there are laws about marriage. You do it because you love your spouse. And you behave in ways that are loving sometimes even when you don’t feel all sorts of loving feelings, because you have made a commitment to honor and value your spouse.

Now, if you were a legalist, you might say: “I must sit here and listen to my spouse talk, because if I don’t, I must not really be married.”

There is no love there, only fear and obligation.

If you were a lawless person, you might say: “I don’t feel like sitting here and listening to my spouse talk, because I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to go watch TV because that’s what I really want to do right now. Besides, even if I don’t listen to her, we’re still married, right?”

There is no love here, either, just self-centeredness.

This is why I say the good, true road of Christianity is love. Love eliminates both legalism and lawlessness. Being a Christian is all about receiving the love of Jesus, and loving him back. And because of his love, also loving our neighbors. Love changes us. It reorients us, reorients our lives, toward the one we love. Love affects how we live, and the choices we make. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really love.

This has to be really clear: we don’t change our behavior in order to become acceptable to God. Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. But once we trust Jesus, once we believe what the bible says, our behavior will change, because we grow in the love that Jesus has for us, and the love we have for him. If our behavior does not change at all, not even a little, perhaps we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Jesus.

When Paul was speaking about legalism, he talked about some of the things that we died to: false humility, working to get God to accept us, and so on. Now, Paul is telling us about a whole different category of things to which we have died: the things of the flesh. He starts with five. These five are all about things that we might wrongly desire: sexual immorality; moral impurity; evil passion; lust; and covetousness.

The word for “sexual immorality” is the very broad Greek term porneia. Porneia means “any sexual activity apart from that between a man and woman who are married to each other.” To be specific, it includes: sex between people who are not married at all; sex between people who are not married to each other; homosexual sex; prostitution; sex between more than two people, rape, etc.

Moral impurity catches pretty much anything left after porneia. Just in case you have someone (for instance, like former President Clinton) who wants to argue about what exactly “sex” means, this Greek word covers basically any other kind of immoral thought or behavior. We might throw pornography of all types into this category also.

The next term is “passion.” The Greek word used does not always mean something negative, but in this context, it is safe to assume that Paul means any kind of ungodly passion, and probably passion with immoral sexual overtones.

Following that, Paul mentions evil desire. Sometimes, this might be translated “lust.” This is desire for something more than, or in addition to, what you actually need, and it includes a demand that the desire be satisfied, even if it is wrong. You can lust, or have evil desire, for all sort of things, including (but not limited to) food, power, money, sex, control, or material things.

I want to pause before we move on. The problem with all of these things is that they are corruptions of things that would otherwise be good. The Bible teaches us that sex between married couples is a good thing, and in fact, it says very clearly that married couples should not withhold sex from one another (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But Jesus teaches us to avoid corrupting and debasing God’s good gift of sex. Passion is often a good thing. But when the passion is directed to an object or person that it should not be, it becomes a sin. Desire is good. It is the same word used when Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples. But evil desire is for something that should not be desired.

The final sin in this set of five is “covetousness.” The idea behind it is that you want something that is not yours to properly want. That could be money, it could be a relationship, it could be a certain status or possession. The ten commandments give us some examples of the ways we might covet:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV, Exodus 20:17)

I’ve never coveted a donkey in my life, though I may have come close with a cow or a goat. But the idea of house or spouse is helpful. Your neighbor’s spouse is not available for you to want. Neither is her house, or car. You want something that should not belong to you anyway. You wish you could take it away from someone else, and have it for yourself. That is covetousness.

In verse six we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of such things. This is important. Sometimes, the attitude of lawlessness is that sins are not such a big deal anymore, because Jesus has forgiven us. But Paul is telling us that these things are deadly. Those who do not turn to Jesus will be under the wrath of God for such things. They aren’t something to play around with.

Each of these five sins refer primarily to strong desires for things that we should not desire. Let’s make sure we put in this context. Last time, Paul said that our real life was in Christ. Right now it is hidden, but it is no less real for that, and one day it will be fully manifested. We learned that we should seek life in Christ, not in external things, not in things that will wither and die anyway, things that will never satisfy us. So, now Paul is saying, put to death your habit of seeking life in the wrong places. These five sins: sexual immorality, impurity, evil passion, lust, and covetousness, are all ways in which we seek to find life. When we engage in such things, we are seeking life in the flesh, in things where there is no life. Paul says, “put those habits to death, where they belong. They are dead ends; worse, they are roads leading to even more death. Seek your life in Christ, and be done with seeking it in things like that.”

Paul also says: “This is how you used to be. You used to do these things, but now, in Jesus, all of that is changing.” I don’t want to gloss over verse Sometimes after people become Christians, they feel bad about what they did in the past. But that is over. The new reality is Christ. A few verses later Paul writes:

You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV, Colossians 3:9-10)

That reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Yes, I know we still sometimes fail and fall back into evil desires. But our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Our flesh (as it is right now) is destined for destruction – the part of us that wants to sin is as good as dead already. We need to remember that the part of us that wants to go on sinning is no longer who we really are. We are now holy and blameless in Christ. We are in a spiritual marriage with Jesus.

Meditate on these things right now. What does it mean to put to death the things of the flesh? One nuance of “put to death” in Greek is “deprive of strength or power.” I think this is a helpful thought. What gives these sorts of sins strength or power, and what takes power away from them? How will feed your desires for the things of God, and starve the desires of the flesh?

What does it mean to put off the old self, and put on the new? How will you do that in the coming days and weeks? How will you avoid both the trap of legalism, and the trap of lawlessness?

And finally, how will you help your brothers and sisters in Jesus to do the same?

COLOSSIANS #18: THE KEY TO NEW LIFE

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Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.

COLOSSIANS #16: GROW LIKE A TREE, NOT LIKE A WEED

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Sometimes our  Christian culture can give us the idea that we ought to be constantly having amazing spiritual feelings and experiences. But at best, that idea is distorted. The message of this text – the message of the Bible – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. This applies to both churches and individual Christians. Growth is something Jesus does in us and for us. He uses simple, straightforward means to grow us, and anyone can participate in those means.

COLOSSIANS
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Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

Remember last time, we considered the very important phrase: “as you received Christ as Lord, so continue in him.” Verse 7 is connected to that thought:

You have been and will continue to be rooted in him. You are being firmly built up in faith, you are being established in accordance with what you were taught, and you overflow with thanksgiving. (my own translation/paraphrase from Greek)

The verbs here are all present tense, passive voice. What that means is that they are describing something that is being done to you, and that continues to be done to you. We talked about how we received Jesus not by doing good things, but by trusting that he has already done them. So he is also rooting us (that is connecting us deeply to him). He is building us up in faith, he is establishing us – that is giving us a firm foundation in Christ. All of this is according to what we were taught, that is, according to the Bible. And it results in joyful gratitude on our part.

As we think about all this, a few things come to mind. First, in our mortal lives right now, following Jesus is something of a process. We are being rooted in him, built up in faith and established. It is ongoing. It isn’t that one moment we are godless pagans, and the next we are ready to be missionaries or monks. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is working to enlarge our spirits, to wean us away from our sinful flesh, and to draw us more and more into His abundant life. We should also make sure to understand that these words apply not only to individuals, but also to church communities. People in those days were just as likely to think of themselves in terms of “us” as often, or more, as “me.”

The words used to describe the process are not dramatic. Instead they indicate patient, deep growth. First, we are being rooted. If you think about the plant world, you can’t even see roots growing. That all happens beneath the surface. Roots are vital to the survival of any plant, but roots are not flashy. They are not quick. They grow slowly and hidden.

When we think about the next one, being built up, we can see something happening in that process. However, in Paul’s day, before modern technology, buildings took a great deal of time to take shape. In the ancient Mediterranean world the majority of the buildings would have been made out of stone. The stone had to be cut by hand, hauled by hand, or horse, and put in place by hand. The ingredients of the mortar had to be ground (perhaps with the assistance of a some sort of primitive mill) and mixed by hand. So, though you can see the results of building up, that too, takes a lot of time.

Then we come to being established. Again, this is something we can’t really see. Being established, in this context, means that we are firmly set in Jesus. An established business is one that has been there for a long time, and has roots in the community, and strong financial and marketing practices. An established fact is one that is not in doubt. When we are established in Christ, We have strong spiritual practices (reading, praying, serving), and a meaningful connection to Christian community (church). When we are established, whatever comes, we won’t be shaken from the foundation we have in him.

Being rooted, built up and established is all in accordance with what we were taught. Paul is referring to the teaching of the Apostles, which, these days, we call “The Bible.” The Bible is one of the primary places in which we get to know Jesus, and by which we give him access to our lives. The other ways are based upon the Bible: the sacraments (especially communion, since it happens regularly) and Christian community. If we cut ourselves off from any of these three (The Bible, The sacraments or Christian community) it will interfere with the growth that the Lord wants to provide.

I want us to understand what good news this is. In the first place, these are all things being done to us by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t rooting ourselves, or building ourselves. The Spirit is doing it. All we have to do to receive it is to trust Him.

Now he does use certain methods to root us and establish us in Jesus. But these are not complicated. And if we really do trust Jesus, at least a part of us will actually want to do these things. Anyone can read the Bible, or listen to it in an audio version. Anyone can receive the sacraments. Anyone can be part of a church. It doesn’t require something exceptional on our part to grow in Jesus. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person. We don’t have to have certain kinds of experiences or emotions or passions.

Sometimes, our present Christian culture in the Western world seems to push toward having big, exciting experiences, filled with wonderful feelings. It seems like we are supposed to always feel these amazing emotions toward God. We are supposed to be continually blown away by what God is doing in our lives. Think of a typical worship video. There’s a huge crowd. The people on stage are raising their hands and singing with deep emotion. The music creates a big atmosphere. Cut to the crowd where people stand with their hands up, tears streaming down their faces or kneel, shaking with feeling.

I don’t think that sort of thing is bad in and of itself, but it tends to send a misleading message. It encourages us to think we should move from one high to the next. We think maybe there is something wrong if we aren’t moving in a huge, obvious, upward spiritual trajectory. We think we must be terrible Christians if our faith doesn’t look like those YouTube worship videos.

But that isn’t the case. The message of this text – which is the Bible, not a worship video – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. I have amazing spiritual experiences once in a while. Probably not more than once or twice a year, probably less, and they last only a few minutes. And it might be that Jesus gives me them that often because I’m not normally an emotional person, and he wants me to grow in that area. These spiritual experiences are great. But they are not the substance of my faith. I would grow even without them, because it is Jesus who causes me to grow.

This is really important. Yes, we should be growing as Christians. But the pace and type of growth are up to Jesus. The growth comes not because we earn it, but because we trust him. We may not even be able to see some of it. Think about roots again. You don’t really know how good the roots of a tree are until a storm comes. Then, and only then, you can tell if a tree’s roots are strong or not. If you are worried about the rate of your growth, trust Jesus. Ask him to cause you to grow, and trust him to do it. Don’t fight with him about basics like reading your Bible, and praying, and being involved with Christian community, but understand even if you do all that, you won’t grow unless Jesus makes it happen.

I also want you to think of these things in terms of your local church. It is easy to get impatient with your church. But here, spiritual growth for both individuals and churches is described in terms that are slow, gradual and patient. Yes, there are big, exciting churches out there. It is not my job to judge them but I realized years ago that spiritual reality can be very different from how things look on the surface. Not every big, exciting-seeming church is spiritually healthy or pleasing to the Lord.

I want to consider the next piece: overflowing with thanksgiving.

I think it is clear that thankfulness also has great power to transform our attitudes and thoughts. It is very difficult to be both bitter and thankful at the same time. It is hard to thank God profusely for what he has done for me, and, at the same time, be angry at him. When we thank God, it helps us to focus on what is good, and ultimately on the Good Giver. Being thankful to the Lord for all things, including my pain, has been part of the transformation for me of turning my struggle into a blessing.

But thankfulness is more than just a way to manipulate us into a positive attitude.

Thankfulness is both a result of, and a means to, trust in Jesus. The more we really believe what he has done for us, and learn about it, the more grateful we will be. On the other hand, thankfulness helps us to receive in faith what Jesus has given us. You can’t touch forgiveness with your hands. You can’t touch love, or hope, or grace or joy. But when we thank God for these things, we receive them more deeply in our hearts. Thanking him helps us receive, and also strengthens our connection to the One who gives.

I am not naturally a grateful person, perhaps because I have had so many good things handed to me during my life. But I have found that if I can find some way to start thanking God, even for something quite small and insignificant, it gives the Holy Spirit a crack to work with. Then I gradually become more and more thankful, for deeper and more important things. So I might start as I shower, thanking the Lord for hot water, or even just running water. Then I might thank him that I have the ability to stand up and take a shower. I’ll thank him for water. That might remind me of my baptism, and so I thank him for adopting me as his child and giving me the Holy Spirit. And so on.

Some thoughts for application:

  • Have you been tempted to be impatient with yourself or your church because growth seems so slow? How does this text address your impatience?
  • Have you thought that your spiritual growth all depends on your own efforts? What does this text say to you about that?
  • What are some things that you can be thankful for? Take ten minutes (time yourself!) to thank God for various things, big and small.