LENT #5: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF THE HARD WAY

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Our heart should know no other consolation or confidence than that in God. We should not let our hearts be torn from him, but for God we should risk and disregard everything else on earth. We should learn to seek all goodness in and through Him alone.

The temptation of Satan is to lead us to entrust ourselves to other people or things; to put our hope and confidence in anything other than the true God. Jesus overcame that temptation, and empowers us by the Holy Spirit to do the same.

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 Lent Part 5

LENT #5. LUKE 4:1-8

Before we plunge into the text, I want to make note of one or two things. You don’t have to swing a stick very long before you hit someone who claims that the Bible is full of contradictions. Most people who say this cannot actually give an example of this – it is something they take on faith. But for the record, our text today is one of those places in the Bible that contains a “contradiction.” Are you ready for this?

When Matthew describes the temptation of Jesus, he says that the temptation to worship the devil (the one we will look at today) occurred not second, but third. That’s right – Luke says it happened second, and Matthew says it was third. They agree that there were three types of temptations. They agree about how Jesus battled them, and the scriptures he quoted. They agree about when it happened (just after his baptism). But one of the temptations is out of order.

If you are wondering what the big deal is, you are right to wonder: there is no big deal here. In fact, to me, this is something that proves that the Bible was neither made up later, nor edited later. If someone was either making it up, or editing it later on for some purpose, this “contradiction” would have been smoothed out. The fact that it is there shows that we really have the original writings of the people who knew Jesus personally. Just to make sure we understand – it doesn’t really matter in which order this temptation came. Both Matthew and Luke agree that it came, and describe it the same way. The order changes nothing about Christian belief.

All right, let’s get to Luke’s record of the second temptation. Satan reveals to Jesus all of the power and glory of the world, and then offers it to him. He says, “because it has been given to me.” Once more, we find out that the devil is a cheat and a liar. It is true that for the time being, God has not dislodged Satan from this world. Jesus later called him “the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30, 16:11).” Paul calls him the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). John writes in his first letter that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:18-21, ESV)

So, though the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, the devil’s power does not extend to those who are born of God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Satan was not completely wrong in saying that he had power over all the kingdoms and peoples of the world. But he was lying when he said “it has been given to me.” It was not given to him – Satan rebelled against God, and then enticed human beings to leave God’s protection, and thus to come under his own dominion. In other words, Satan took all of it, by manipulation and lies. He is combining lies with truth. It is true that Satan has dominion over any human part of the world that does not submit to God. But it is not Satan’s by right. And of course, we who trust Jesus are not under the authority of the devil.

C.S. Lewis powerfully portrays how deadly it is when lies are combined with elements of truth, in his final Narnia book The Last Battle. I highly recommend it to you. Another of his books that depicts the way the devil often works is The Screwtape Letters.

I think it is good for us to be aware of the schemes of the devil, and how he tries to tempt us. When he combines a bit of truth with his lies, that prevents us from simply saying: “That’s a lie.” There is a level of complexity that he weaves to try and trick us. When we see the truth of one part of his temptation, we are tempted to believe the whole thing.

Let’s dig into why worshipping the devil would be any kind of temptation for Jesus. First and foremost, we need to keep in mind what I have said previously, which is that Jesus was limiting himself to his human nature. He had to take the fact that he was the Son of God on trust – trust in the word that God the Father spoke to him. Apparently, the Father had also revealed the details of Jesus’ mission – that he would suffer and die a horrible death. The goal of the mission, the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, was to bring the world back to God. Jesus was to be the means by which the world would know God. Ultimately the whole planet will one day come under the authority of Jesus Christ:

6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11, NLT)

The devil is offering Jesus a shortcut. Instead of humbling himself, instead of experiencing suffering and death, Jesus could have every knee bow to him right now. “You don’t have to keep suffering through this miserable human existence,” he is saying. “You don’t have to suffer humiliation, and pain, torture and death. You can get right to the good part, right now. I’ll let you have the whole world without all that difficulty.”

So, this part of the temptation could be summarized as follows: What you want is good and right. But it seems like it will be very hard for you to achieve it. In fact, perhaps you’ll never achieve it. However, if you just make this one little compromise, you can reach your goal.

Think about how things actually went. Jesus spent three more years living in poverty and deprivation. He gathered followers who did not understand him very well, and even sometimes got entirely the wrong idea. He found himself in constant conflict with the religious leaders, who argued with him, slandered him, and even schemed to kill him. Finally, he was imprisoned, brutally beaten twice in one day, and then crucified – which is, by any measure, death by torture.

After his crucifixion, he still had to go to hell. Finally, he rose. At that point, his personal suffering was complete. However, even now, two-thousand years later, his mission is not complete. For two-thousand years, his people have sometimes spread his word, but many times they have been content to not tell anyone, and to not care about the world he came to save. Even now, the whole world has not come to know him.

“So,” says the devil, “– you have all that – after all your suffering, your mission still won’t be finished, not even after twenty-centuries. Or – if you just do this one small thing for me, we take care of the whole thing, right here, right now. Immediately, the whole world is yours. No suffering, no muss, no fuss. No twenty centuries of watching your people try and fail to spread your word. In many cases, they wouldn’t even try! But if you just join with me, you won’t have to depend on them. You won’t have to suffer. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s painless.”

Of course it’s a trap. If Jesus had bowed down in worship, all of the kingdoms of the world would have remained under the influence of Satan. Jesus might have had power over the world, but then Satan would have had power over Jesus. The world would glorify Satan, not Jesus.

There is another aspect to all this. We shouldn’t overlook the power of the temptation to worship things other than God. By worship, I don’t really mean “pray to,” or “sing praises to.” In this case, worship is about who, or what we put first in our hearts. It is about what is most important to us. So, part of what was going on was that Satan was tempting Jesus to make his mission (saving the world) more important than his relationship with the Father. He was saying, “You’ve got to accomplish your mission, right? Well, here’s how you do that.” But, of course, Satan’s way of accomplishing the mission was to move God out of first place in the heart of Jesus. The mission of Jesus was a tremendously important and good thing. Even so, it was not more important than God himself. This is why Jesus responded with another quote from scripture:

13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you (Deuteronomy 6:13-14, ESV)

Of course, there are many, many scriptures that reaffirm that we must worship the one true God alone, and no one, or, nothing, else. Martin Luther offers us a lot of helpful insights into what it means to worship God alone, and have no other “gods.”

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol… That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God. (Martin Luther, Large Catechism, first commandment)

So, whatever our heart truly clings to, whatever we entrust ourselves to, is what we really worship. It is that thing or person that has the place of God in our lives. Obviously, that can be (and should be) the God of the Bible. But the temptation of Satan is to lead us to entrust ourselves to other people or things; to put our hope and confidence in anything other than the true God.

In our culture many people do this with money. Their real confidence is in money. It is money that they look to for hope of the future. It is knowing that they have (or will have) money that brings them consolation. Satan says to them: “Look, you just want to take care of your family. You just want a secure future. You want to be able to get the most out of life, and enjoy life without having to work so hard all the time. All you have to do to achieve that is to make money more important than anything else.”

Some people do it with relationships. Their trust and hope for the future is all about the people who are important to them. Satan entices them to choose human beings over God. This happens in a variety of ways. For example, maybe you have a friend who doesn’t share your Christian faith. You might be tempted to keep silent about your own faith, rather than risk losing your friend. You might even pretend to agree with the friend about something that contradicts your faith. Perhaps when you spend time together, your friend wants to do things that the Bible says are sinful. You might be tempted to compromise, so that you don’t lose your friend. At that point, you are worshipping your friendship above God.

Success is another thing we are tempted to put before God. I could be more successful as an author if I wrote a mystery series that did not have a pastor as a main character. I would do even better if I included profanity, and much better if I wrote salacious sex scenes. But if I were to compromise, I would be making success more important than my relationship with God.

There are many other things we are tempted to put above God: the approval of other people, achievement, exciting or meaningful experiences (adventures and travel) – the list is almost endless.

The temptation of Jesus was one of the most insidious of all. Satan tempted him with the very mission that God entrusted to Jesus. In the same way, many ministers are tempted to put their ministry above everything else. That’s the nasty thing about this kind of temptation: it is often not a bad thing that tempts us. It is good to make enough money to pay your bills and take care of your family. It is good to make other human beings a priority. It is good to want to do ministry, or to use your God-given gifts to achieve big things. The problem is when these things become more important to us than God alone. The sin comes in when we look to those things for hope, when we trust in those things to bring us happiness or security, or when we make decisions that put those things above our relationship with God.

Luther explains again what it means to worship God alone, and serve only him:

Namely, that the heart should know no other consolation or confidence than that in him, nor let itself be torn from him, but for him should risk and disregard everything else on earth.

We need to come to a place where God is so important to us, that we will give up anything else to keep him. We need the Holy Spirit to bring us to that place, and it is good and right to pray for help – to ask God to work in us so that he is indeed our only true God. Luther again, offers a helpful thought:

He wishes to turn us away from everything else, and to draw us to himself, because he is the one, eternal good

God is actually the true source of everything good, everything that we need and love. Are you deeply blessed as you sit quietly in nature? That blessing comes from the one source of eternal good: God himself. Are you blessed by people you love? Rejoice in them, and recognize that it is God who put them in your life. Do you have all that you really need, financially? You can take pride in your hard work, but recognize that your ability to work, and opportunities you have had, came from God alone. Do you have a gift for music, writing or some other artistic ability? Surely you know that you didn’t get that for yourself – it came from God himself. Learn to see that everything good that we have ever experienced or had, and everything good that will come to us in the future, comes from God himself. It is vitally important, also, to recognize that when we have anything apart from God, it becomes no longer good. We need to learn to worship the Giver, not the gifts.

Jesus held fast to this. Again, he battled Satan by quoting the Bible. He rejected the easy way. He refused to let even God’s mission for him become more important than God himself. He did this for us, yes, but we should keep in mind that even more importantly, he did it for the glory of God, to reaffirm that nothing in all the universe is more important than God himself.

Let the Holy Spirit speak in your heart right now.

LENT #4: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF TEMPTATION

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Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 4

LENT #4. LUKE 4:1-14

We have been using our passage as a jumping off point for various topics that are associated with the season of Lent: Suffering, Fasting, and Solitude. Now, we will return to the text and consider the encounter Jesus had with the devil. Most translations make it seem like Jesus spent forty days in solitude and fasting, and then, when he was just about done, the devil came and tempted him. That is a possible interpretation – there is room in the Greek for that. However, in Greek, it looks much more like the devil was bothering him the whole time. Apparently, when he came back, he told his apostles about three particular kinds of temptations that he faced. The NET captures this fairly well:

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. (Luke 4:1-2, NET)

I want to say a few words about temptation. In the first place, the Greek word normally used for temptation has a wider range of meaning than we typically give to our English word. It seems to me that we think of “temptation” as being enticed into doing something we should not do. We’re tempted to eat ice cream when we are on a keto diet. We are tempted to lust, or to have an affair. We are tempted to cheat or lie when it seems clear we could get away with it. In English, temptation is all about an alluring opportunity to do the wrong thing. Temptation attracts us toward the wrong thing, the sinful thing.

This is part of the meaning of the Greek word. But in Greek, the main emphasis is not about desire, or enticement. Instead, in Greek, the idea of temptation is about testing something to prove what it is made of. Another good word might be trials. When engineers make some new kind of device to make cars more safe, they have to do safety trials in order to find out if their device works. When scientists develop a new drug, they have drug trials, to test it, to make sure it does indeed work. That idea of a trial – putting something through a test, to see how it does – is the essence of the New Testament word for temptation.

Now, of course, the test does consist of being enticed to do something that God says we should not do, but we should keep in mind that temptation is not all negative. When we pass the test, it glorifies God, and brings grace to us. Temptation has a positive outcome in mind. It isn’t just about avoiding evil – it is about proving what is good.

This brings up something very important: temptation is not the same as sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, but was without sin:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV

7 Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, HCSB)

And yes, the word the HCSB translates “tested” (above) is the same word many Bibles translate as “tempted.” So, if Jesus was tempted/tested in every way, but did not sin, that means that being tempted to do something is not, in and of itself, sinful.

I’m going to use a particular temptation that I am familiar with as an illustration. It is generally more true of men, but I think you women can still understand it, because the main points apply to both male and female. Over the years I have spoken with many men who struggle particularly with the sin of lust. I myself have had a significant battle with it at times. I think many men who struggle this way fall prey to a trick of the devil. It is normal male biology to notice attractive women – that’s part of the nature of male levels of testosterone. It is especially normal for men to notice women who are displaying a lot of skin, or emphasizing their various physical “assets” in some way. A lot of men look at such women more or less involuntarily. In some cases, it’s very hard to avoid looking twice.

Now, having seen a woman in such circumstances, the temptation comes along. The devil, or our own flesh (it doesn’t really matter which) raises up these kinds of thoughts: “Let’s think about what she would look like if she was wearing even less. Let’s think about what it would be like to be with her.” Most of the time, such things sound like our own thoughts.

Here’s the important part: so far, the man has not sinned. It is not a sin to be tempted. But I know many men who think they have already failed at this point, simply because they have looked, and were tempted by such thoughts. What often happens then, is the guy thinks, “I’ve already blown it. I might as well go ahead and enjoy the fantasy.” And then, of course, he does sin. But I want to reiterate: temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted, but did not sin. So, the fact that such things interest or entice you does not mean you have failed.

Now, I got very specific there, but this applies to any temptation we might experience. Perhaps you struggle with gossip and slander – this could be equally true of men or women. You are tempted to use your words to cut other people down, to show the world that they are not so great after all. You hear something about someone you know, someone who is far too uppity. It’s a juicy bit of information, and you could use it to teach that person a little much-needed humility. In fact, you want to use the information, you want to say something. But you haven’t yet sinned. You have been convinced by the devil that you want to use your words in a hurtful way, but you haven’t done it yet. Don’t be discouraged: temptation is not sin. You haven’t sinned yet. The attraction you have to do the wrong thing is not the same as actually doing it.

We face temptations from three sources: The world, the flesh and the devil. They are all connected. Perhaps we internalize messages from our ungodly culture. Or maybe something in our sinful flesh draws us toward sin. It might also be the devil, or one of his servants – and they use our sinful flesh to whisper into our minds. Either way, scripture makes it clear that the primary battle takes place in our minds:

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, ESV)

On the positive side, this is a test. By not doing the wrong thing, by doing what God wants instead, you are accomplishing good things spiritually. You are bringing glory to God. By using the resources of the Holy Spirit to battle the tests of the world, the flesh and the devil, we show the world the greatness of Jesus Christ. And of course, all sin is ultimately very bad for us, so we help ourselves when we pass the test.

Let’s look at the first test that Luke records for Jesus:

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4, ESV)

There is a lot of significance packed into these few words. Of course, Jesus was hungry, but the temptation was not really for Jesus to break his fast. Instead, there were two things the devil was trying to do here.

Remember, before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized, and God spoke from the heavens, saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” After being in the wilderness with no food, the devil came at Jesus. He wanted to place doubt in Jesus’ mind about what God had said. If you are the son of God…prove it! Turn these stones to bread.

The devil was saying: At your baptism, it was one quick sentence. Did God really say that? Wasn’t it maybe just a rumble of thunder? If God is pleased with you, why are you out here all alone and hungry? Can you really believe what you heard?

This temptation to doubt God’s word is the very first way in which Satan assaulted human beings:

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV)

This temptation comes in many flavors, but underneath it is one of the most common attacks of the devil: casting doubt on what God has revealed through his Word.

  • How can God actually love you? You know you aren’t loveable, so what it says in the Bible about God loving you can’t really be true, can it?
  • Does God really forgive your sins? Isn’t that too easy? You can’t really trust what the Bible says about this, can you?
  • It’s not really a sin to get drunk is it – does the Bible really say that?
  • Did God really say you should save sex for marriage?

And so on. There is a place for honest questions. It is normal to want to understand where the Bible – God’s Word – comes from, and why we should trust it. If you have those honest questions, please contact me about a sermon series on that subject. Also, feel free to check out my book: Who Cares About the Bible?

However, this temptation of Satan is not about asking honest questions. At the heart of it is a desire to doubt, a desire to believe that the Bible is not trustworthy. There may be a lurking bitterness, almost an eagerness to say: “See! I told you that you couldn’t trust God to be good, told you that you couldn’t trust what God says!”

So the first part of the trial/test/temptation is to doubt God’s word. The second part is this: because you doubt God’s word, you really should take matters into your own hands. So, in the case of Jesus, first the devil casts doubt on what God clearly said to Jesus. Then, he says, “Since you can’t trust God, you better take care of yourself. Don’t wait for God to provide for you, don’t wait for God to show the world who you are – make your own bread. Prove to yourself and to the world that you are God’s son, and satisfy your hunger the same time.”

The devil offers a “solution” for both problems. First, if Jesus were to turn the stones into bread, it would prove that he is indeed God’s son. Second, it would provide what Jesus needs (food) since (according to the devil) God won’t provide it.

Again, remember that Jesus was voluntarily limiting himself to the resources of only his human nature. The devil was trying to get him to stop living in that human dependence on the Father, and instead tap into his own divine nature, his God-nature. If Jesus had done that, he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for human sin. It would have undone the whole reason he was here on earth.

If all of that sounds really tricky and nasty, you are getting the idea. The devil’s tempting can be deep and complex, and he doesn’t play fair.

Jesus’ reply to the devil destroys both lines of temptation. He says: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” Let’s unpack this. Remember, the devil is trying to get Jesus to doubt what God says. Jesus responds with “It is written.” In other words, he is reaffirming his trust in God’s Word. It’s almost like he is saying: “You want to talk about what God said? I can do that: What God said is written down.”

The second part of what Jesus said – that is, the scripture he quotes – is also a deadly response to the devil: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Actually, Luke gives us the shortened version. Matthew adds the next phrase. I think it is useful for us to see the specific passage from Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting, because both Jesus and the devil knew it well:

3 He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3, HCSB)

Jesus is reaffirming his dependence on God. As we saw in the message about fasting, this is the essence of fasting: to recognize our dependence on God, to recognize that we actually need God even more than we need food. More specifically, the scripture quoted by Jesus says that we need the Word of God even more than we need food. So, he is telling the devil: “Yes, God did say those things, and I believe him. In fact, I count the Word of God as more important than food. I am hungry because God is in control, and His Word says he wants me to wait patiently, learning that I can trust him not only for physical food, but for spiritual food, His Word.”

This is a massive reaffirmation of Jesus’ trust in the Father, and of his intention to live, like all human beings, in dependence on the Father.

Where are you tempted to doubt what God has said? Is it what the bible says about what is right or wrong? Or are you tempted to doubt God’s word about forgiveness and love?

In what ways are you tempted to satisfy your own needs apart from the provision of God? There are scripture passages that say everyone who is able should work and provide for their family, so it isn’t wrong to work to provide for your physical needs. But I think some people are tempted to trust in their own finances more than in God. Others are tempted to  satisfy their relational needs in ways that God says are sinful. Or, here’s one that I have struggled with: Like every human being, I have a legitimate physical need to eat. But I am often tempted to eat more than I need.

Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus did live a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

1 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, GNT)

Let us remember that God has indeed told us these things, and let us cling to them, even when the devil tempts us to doubt what God has said. Let us remember, when we are tested, that God has already provided all we need. Once again, look at what God’s Word says:

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16, NLT)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this, today.

LENT #2: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF HUNGER

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The essence of fasting is embracing our weakness, and our need of God. It leads us to a place where we are more deeply connected to our need for Him, where we are joyfully humbled by our utter dependence upon Him. It doesn’t hurt our prayer life, either.

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 Lent 2

LENT #2. FASTING. LUKE 4;1-2

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

Last time we talked about how God often leads those with whom he is pleased into difficult things. This is not because God is mean, or perverse, but rather, because he knows more than us, and sometimes suffering brings us tremendous blessings. Some of the blessings we receive through suffering may not be fully realized until we stand with Jesus in our new, resurrected bodies:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)

This time I want to look at the spiritual discipline that we call “fasting.” As we see from our text in Luke, Jesus went without food during a period of forty days. I used the ESV translation above because it captures the Greek quite well: “And he ate nothing during those days.” This could mean that Jesus had nothing to eat, whatsoever, for forty entire days – in other words, for 960 hours. It could also mean that for forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat while it was daylight. The Greek would support either meaning. If you pushed me, I would say that I think Jesus ate one simple meal each day, after dark for forty days. Again, however, it could mean that he had no food whatsoever during all that time. I also want to point out that it says nothing about drinking, and since the human body cannot survive longer than about three days without liquid, I’m quite sure that Jesus at least had water to drink during this time.

This practice of deliberately going without food for a period of time is called fasting. The English word “breakfast” simply means to break (that is, end) the fast of the night-time hours. Protestant Christians are often both confused, and somewhat ignorant about fasting. One of the things most Christians do know is that fasting from food is not a necessary part of following Jesus. I quoted this same passage last time:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.
20 You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)

Fasting certainly falls into the category of food and drink, and also practices of pious self-denial. Paul’s point  in the Colossians passage is not that you should never have a special holy day, or that you should never fast, but rather that you should not allow anyone to condemn you for what you do, or don’t do, with regard to such things. Fasting, merely for the sake of fasting, accomplishes nothing. Fasting will not make you more holy. If done with the wrong attitude, it will not help you fight temptation. Jesus himself condemned the way some people practiced fasting:

16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.

When we use fasting as an opportunity to show off spiritually, we have made it almost useless. When we make fasting into a rule that we have to follow, we destroy its value.

However – and this is a big however – since at least the time of Moses (that is, for more than three thousand years) followers of God have engaged in fasting. You can find followers of God fasting in almost every Old Testament book. Jesus fasted, obviously, on more than one occasion. His disciples fasted, after Jesus was crucified and raised. In the two-thousand years since then, millions of Christians have engaged in this spiritual discipline, some quite regularly. In short, fasting, done the right way, can be very beneficial in our relationship with God.

I’m going to talk about my own fasting experience. Please understand something however: I am not trying to give you the impression that I fast twice a week for years on end, or anything remotely like that. I believe I have done it often enough to help me teach about fasting, but I’m quite sure I would benefit from fasting a lot more often than I actually do it. Perhaps this message is also for my own sake, to become more regular with it.

Usually, I plan ahead of time the sorts of things I want to bring up with God during a fast. Maybe I’m feeling burdened for a particular person or issue. Maybe I want to be closer to God. Perhaps I want God to address something in my life that I am having a difficult time dealing with. Sometimes I write down my “fasting concerns” in a notebook. Sometimes I don’t.

The normal Biblical model of fasting is going without food for a set period of time. As I mentioned before, sometimes that means not eating while the sun is up for one day, or many (and not “making up” for your missed meals by gorging in the evenings). Sometimes fasting might mean going without food for a set number of hours. I would say that to get any benefit from it, you ought to go without food long enough to develop hunger pangs for a period of time. When the hunger pangs come, you can use them in at least two ways.

First, every time you feel hungry, use that as a reminder that there is something special going on between you and God today. Let the hunger pangs remind you to pray. Briefly pause what you are doing, and pray for the concerns that you want to address in your fasting. You might then continue working, and continue praying as you work, if possible. As you pray, use the hunger. You might think or pray something like this: “Lord, I am hungry, but I want your intervention in these things even more than I want to eat.” Let your hunger become an appeal to God. Present your hunger to God as a prayer.

Second, when you feel hunger (and perhaps weakness along with the hunger) use that feeling to maximize your dependence on God in general. I might think something like this: “Oh wow, I feel weak and hungry right now. God, as much as I feel like I need food right now, I need you, even more. As much as I desire to eat, I have an even greater desire for you, and for your work in my life. I confess to you that I need you even more than I need to eat.” Embrace the weakness you feel. Embrace the desire for food (without satisfying it), and let God turn them into dependence upon Him, and desire for Him.

If you haven’t fasted before, some of what I’m describing might make more sense to you after you have tried it.

Many people have adapted “fasting” to include things like abstaining from only certain kinds of food (like not eating sugar, or red meat). Or, abstaining from watching television, or from watching sports, or playing video games. Some people might even say it like this:

“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”

Myself, every year, I give up football for lent (to my overseas listeners, this is a joke: there is no American football during that time of year).

These are admirable ideas, but to really engage the power of Biblical fasting, I think it needs to be something that provides constant reminders throughout the fast (like hunger pangs), and something that makes you aware of your weakness, and your absolute need for God. You need to abstain from something in such a way that the fasting continually leads you into dependence upon God, into prioritizing him above all else. To be honest, I’m not sure that abstaining from video games or sugar would do that. One thing I can think of that might be comparable to not eating is ceasing smoking. From what I understand, if you are a smoker, and you quit, you will have constant cravings, and you will be reminded of your weakness and need for God. Along those lines, the apostle Paul says it is OK for married couples to fast from sex for a short period of time, as long as they both agree to it (Note: he doesn’t command it!). He does command couples to not take that particular kind of fasting too far. My own struggle with pain has sometimes provided the same sort of experience as fasting: The pain becomes a reminder that is felt by only me. I feel a deep need for God, and I use the pain almost as a prayer.

In spite of these few exceptions, I wonder if it is significant that in scripture, the only kind of fasting it really talks about is fasting from food. One of my concerns about other types of things that are called “fasting” these days, is that they sort of emphasize our own will power and achievement, without emphasizing our weakness and dependence on God. If I “fast” from watching TV, I might be tempted to become proud of my self-discipline, proud of doing something that feels righteous. When I fast from food, I feel too weak, too needy, to become proud. Not only that, but if I fast from sugar, or TV, or video games, basically, I am just becoming a healthier person. I’m not casting myself in dependence upon God, I’m working to make myself a better person. That’s a good thing, but it is definitely not the main spirit or intent behind the discipline of fasting.

I will add two very important things. First, it might be wise to check with a doctor before you fast. Particularly if you are diabetic, or have some other kind of health condition, you ought to make sure it is safe before you try it.

Second is this: If the fast is becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, just stop, and eat something. This doesn’t mean that fasting won’t ever work for you. It means that this particular fast, at this point in time, isn’t helpful, so let it go. A few times, I have fasted, and all I could think about was how hungry I felt. I wasn’t feeling dependence on God, and I wasn’t really praying any more, I was just obsessing about my desire to eat. I talked to the Lord about it, and I felt clear permission to go ahead and eat. At a later time, I fasted again, and that later fasting was very spiritually helpful. So, even if the first time you try it, it doesn’t go well, don’t give up. If you have a time when it doesn’t seem helpful, don’t write it off for the rest of your life.

A few practical thoughts. If you are new to fasting, I would suggest going without food from one evening meal until your next evening meal. In other words, eat the evening meal, and skip snacks for the first evening, and then fast from breakfast and lunch (and any snacks) the next day. Break your fast with the evening meal twenty-four hours after your last meal. This is not too terribly challenging. You should be able to get in a few hours of hunger pangs that way.

While you fast, please be sure to drink plenty of non-caloric fluids – water, black coffee or tea (though be careful with too much caffeine on an empty stomach!), or plain carbonated water. I don’t recommend diet drinks, because they can sometimes fool your body into thinking you’ve had something sweet, which can mess with your blood sugar, and actually make the fast more difficult. If you are really struggling, but you also really want to finish the fast, a cup of broth or bullion sometimes helps you feel better, and contains only a handful of calories.

If you have already done some fasting, and/or if you want to challenge yourself a bit, you could fast from after the evening meal of day 1, throughout all of day two, and then break your fast the morning of day 3. That would make basically a thirty-six hour fast.

People who fast for multiple days in a row are usually only fasting during daylight hours (in other words, they have one meal per day, in the evening). One other approach for multiple-day fasting is to drink broths, and diluted fruit juices throughout the fast. Please do be careful about multi-day fasting without any food at all. Do some research and prepare well before embarking on a long fast.

I also want to reiterate the advice of Jesus. Fast during a “normal,” day, going about your normal routine (apart from food). Don’t advertise the fact that you are fasting – the point of the fast is what is happening in your own relationship with God, and it doesn’t have to concern anyone else. If someone asks you why you aren’t eating, you don’t have to be paranoid about it – you can admit you are fasting without feeling proud or bad. On the other hand, if you start as I suggested, most people won’t even notice you skipping breakfast and lunch – the evening meal is the one you are most likely to share with others, so no one has to know that you’ve been abstaining all day long. Again, you don’t have to be all mysterious – if someone happens to ask why you aren’t eating, you can mention it. But try not to use fasting to make yourself look good in the opinion of yourself, or of others. That’s what Jesus warned about.

Sometimes, in the bible, a group of people would agree to fast together. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with other people in the group knowing that you are fasting along with them. There is no basis for anyone in the group to become proud, since everyone is doing the same fast. I will say this however: we should be very careful to not coerce anyone into fasting with us. I was once part of a group where two people basically shamed the rest of us into fasting with them. There was no clear purpose or goal for our fasting. It was more that they wanted us all to show what hard core Christians we were. Needless to say, that fast didn’t go very well for me. Don’t let yourself be forced into it, and don’t try to force others to join you, but it isn’t wrong to invite, without pressure, others to join you.

It makes sense to me that Jesus began his ministry work with this long fast. As we will see later, the things gained in fasting tended to counteract the temptations the devil gave Jesus. Fasting leads us to depend on God, not on ourselves, or the resources we might have. So, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus was already in a place of deep dependence on God.

Even though Jesus had a perfect union with the Father, he found it helpful to fast. Without making it a law, I would like to suggest that if even Jesus practiced fasting, we too, could find tremendous benefit in it. For now, at least let us remember that we need God more than anything, even food. Our need points us to God’s satisfaction of all needs: Jesus Christ. Rely on Him today!

CHRISTMAS 2021: THE WILD GOD

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

Christmas Eve 2021. John 1:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hebrews 2:14-18, NLT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Romans 8:31-39, CSB)

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

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

Merry Christmas!

LIVING CRUCIFIED #1: THE PATH TO JOY BEGINS WITH BAD NEWS.

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The beginning of the Christian life is turning away from sin and toward God (this is called “repentance”). Sometimes we fail to receive the wonder and joy of God’s grace because we have not actually repented. We are called to despair of our own efforts to make ourselves (or the world) better, and turn to God alone for hope and salvation. Only then can we be changed. When we do that, and only then, we can begin to receive the stunning riches of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gate, through which we all must walk, the lifeboat that is our only hope of being saved from drowning.

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 1

During the past year or so, I have noticed that many people in our house-churches seem to be struggling with a deep tension in the life of following Jesus. We are told that everything is by God’s grace. And yet we are told that we shouldn’t sin. We are told that we are new creatures, created in Christ Jesus – and yet we still act like the old creatures, frequently sinning and failing.

The tension that this creates is actually very important. We need to pay attention to it, because it will lead us to some wonderful, amazing truths that will affect every area of our lives.

Our new sermon series is about all that.

As we revisit the riches of the gospel, you may (or may not) recognize some ideas, stories and concepts that I introduced more than ten years ago now, in the sermon series: Living Life in Reverse. Those truths are powerful and practical. I think it is worth revisiting them. So, in a way, this is an updated and expanded version of the original “Living Life in Reverse.” If you want a series title, we could try: “Living Life in Reverse – Again.”

When I did the series the first time, there were a few things which I left out. So, I want to start with very beginning of the Christian life, which is, repentance and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

It has been on my mind lately that Christians, in the 21st century Western world, have a very different way of reaching people for Jesus than the Christians of the New Testament. We typically reach out to non-believers with the following basic message:

“God loves you, so much. He really wants you to experience his grace and joy. He is the missing piece of your life. He heals your brokenness and forgives your failures. Come and experience his love.”

Now, that message is good, but it is only half the message that was preached by most Christians throughout history. Here’s the way Jesus himself preached. He taught his disciples to do the same.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31, ESV)

20 I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21, ESV)

In the verses above, I have italicized the word repentance so you see my point more quickly. You do see it, right? Repentance is an essential part of the gospel. It is the beginning, and it is necessary if we are to receive the gospel.

You see, I believe many people think the gospel is essentially just: “God loves you.” And they hear this, and look up, and think, “Oh, that’s cool. How sweet of him.” And then they go back to whatever they were doing.

Maybe some churches put it a little more forcefully. “God loves you. But if you want to benefit from this love, you need to walk down in front here, say a prayer, and then get baptized.” This is a bit more inconvenient, so not as many people respond positively. And yet, after all, it’s just something you need to do, like going to the DMV, or paying taxes. So, a lot of people take the time out of their lives to go to church for a while, take the deep breath, and then do the God-transaction. Then, they can get back to their lives. Maybe they think it’s like joining a political party. They are now “registered Christians.”

Think about it for a moment. “God loves you,” is not that big of a deal until and unless you feel in need of that love. Scripture tells us that we are desperately in need of his love and mercy. Without the love and grace of God you are utterly lost. You are already dead, spiritually. You are in the process of dying physically; every second brings you closer to the moment of your death. And your soul (where “you” are) is slowly withering, utterly committed to self above all. Even when you do “unselfish” things, it is to benefit your own sense of self-esteem. At the same time, we find ways to justify so many of our selfish desires and actions. (By the way, if I just made you mad with all that, think about why). Yes, your soul, too, is on a long slow decline to eternal frustration and self-hatred.

This is the beginning of the gospel: you are dead in your sins, slave to self, and the things that tempt you, manipulated by spiritual forces of evil, though you don’t realize it. You are infected with a deadly disease that is gradually destroying every part of you. The Bible calls that disease “sin,” and it really means “all that is in conflict with the character of God.”

The human race, in all recorded history, has improved technologically, but not much morally. Thousands of years ago, human beings were greedy, cheating each other, lying, hurting one another, oppressing the weak, and engaging in bloody wars and violence. Isn’t it good that we’re so much better now? Oh, wait. Never mind. Just read a few news sites, and you’ll be convinced that there is something deeply flawed and wrong with humanity in general. The same thing that is wrong with humanity is also wrong with you and me.

Now, a lot of people look at themselves, and think “Gee, I don’t think I’m that bad. I’ve never stolen anything, for instance.” The bible asks: But have you ever been greedy? Ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to want? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

We might say, “Well, I’ve never committed adultery.” But have you ever imagined it? Have you ever wanted to? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

“I’ve never lied.” But have you ever gossiped? Ever said hurtful words, or malicious things? Ever been hurtfully sarcastic? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

If you have the courage to be honest with yourself, you know that within you is a deep well of awful muck, of self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to have what you want, no matter the consequences.

The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God

Now, let’s put this together. Everything that is good, awe-inspiring, encouraging, beautiful, glorious, true and loving originates with God. Some things may come directly from God, like a sense of his love, or the words of scripture. Other things may be several generations “removed” from their origin in God, like, for instance, beautiful music, or a lovely painting, or awe-inspiring landscape, but it all begins with him. The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God. Even people who do not know him are affected by him nonetheless, and anyone at all might be used, even unknowingly, to reflect a small piece of God to the world.

But God is so profoundly good, so holy, and so completely powerful, that his very presence destroys anything that is not perfectly good. Bring the tiniest bit of sin into the presence of God, and it is destroyed.

When you combine pure sodium with water, the result is a spectacularly violent reaction. Google it sometime, and watch the video results. There is a similar reaction when sin comes into the presence of God. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. It is violently destroyed.

18 Then Moses said, “Please, let me see Your glory.”
19 He said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” 21 The LORD said, “Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23, HCSB)

God was pleased with Moses, and very gracious to him. But he could not allow Moses to “see his face,” which means, in that culture, to be fully in his presence. Later on, when Moses was reminding the people of their first encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he said this:

4 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. (Deuteronomy 5:24-28, ESV)

The people did not see God’s face, but they were close enough to him to be terrified that his holiness would destroy them. And God said, “That’s right. No one can come too close.”

Now, if God is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, and if the presence of God destroys all that is not perfectly aligned with God’s character, and we are infected with sin (the antithesis of God’s character) we have a problem. If we come into God’s presence we will be annihilated. If we don’t come to him, eventually, we will be further and further separated from all truth, beauty, joy and goodness. We will end up gnawing away at our own souls, bitter, withered, pathetic, hating ourselves, but utterly alone. Complete separation from God is sometimes called “hell,” and that is where we are all headed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our efforts to stop the slide into self-destruction are pathetic, and in fact, they end up being nothing more than additional manifestations of our twisted and flawed natures.

This is the starting point. Until we face this reality, we have not begun. Until we recognize this reality, there is no hope for us.

You might say, “But Tom, I thought you just said there was no hope anyway. You said an essential thing to recognize is we cannot do anything about it.”

I did, and it is. There is no hope from within humanity in general, or from your friends and family. There is no hope from within your own corrupted body or soul. No hope from your dead spirit.

That is why Jesus entered the world. When he came, he said two things. First: Repent! That means recognizing the truth I just told about our own sin and the pointlessness of our own efforts. To repent means to earnestly desire to turn away from sin, and toward God. It means also that we genuinely give up on the idea that we can help ourselves. We have no hope within ourselves, but we turn toward God in our need, recognizing our own helplessness and hopelessness. In a way, we cannot even do this on our own. The Spirit of God has to empower us to repent. That’s why I’m giving this message: to allow you to hear the Word, and through the Holy Spirit, believe it and repent.

The second part of what Jesus said was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In some ways, he was being a little bit coy, since he hadn’t yet completed his mission. But after he had died and risen, he gave his apostles the full message. Peter put it like this:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40, ESV)

Being baptized does mean the physical act, but the literal meaning of the word is immersed. We are to be immersed in Christ. Baptism also means you are leaving one realm, and entering a new one. You are leaving behind the world, the devil and your sinful flesh, and entering the kingdom of God. Paul described it in terms of repentance toward God (that is, turning away from sin, and self, and toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21, quoted earlier).

You might wonder, “But if I am a sinner, and God’s presence destroys sin, how does this help?” That’s a great question. In some ways, the answer takes a lifetime to unpack, but here’s the short version:

God’s intention is to destroy all sin. In doing that, it will be necessary to destroy all sinners, also. So he chose to find a way to make sinners into “not sinners.” He sent Jesus into the world to combine his God-nature with human-nature. Jesus was perfect, because of his God-nature. Because of his human-nature, he became an appropriate vessel to do the job. All sin was placed upon Jesus (which could be done, because of his human nature), and destroyed by his suffering on earth, death on the cross, and descent into hell. Only Jesus, with his eternal God-nature, could survive this. So now, all sin – even the sins of those who lived before Jesus, and sins yet to be committed – has now been punished, and paid for:

1 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)

The way to take hold of this forgiveness, this cleansing of sin, is through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust him, and what he has done. And we entrust our entire lives into his care. We immerse ourselves in Jesus, and in his kingdom. Those who reject this are, in essence, saying, “No, we want to continue to sin.” Or, if not: “We believe we can get our salvation some other way.” Those who reject Jesus, who do not trust in him, have rejected the only lifeboat in the ocean. They would be welcome on board, but if they want to wait for some other boat they like better, they will drown.

 But faith turns away from sin, receives what God has done, and entrusts all of life into the hands of God through Jesus Christ. When we do that, God makes our spirit, which was dead to him because of sin, come alive. Through the spirit, he pours grace, love, truth, beauty, goodness and joy into our souls.

This is the starting gate. Everyone must enter through this gate, or remain separated from God forever. Jesus put it like this:

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

If you have never done so, I invite you to believe God’s Word. Repent of your sins, turning away from them, and to God. Entrust your entire life to Jesus. Come alive to God in the spiritual realm.

Now, I am sure that many of you who follow this blog have already entered through this gate. But if you have, you understand how important it is that everyone recognizes these truths, repents, and enters through Jesus.

I myself am using this message to renew my repentance from sins. It can become easy, once we have trusted Jesus and received the grace of God, to forget the deadly and awful nature of sin. Let this message remind you to never make peace with sin. Let it also remind you of the incredible truth, love, joy, beauty and goodness of God, and remind you that all of that is available to us through Jesus Christ.

Let the Spirit keep speaking to you now!

JONAH #4: THE FAITHFUL LOVE THAT SAVES US

Jonah, influenced by the world around him, unwilling to listen to God, found himself banished from God’s presence, dying. He turned back to the Lord in his distress, the and Lord saved him. This is the gospel in a nutshell, and we find it today in the Old Testament. We are separated from God by our own sin, and yet God’s faithful, covenant-love saves us when we cry out to him, when we trust him to do what we cannot do.

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 4

I just said something briefly last time about the miraculous nature of Jonah being in the fish. For Christians today, I think it might be worth spending some more time on the relationship of faith, miracles, and science. A miracle, by definition, is when the normal laws of physics, biology, etc. are set aside by God. Because of this, science cannot either prove or disprove the existence of miracles. Science can’t study them. Many people who pride themselves for being rational thinkers, say that this makes miracles bogus. If they can’t be studied scientifically, why should we believe they are real at all?

Behind that sort of attitude is an assumption that science is the only true way of knowing things. The idea is that if something can’t be studied by science, it isn’t real, or true. Or, to put it another way: everything that exists can be discovered and studied and known by science.

Even though many people think like this, it is utterly ridiculous to believe that science is the only way of knowing anything, or even that it can (eventually) know everything. In the first place, science itself cannot prove that it is the only way of knowing anything. That is a completely non-scientific proposition. It is an example of what we call “a circular argument,” that is, an argument that depends upon itself in order to be true. To simplify, it is like saying, “science is the only way of knowing anything, and the reason we know that is because science is the only way of knowing anything.”

In fact, we can think of many things that normal people consider rational, but cannot be proven by science. We believe that some things are good, and others are evil – yet we cannot know that by the scientific method. Science uses math and logic, but it cannot prove the validity of either one – that would be another circular argument (I can’t use logic to show that logic is real).

We encounter things that are outside of the realm of science every single day. Take for instance, love. If someone were to study love scientifically, they would have to ask questions like these: “How much does love weigh? How long is it? How high? At what speed does love travel? Which molecules are used to build love-units? What does it look like under a microscope? How does it behave under laboratory conditions?” Obviously, these sorts of questions do not apply to love.

However, just as obviously, love exists. So do dozens more such things that profoundly affect our lives, but which science can know nothing about. Another example is freedom. What is the specific mass of freedom? What happens when you mix freedom with water? Again, silly questions. Science is excellent for studying the physical world. All Christians should rejoice at the way science has helped human beings. But obviously, there are more ways of knowing than science, and human beings couldn’t function if we knew nothing other than what science knows.

In fact, in order to do science, we must first accept, without evidence, that human thinking is rational, that our senses do not deceive us, and our thoughts correspond to reality, and that it is possible to discover what it true. In order to do science, all of those things have to be taken as “givens;” that is, we must simply believe that they are true, that is, we have faith that they are true. In other words: science could not exist without faith. Therefore, while science is a powerful way of knowing, faith is also a powerful way of knowing, and in some ways, faith is necessary for science to work.

I want to make sure that we Christians understand that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science. They are not at war. They are complementary ways of knowing things. It is true that some scientists try to use science to attack or undermine faith, but when they do that, they are being unscientific. When a scientist says something like: “this proves that there is no God,” or “this proves that miracles do not happen,” those are not scientific statements. Science cannot pass judgment on matters of faith without becoming unscientific.

All right, let’s look once more at the prayer, or psalm, that Jonah composed while he was (unscientifically) in the belly of the whale. It is important that we do so with the foundation of last week: In the belly of the sea creature, Jonah was saved, and yet, his salvation was not yet complete. So we too, have been saved, but our salvation won’t be complete until we stand with Jesus in the New Creation. Therefore, what Jonah says at this time is very relevant to us.

The Psalm starts with this: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me.” This is the main point. Jonah says he cried for help from “Sheol,” which means “the place of the dead.” He doesn’t think he died, but he thinks he was knocking on death’s door. Jonah recognizes that he needed salvation because of his own sin and wrongdoing. He says, (as I pointed out last time) that it was the Lord who cast him into the sea, and he says he was banished from the sight of the Lord. In other words, his own sin and disobedience separated him from God. Jonah was almost beyond hope. He says he was near death, banished from the sight of God by his own sin. You can’t get any closer to lost than Jonah was. It reminds me of several different New Testament verses, including:

1 Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
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!  (Ephesians 2:1-5, NLT)

Jonah, in his desperate situation, looked to the Lord alone for salvation. When we recognize our need and distress, when we know we have no hope apart from the Lord, and we call on him, he saves us. No one who trusts him will be put to shame. All who call on him will be saved. This is the basic message of the whole Bible.

This is the message of faith that we proclaim:9If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.10One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.11Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame,12for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.13For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Rom 10:8-13, HCSB)

This is the gospel in a nutshell, and here it in the book of Jonah, in the Old Testament, seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus! 

I want us to pay special attention to verses 8 and 9. The best English translation of verse 8 is the HSCB: “Those who cling to worthless idols//forsake faithful love.” That’s really all it says in Hebrew. I think it is implied, however that the faithful love they forsake is the love of God. In the New Testament there is a Greek word that describes the unconditional, never-ending, sacrificial love of God: agape. In the Old Testament, there is a Hebrew word that is the equivalent of agape. That word is cHesed. (I add the small “c” for pronunciation. It’s like starting to softly clear your throat). It means: “faithful, never-ending love; covenant-love.” That is what Jonah says idol worshippers forsake. God offers us never ending, faithful love. He loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die in our place. But we can’t have both our idols, and also, at the same time, God’s love. If we choose to live for human relationships, or money, or achievement, or pleasure, or art, we forsake God’s love.

Now, all of the things I just named are good in their rightful places. Not even pleasure is evil in and of itself. But if we make any of these more important than God, or if we think of any of them as the “ultimate thing,” we forsake the love of God. If we must have something (other than God), or if we run to such things, rather than God, to bring us comfort and hope, we are in danger of idolatry. Jonah realizes what he almost gave up. Nothing is worth more than God’s cHesed , his covenant-love. But idol worshipers ignore what is eternally precious in the pursuit of things that only temporarily satisfy.

In verse 9, Jonah says he will sacrifice to the Lord, and do what he had vowed. God called Jonah to preach His word. Jonah accepted that call. But when God sent him to Nineveh, he balked. Now, he says, “I will do what I was supposed to do.” Notice that this comes after God has saved him. He is not trying to pay for his salvation. He knows he can’t earn it. But because God showed Jonah his power, and because God saved him, Jonah will live in obedience. It is a response to God’s grace, not a way to earn something from God. He has remembered (with God’s obvious help) that he is in a covenant with God, a cHesed covenant. That means, among other things, that he will go where God tells him, and do what God asks. He does this, not in order to get saved, but because God has already saved him, and given him covenant-love.

Jonah’s ending statement basically reiterates this main point. However, the words he uses makes it truly stunning.

Salvation is from the lord!” (Jonah 2:9, HSCB)

OK, maybe it doesn’t seem that stunning to you. This will take a bit of concentration to understand, but it is worth it, so listen closely. In the book of Exodus, God revealed himself personally to Moses as “I am that I am.” The Israelites took that to mean that God’s name was literally, “I am that I am,” or, as they pronounced it: “Yahweh.” They believed that God’s personal name was Yahweh. God commanded them not to take his name in vain. As time went on, the Jews took this command very seriously, and so, when the Old Testament text said “Yahweh,” they felt it was too holy to pronounce. Instead they said “The Lord.”

Most English Bible translations use this same practice. So, in most English translations, when you read “The Lord,” the Hebrew actually says, “Yahweh.”

Fast forward to New Testament times. For the first Christians, the basic confession of faith was this: “Jesus is Lord.” Those who said that did not mean: “Jesus is an important person (a lord).” They were saying: Jesus is THE LORD, the one true God who revealed himself to the people of Israel in ancient times. In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

Now, one other thing. Jesus is our English way of saying his name. In Hebrew, “Jesus” is pronounced “Yeshua” and it means, “(the Lord’s) salvation.” Almost certainly, when his disciples said his name, they would have said, “Yeshua.”

Now let’s return to Jonah 2:9. There are only two Hebrew words in this verse. It is translated, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” But let me give it to you straight from the Hebrew: “Yeshua Yahweh.”

In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

I don’t want to create any misunderstanding. Jonah had no idea that one day God was going to come into the world as a man named Yeshua. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Lord inspired Jonah to use those exact words. To me, it is sort of like finding an Easter egg hidden by God, or maybe like having God wink at us. He’s saying, “Here I am! In case you were wondering if it’s all really true, look, I’m everywhere.” Seven hundred years before he came into the world, the Lord dropped that little breadcrumb there for us!

Thoughts for application:

  • Though some scientists are antagonistic to Christianity, there is no necessary conflict. What are ways that you can praise God for the wisdom he has given the world through science? What are concerns that you might want to turn over to the Lord?
  • How has your own sin and disobedience separated you from the Lord? What about the world, or temptations? Have you called on the name the name of the Lord? Hear the word of the Lord through Jonah that all who call upon him (which means, also trusting him) will be saved!
  • Consider meditating on God’s covenant love for you, his commitment to love you, even to his own death. Receive his love by thanking him for it (and possibly singing, or responding in some other creative way)
  • What is the Lord saying to you today through his word?

THE KING WHO CHANGED NOTHING AND EVERYTHING

palm sunday

The crowd on Palm Sunday was looking for a king who ultimately would have been just a historical footnote. Instead, they got someone who did not change their political or economic situation at all. And yet, he changed the entire history of the world.

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 Palm Sunday 2021

Matthew #72. Matthew 21:1-11

Each year, Christians celebrate and remember the last week in the life of Jesus before his resurrection. We call it “Holy Week.” For Jesus, the week began when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to cries of praise and celebration from the people. By Friday night of the same week, he was hanging dead on a Roman crucifix. On the very next Sunday, he rose from death; one week in total after riding into Jerusalem. Roughly one quarter of Matthew’s entire gospel is about that week, and with chapter 21, we have now entered that section of the book.

It was a kind of Holy Week for the Jews of that time too. The ancient Jewish calendar was different from ours, and sometime in March (it varies from year to year) was the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Fourteen days into the New Year, the Jews celebrated Passover – a feast commemorating their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Following Passover was a week-long celebration – the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Although you could celebrate this wherever you lived, most Jews felt the best place to spend Passover and Unleavened Bread was in Jerusalem. Then, forty days later was the Feast of Pentecost. Picture this time of year a little bit Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States. A lot of people traveled to be with family and loved ones. There was a delicious meal (usually the same food every year) and good feelings and a lot of gratitude. Along with it was the knowledge that you were all probably going to get together again in a bit more than a month, for Pentecost. In Israel, this was the “most wonderful time of the year.”

So there was a big crowd headed into Jerusalem that day, just three days before the Passover and the start the Festival. They were probably in a good mood. They were ready for something new and exciting to happen. Then along comes Jesus, riding on a donkey. Certainly, he could not have been the only person riding a donkey into Jerusalem that day. But Luke records that his disciples started shouting and praising God joyfully. Matthew says that the people directly in front of Jesus and those behind him took up the cry. John records that many of the people there for the festival had heard about Jesus raising Lazarus. So they went out to meet him and joined in the praises. Soon, it was a kind of uproar that stirred up the whole city:

When He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken, saying, “Who is this? ” (Matt 21:10, HCSB)

The people took up the cry of Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9, ESV2011)

That particular prophecy of Zechariah was all about salvation and deliverance. Many Jews probably felt it was fulfilled in some ways when the Maccabaeus Family led the rebellion that freed Israel from Greek rule, some hundred and sixty years before the time of Jesus. Now they were thinking that maybe God was going to do the same thing to the Romans and to king Herod, through this Jesus. They were thinking salvation all right, but political salvation.

Now the truth is, I think most of the crowd was cheering in ignorance, and for the wrong reasons. After the crucifixion, the entire number of Jesus’ followers was about 120. But this crowd sounds a lot bigger than that. It would take more than 120 people to shake up the whole city. So a lot people were cheering who didn’t know Jesus very well, or only knew of him. It was party time, and they were partying. It sounded exciting. They thought maybe they had a new Judas Maccabaeus on their hands, and maybe they were going to be free from the oppression of Rome and king Herod (Herod was not a Jew).

But why did Jesus participate in this? What Matthew records makes it sound like Jesus planned it: apparently Jesus had arranged the donkey ahead of time, and even agreed upon some sort of “password” with the owner of the animals. Luke and Mark also suggest that it was intentional on Jesus’ part. But the crowd had all the wrong reasons, so why did Jesus do it?

Matthew records one of the reasons: it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9. Some of that prophecy certainly sounds like military deliverance from oppressing nations. In fact, it mentions war against Greece, so some of it may indeed have been fulfilled by the Maccabaeus Family. Remember, however, biblical prophecies usually have multiple layers that are not necessarily fulfilled at in one piece. And there are other clues in Zechariah 9 that show us that, whatever else it was about, it was also about Jesus.

It says that the one coming to Jerusalem on the donkey is righteous. Who else is truly righteous besides Jesus? It says he is the true king. Who has the right to claim kingship, but him? Judas Maccabaeus, more than a century before, was never a true Israelite king, because he was from the tribe of Levi, not the tribe of King David, which was Judah. The prophecy says he is bringing salvation, and that he is humble and peaceful. Zechariah 9:11-12, a few verses later, also says this:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zech 9:11-12, ESV2011)

Prisoners are set free and given hope – because of the blood of the covenant. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to shed his blood, to create the New Covenant, sealed with his blood, brought about by his death. Certainly, at the time, no one else knew that, but Jesus did. And later, John writes, the disciples remembered it (John 12:16).

So, in this act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving the praises of the people around him, Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, and giving anyone who cared to think about it a clue that he was the promised Messiah.

I think Jesus did this for other reasons too. It was time for him to give up his life for our sins. I think he was deliberately provoking the Jewish leaders into taking the actions that would lead to his crucifixion. Up until this very last week of his earthly life, Jesus had kept a fairly low profile, and avoided popular acclaim and confrontation with the Jewish leaders. But now, I think he was deliberately antagonizing them so that they would do what had to be done.

Finally, if Jesus really is who we believe he is, he was always worthy of worship at any moment in time. So, it is only good and right that as people come to celebrate the Passover, they worshipped the true Passover lamb who would give his life so that they could be spared. It is entirely appropriate that people worship him. He said as much to the Pharisees who criticized him.

Now, as I have pointed out, even those who praised Jesus, did so with quite a bit of ignorance. Frankly, I don’t think most Christians get the point any more than the First Century Jews. The Jews got all excited about Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and I’m sure many of them forgot that it was really all about God’s deliverance. We have the same issues in America with Christmastime and Thanksgiving. We get all happy and excited, but often neglect real thankfulness or real remembrance of Jesus. And we do the same with the beginning of Christian Holy Week.

Most churches I’ve been to wave palm leaves around at some point in the Palm Sunday service. I’ve been in churches where they brought in live donkeys and camels for the occasion. People shout and jump and sing, just like the Jews did on that first Palm Sunday. Just like the Jews did in ignorance. But we should know better, now.

It reminds me of Elijah’s experience with God:

Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the LORD’s presence.” At that moment, the LORD passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:11-13, HCSB)

We look for God in the excitement, the noise, the action. And there is some of God in that, sometimes. But Elijah found that the heart of God was something, deeper, quieter, more meaningful. It wasn’t wrong for the Palm Sunday crowd in Jerusalem to have a raucous celebration. It wasn’t wrong for them to want deliverance from the Romans. But the real thing, the most important thing, was deeper than that. Two-thousand years later, Judas Maccabaeus is sort of a footnote in the ancient history of the Greek empire; many of you may not have heard about him before today. And that’s what the Jews were looking for – another person to give them temporary relief, another person who would end up as just another historical footnote. But they got someone who would not change their local political situation at all. Instead, he changed the entire world.

I think we need to take notice of this. Too often, our vision is too small and limited. We just want Jesus to give us a better job, or more compliant kids, or to “fix” our spouse. Those aren’t necessarily bad things to want; it’s just that the vision is too small. What he wants to do inside our soul and spirit is so much bigger than a temporary situation fix. He has a permanent solution to the holes inside our hearts. He has brought us hope, and grace and love and permanent salvation; he has sealed it with his blood.

Zechariah’s prophecy says: “Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation.” I say the same thing: Jesus is coming to us. Do you recognize him as your king, the one with the right to rule your life? Are you willing to be part of his real mission, not to temporarily change a little corner of your world, but to bring hope and salvation to all people for eternity? Are you willing to receive not just what you want, but what he chooses to do in your life and with your life?

Right after “Palm Sunday,” Jesus made this comment:

“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. Where I am, there My servant also will be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24-26, HCSB)

Jesus literally gave up his life. The result was eternal salvation for billions. He invites us to join him – not necessarily to literally lose our physical life (though he has called some to martyrdom) but to surrender our hearts and minds and wills to him, so that in return we can receive his salvation and honor.

The party is fine, as far it goes. The celebration is fun. The happiness is good and right and genuine. But let’s use this text as an opportunity to go deeper, to engage with the real mission of Jesus, and to receive him as our true king.

This is Not How it was Supposed to Be

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

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

Christmas 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or was he?

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

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

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

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

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

(NLT, Romans 8:28-30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #1: TOO OLD?

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

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

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 1

Advent 2020 #1 .  Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.

COLOSSIANS #31: ALL OF LIFE

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

Tom Hilpert

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Colossians #31.  Colossians 3:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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