COLOSSIANS #37: STAY SALTY!

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

As Christians, we need to be aware that not everyone thinks or believes like us, and we should be wise about how we treat others. We should do our best to let the fruit of the Holy Spirit guide our interactions with non-Christians, so that those relationships are marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Relying upon the Holy Spirit, we should learn how to share the reasons we have for following Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 37

COLOSSIANS #37. COLOSSIANS 4:4-6

5 Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person (Colossians 4:5-6, ESV)

Paul is offering some final instructions. His first thought is that we are to be wise in our interactions with those who do not know Jesus. What exactly does the Holy Spirit mean us to get from this?

First of all, a reminder about wisdom. Wisdom is not just knowledge. Some people know a great deal, but they are not wise at all.I’ve met a few Christians who could quote all sorts of Bible passages from memory, and yet, they did not apply those verses to their lives. Even though they had knowledge, they were foolish, not wise.

Wisdom is the ability to use whatever knowledge we do have, and to apply it to our lives and actions in a right and thoughtful way.

Paul tells us now to apply what we know of Jesus to our relationships with those who do not follow Jesus. I think some of this means we should be careful not to act like hypocrites. If we talk a Christian talk, but then treat people badly, this amounts to being foolish in our interactions with other people. We should think through how our words or actions might reflect upon Jesus and his other followers.

Some people will be antagonistic to Christianity, no matter what we do. But at least, let it be for the right reasons, and not because we have been cruel, or rude or unkind or stupid. Don’t let our actions become an occasion for someone to think badly about Jesus Christ.

There’s another aspect of walking in wisdom toward outsiders. That is, we should be aware that those who are Christians, and those who are not are different. Yes, we should treat those who don’t follow Jesus with grace, and kindness and respect. But we also need to remember that we have given our ultimate allegiance to Jesus Christ, and that makes us different from those who have not. We need to be careful about absorbing the values and priorities of those around us. Being wise also involves being different.

Some of the ancient church leaders, writing about this verse, advised Christians to be careful about how they engaged in business, and also about with whom they did business. They thought it was wise to minimize interactions with certain types of people. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are people who are deliberately looking to pick a fight with Christianity and Christians. Sometimes, such people might even be motivated by politics or ideology. If you sense someone actively trying to make trouble with you about being a Christian, sometimes it’s best to remain polite, but keep your distance. As Paul says, be wise about how you interact with outsiders.

Our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to Christians, and to our beliefs. Even as I write this, there is a bill called the “Equality Act” that has already passed the US House of Representatives. The law will punish churches and Christian charities for abiding by Christian doctrine in the way they minister to people. If it passes the Senate, it will be technically illegal for some doctors, nurses, and others, to allow their Christian beliefs to shape how they help the people they serve. It will restrict Christian organizations from expressing certain Christian beliefs, and  require even Christians working in private organizations to treat people in a way that conflicts with what the Bible teaches. This will be true even of organizations who receive no funding from the government. It even sets a precedent for making certain kinds of speech illegal.

All this is to say, even now, the time has come to be wise about who we express our views to, and how much we say to certain people. Especially, this applies to what we do in our interactions online.

Now, this does not mean that we should keep quiet about Jesus. I’ll explain more about that in a minute. But it does mean that when we interact with others, we should let the fruit of Holy Spirit be evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23). And also, we should be wise about choosing our time and opportunities to tell others about Jesus.

After telling us to be wise in how we relate to outsiders, he adds: “making the best use of the time.” The Greek word for time is not just the passing of minutes, hours, and days. It is a word for a specified amount of time, a pre-determined “season.” The word “making the best use of,” means we should use this specified season as fully as we can, and not let it go to waste. So, what is “the time” or “the season,” that Paul means? What does he mean that we shouldn’t let it go to waste but should make it worthwhile? To understand all this, let’s look at something written by the apostle Peter, when people asked him when Jesus was going to return:

8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. 9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. (2 Peter 3:8-9, NLT).

So, the “season” that we are in, the time that we are to make use of, is the remaining time we have on earth. It is our life, for as long as Jesus allows us to live, or, perhaps, until he returns again. The way we are to make use of it is by helping other people to follow Jesus.

Remember that this whole section of Colossians began with this statement:

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, ESV)

We already have “one foot in heaven,” so to speak. Our real life, our best life, is already secure with Christ at the right hand of God. That life is eternal. That life is more powerful than the one we live here and now in the flesh. One day, when Jesus returns, we will step into the fullness of that life. At this present time, we have it only in the spirit realm. Our flesh, that is, our present mortal bodies, cannot inherit that eternal spirit-life. Our bodies of flesh are corrupted. Our souls are caught between the good, powerful pure eternal life of the spirit, and the corrupt, sinful, dying desires of the flesh. So we fight a battle in our souls. Anchored here by our bodies of flesh, we experience pain and heartbreak, temptation and sorrow and cruelty and injustice. But we have a promise that when Jesus returns, he will grant us new bodies, bodies that are not corrupted by sin. These new bodies will be a perfect fit for the spirit life that has already been given us. Then, there will be no more pain and suffering, no more heartbreak, no more disappointment, anger, rage, fear, or anything we think of as bad, wrong, or evil.

But right now, in this present life, we have a part of the new life in Christ, but only a kind of “down payment,” not the whole thing. You might say that we are stuck in a kind of in-between time. It is about this in-between time that Paul says: “making the best use of your time.”

So, in our text for today, Paul is saying this: “As long as we are stuck here, let’s make the most of this in-between time. Let’s not let it go to waste. Let’s make it count for something.” And, of course, the way to make it count is to use it to point other people to the Life that is in Jesus.

Next, the text says:

Let your words at all times be gracious, salt-seasoned, knowing how to give the best, well-considered response to each person. (Col 4:6, my translation).

Our words are to be gracious, and seasoned with salt. Have you ever had a conversation with someone, and afterwards you felt almost the way you do after a delicious and healthy meal? You are strengthened, and satisfied and encouraged. That is the way we are to be in our talk with others, especially with outsiders.

In my own conversation, I struggle with this. My language is not generally full of obscenity, or coarse, crude talk, or innuendo. But sometimes, I wonder if maybe instead it is just sort of tasteless. Even though I sometimes struggle to make small-talk, I also struggle to move a conversation beyond small-talk. But this idea of “salt-seasoned” conversation means it should be meaningful. So, what can I do? As with all of this part of Colossians, it is meant to cause us to rely upon Jesus. Once I know what Jesus wants, I need to be willing for that to happen through me. Next, once I am willing for my talk to be gracious and salt-seasoned, my part is to rely upon Jesus to make that happen. In real life, for me, that usually means two things. The first is that I say a quick prayer during a conversation, just a silent prayer in my head, like: “Lord bless and use this conversation.” Next, I try to find a question that will give the conversation an opportunity to become more grace-filled and meaningful. Often all I come up with is: “How can I pray for you during the next few days?” Or, sometimes, the Lord will put an idea or question in my head that helps move the conversation to a more meaningful level.

We are also told to give a thoughtful response to each person. Peter says something similar:

Peter writes about this also:

15 Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. (NLT, 1 Peter 3:15-16).

. There was an old saying that used to be common in some Christian circles: “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” I detest that saying. Words are necessary. The gospel is not “preached” unless there are also words.

3 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.”
14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”
16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “LORD, who has believed our message?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. (Romans 10:13-17, NLT, bold formatting added for emphasis)

How can anyone believe if they have never heard the Word of God? “And how can they hear the word of God unless someone tells them?” So, tell them. Yes, be wise about when and how you tell them, but tell them.

It is a good idea to think about why you follow Jesus. Although Jesus gives us forgiveness and eternal life, following him also means we give up the right to arrange our own lives the way we want to, and instead, die to ourselves, and live as he leads us. We must have a reason for making that choice, which leads us away from self-centeredness, and the pleasures of sin. It’s good for us to think through what our reasons are, and then also, to think through the best way to explain those reasons to different types of people. Then, when the time comes, we’ll be ready.

By the way, when it comes to giving your reasons for why you trust Jesus, you shouldn’t try to sound like anybody except yourself. Don’t come up with someone else’s reasons for why to follow Jesus; instead, think through why you follow him, and, figure out the best way to explain that to others. As you learn and grow in Jesus, you will know more, and what you say may be more profound, but don’t pretend to know something you don’t. We are all finite human beings, and God is infinite. Therefore, there will always be things we don’t understand, and questions for which we don’t have answers. I think sometimes, people respect us more when we honestly admit it when we don’t know. But at the very least, you do know your own reasons for trusting Jesus. and you can share those.

  • What helps you to live wisely in your interactions with those who aren’t Christians?
  • We live in an in-between time, when part of us is redeemed, and part of us is still waiting. How does that encourage you? What helps you to remember this truth?
  • Share some examples of salt-seasoned, gracious conversation.
  • Practice sharing the reasons for the hope you have in Jesus. Use your own words, and your own understanding.
  • Practice asking each other possible questions that outsiders have. Think about the best ways to respond.

COLOSSIANS #36: THE LIFE SPIRITUAL

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

We are called to live a life bathed in prayer and worship. This is something to persist in, persevere in, even when answers don’t come easily. We are to watch over and guard our spiritual lives, and pray also for the teaching and spreading of God’s word. We cannot do any of this on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit in us to live this way.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 36

COLOSSIANS #36. COLOSSIANS 4:2-4

After dealing with seven whole verses last time, we will turn our focus to three more verses: Colossians 4:2-4. As always, remember the context. This is part of what it means to do all things for the sake of Jesus, and in reliance upon Jesus. Chapter 3 started with the general idea: since our real life is hidden with Christ in God, focus on the things above, where Christ is, where our real life is. Then throughout chapter three, Paul began to spell out some specific scenarios, so that we could understand what that idea means in our relationships with other Christians, and then in our family relationships, and following that, in our relationships at our jobs. Now, he caps off the entire section with 4:2. The Greek uses only seven words in this verse, but four of those words are densely packed with meaning. So, I offer you my “amplified” translation.  Again, I am not claiming to be a Greek scholar, but I want us to understand what this sounded like to the first people who read it:

“As to prayer and worship – in fact, your whole spiritual life – be always sticking with it, be continually persevering in it, staying awake and alive in it, guarding your spiritual life, all with thankfulness.”

I “translated” it this way so that we can see several important things that we might otherwise miss in English. First, the word for “prayer” includes more than bowing our heads and reciting words to God. It points to the entire life of worship and devotion to God, both for individuals, and for the church as a whole. So it isn’t only about “saying prayers.” It is also about worshipping God alone while you are driving, and worshipping God with other Christians while you sing with your church. It is about asking God to intervene in specific ways, and is also about keeping an informal conversation with God going at all times. It is talking about life with a Christian friend, and then praying about your concerns together before you move on. It involves reading the scriptures, and talking about God with fellow Christians, as well as those who don’t believe yet.

Second, in my translation, I make it clear (as the Greek does) that this should be an ongoing, never-ending process. This isn’t a religious duty that you do, and then you’re done. Of course, that should be obvious by now, since Paul has been applying faith to all of life. But these verbs are in the present tense, active mood, which means these are real, actual, actions that should be carried out continually. It isn’t theoretical, or abstract. It is also ongoing.

Now to a couple of the important words. The word translated by the ESV as “continue steadfastly” is the same word used in Acts 2:42, where it says “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayer.” The idea behind the Greek term is a that a group of people are together earnest, persevering, diligent and utterly committed to something. In other words, they didn’t just “say a prayer.” They were earnest and diligent about praying; they persisted and persevered in their prayers, even when they did not receive immediate answers. They didn’t just “listen to a sermon.” They diligently persevered in learning what Jesus said and did, and what it meant. They persisted in applying it to their lives, even when at first it didn’t feel like it made anything better.

I think this idea is very important. What we really believe as Christians is that spiritual reality is more real and important than what we call “physical” reality. I don’t mean the physical isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; but Christians believe the spiritual is the more powerful of the two and certainly the more lasting. That means we persist in our devotion to spiritual life even when the physical reality is whispering to us that we are stupid and silly to do so. We persist in this because it makes a difference in spiritual reality Eventually, that difference will also affect the physical realm, but even if it does not do so during our lifetimes, we trust in what we don’t see. That is what faith is: “the reality of what is hoped for; the certainty of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Next we have the term “being watchful.” This word is used fairly often by Jesus himself, when he teaches us to be alert and expectant about his return to earth. Peter uses it in his first letter:

8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 5:8-9, ESV)

So the word means to remain awake and alert, to be diligent in guarding or watching over something. In this case, we are to be alert and diligent in watching over our spiritual life with Jesus, our life of prayer and worship, both public and private and all the time.

And we are to do this, with thankfulness. This is the seventh time Paul has mentioned gratitude in this short letter of  Colossians. I think we should pay attention. Our entire spiritual life – and even the guarding of our spiritual life – should be deeply soaked in thankfulness to God. Bible scholar R.C. Lenski says:

This indicates Paul’s meaning: our great thankfulness for all that Christ has done for us and all with which he has filled us (2:9); see also 3:15, 17. He has freed us from all superstitious fears; he has placed us into the pure and happy Christian life. Cling to him in prayer and watch that nothing removes us from him and constantly thank him for all that we have in him. (Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament, Colossians 4:2)

I have said it before, but I even need to remind myself, so I’ll remind you too: Thankfulness helps us to take hold of spiritual blessings. Sometimes we don’t know exactly how grasp the wonderful promises of God in scripture. We struggle to make them real in our life. Thanksgiving is the answer. Thanksgiving makes us like sponges, so that we can absorb the goodness that God is showering on us through Jesus Christ. Sometimes, it seems to me that we pray for things that are deeply concerning to us, and when we are done, we feel no better. I wonder if perhaps that is because we are not thanking God at the same time. Perhaps if thankfulness was a part of all our praying, we might find a greater rest for our souls through prayer.

Paul adds something interesting in verses 3-4:

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— 4 that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. (ESV, Colossians 4:3-4)

In addition to the life of prayer and worship, Paul asks Christians to pray for him, and for his ministry of declaring God’s word. I do not think that we still need to be praying for the apostle Paul. But I think we can learn a few things from these verses. First, though Paul is gone, the ministry of declaring God’s word clearly remains. I think it is still good and right and appropriate for us to pray that God’s word will be made clear all over the world. All Christians should be interested and invested the spreading of God’s word, and all of us can be involved in that through prayer.

In addition, part of that includes praying for the individuals who are called to the ministry of teaching God’s word. In fact, I ask, without embarrassment, that you include me in those prayers. God has called me to make his word known, as clearly as I can, to the best of my ability. You may have noticed that the name of my sermon blog is “Clear Bible.” That comes directly from this idea here in our text. Obviously, I am not the only person called to this – not remotely so! But as you pray for God’s word to made known all of the world, I deeply appreciate it if you include me in those prayers.

I think this also gives us a standard for the declaration of God’s word. It should be done clearly. One of the reasons I was never able to become an academic theologian is because I am impatient with the tendency of such people to make the bible more obscure, rather than clear. The Bible was not written for scholars, but for ordinary people, and the ministry of the word should help make it more clear. That doesn’t mean there is nothing complicated or difficult in the Bible, but a minister of the word should be able to help others through those parts, not make it worse.

On the other hand, I do think that those who declare God’s word should have at least some education, especially training in how to interpret the Bible, and how to communicate with people, including how to adapt your communication to the people whom you serve. I have met many preachers who have no training in these things, and frankly, in their own way, they are as bad as the overly-academic types. They don’t understand the word well enough to make it clear in all of its fullness and grace. If you have never learned about the culture of Bible times, if you know nothing of the Biblical languages, or history, or if you don’t know the basics of how to study something, you are sure to misunderstand many parts of the Bible. If you are also a preacher, you are going to pass those misunderstandings on to others. You will tend to be more easily influenced by people around you. Instead of diving deeply into God’s word, you will tend to accept and repeat whatever interpretations are most popular among your peer group, and you won’t be equipped to evaluate whether or not they are true, good and helpful.

You see why Bible teachers need prayer? It’s a big and important responsibility. Along with praying in general for God’s word to be taught clearly, and along with praying for the specific Bible-teachers in your life, I think from these verses we can see that it is important to pray for the word of God to spread all over the world.  Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations. He gave John a heavenly vision where people from all ethnic groups would be together in heaven. In order to make those things a reality, the word has to be brought to people who have never heard it before, specifically, people in places of the world where Christianity has not yet been present.

I believe God sometimes makes concrete changes in the world through prayer; that is, in response to our prayers, he makes things happen, or stops things from happening.  What an honor we have to be part of God’s work in the world! But persisting steadfastly in prayer and worship also changes the hearts of God’s people. It deepens our connection with God, and, if we do it with thankfulness, increases our peace and trust in him.

As usual, all of this seems like a tall order. It is not something we can do on our own, with our own willpower. Our failings in the life of prayer and worship should draw us back to Jesus. We need to lean in on his grace, and lean on the power of the Holy Spirit to make us into people who are devoted to prayer.  We can’t do it on our own, but the power of the Lord in us can make us into the people he wants us to be.

COLOSSIANS #35: WORKING FOR THE LORD…WHEREVER YOU WORK

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

We are called to do everything – even what we do for a job – for the sake of Jesus, as if we were doing for Jesus. Because, in fact, we are doing it for Jesus. We must also remember that we live for Jesus not by trying harder, but by trusting that his power is at work in us, and allowing his Word and his Spirit to guide our choices

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 35

Colossians #35. Colossians 3:20-4:1

Remember, we are in a section of scripture where the Holy Spirit is giving some practical instructions concerning what it means to do everything, both in word and deed, in the name of Jesus Christ. Because we belong to Jesus, we should live differently than the people around us. We just spent several weeks examining some of what that means for relationships between men and women. Paul continues with more family relationships:

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Colossians 3:20-21, ESV)

Paul wrote about this in slightly greater detail to the Ephesians:

1 Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do. 2 “Honor your father and mother.” This is the first commandment with a promise: 3 If you honor your father and mother, “things will go well for you, and you will have a long life on the earth.”
4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4, NLT)

This letter would have originally been read out loud in each house church in the city where it was first sent. The letter would then have been copied, sent to nearby cities, and read in the house churches there. Paul knew that children would be sitting there with their parents as the letters were read, and so he addresses them directly. From this we can understand that children were present in Christian churches from the very beginning. For the next seventeen centuries or so, children were present with their parents whenever they gathered with their church. The children were part of the worship time, and they were also present for the sermon, the celebration of communion, and, for prayers. In the early (house-church) centuries, they would have been there for the “discussion time” as well. Children were incorporated into the life of the life of the church, just as they had been involved in the life of worship of ancient Israel.

The instructions specifically for children are straightforward: obey your parents. In the Ephesians letter, Paul adds that this was the first of the ten commandments that had a promise attached to it (read Exodus 20:12). Fathers are told not to provoke, or aggravate their children. In the Ephesians letter he reminds them to also raise their children in the instruction and discipline of the Lord. In other words: teach your children about Jesus Christ. Help them learn the Bible, and develop a habit of reading and studying it.

For the next sixteen centuries or so, all Christians understood that it was the parents’ job to instruct their children in the Christian faith. In the writings of Martin Luther from the mid-1500s, it is clear that parents were expected to instruct their children in the Christian faith. This was how it was for the Jews and the ancient Israelites before them:

6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, ESV)

During the eighteenth century in England, a well-intentioned man was concerned about all the orphans who had no parents to instruct them in the Christian faith. He started a weekend school for the orphans, and it quickly became called Sunday School. Unfortunately, it was not long before parents decided to give up their responsibilities, and turned the instruction of their children over to Sunday schools.

Last time we considered the fact that men have a responsibility to lead their families spiritually. Here, we see that responsibility applies also to bringing up their children in Christian faith. My own philosophy, based upon my own experiences as a child, is that kids often learn more about faith from watching adults worship, pray and grapple with scripture, than they do from being in a classroom setting on Sundays. I am happy to help equip parents to bring up their children as Christians, but it is primarily the responsibility of the parents, not of some kind of Sunday school. I have been doing this now for twenty-five years, and I am happy to say that most of the kids who were brought up worshipping in house churches with their parents and other adults, and getting instruction directly from the parents, are doing well in following Jesus. In other words, it works.

Let’s continue with the next few verses:

22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.
1 Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:22 – 4:1, ESV)

Many English translations have “slaves” rather than “bondservants,” and in fact slaves is the best literal translation. However, slavery in the ancient Roman empire was radically different from what most modern people think of when they the words slave, or slavery.

Let’s get a few things straight. Many people, using verses like one, claim that the Bible endorses slavery. However, when we read the text, we can see that the Bible is not saying that slavery is good and right. Instead, it is giving practical advice to those who are slaves, and also reminding those who own slaves that in fact, both slave and master belong to God. In other words, no human being can actually “own” another, because God owns them both. The entire book of Philemon is, in some ways, an expansion of Colossians 4:1. Altogether, text of the New Testament makes it clear that all people, slave or free, belong to God, and are accountable to him. Slavery therefore, is unnatural. The fact is, slavery was universal throughout history in all cultures worldwide, until Christians, (and Christians alone) had enough influence to abolish it.

It is true that during the years leading up to the American Civil war, some southerners tried to use the Bible to justify slavery. However, no Christians before them ever tried to interpret the bible to justify slavery, and no Christians outside of the southern United States accepted their faulty way of using the bible. On the other hand, the abolition of slavery worldwide was brought about by Christianity, including abolition in the United States.

With that straight, let us also understand slavery in the ancient Roman empire. It was nothing like slavery during the American colonial and antebellum periods. Slaves at the time and place of New Testament were not usually slaves for life. On average, those who served as slaves did so for about twenty years. Many people entered slavery voluntarily, to avoid starvation. Slave “owners” could not sell off the family members of their slaves. They could not imprison them, or do whatever they liked to or with them. Also, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, slaves were paid wages. Most slaves saved up their wages and bought their own freedom. Others were released by their “masters” after an agreed upon period of service. Others deliberately chose to remain in lifelong service to a particular family.

Maybe the closest thing we have today to Greco-Roman slavery is military service. When you join the military you receive some clothing, housing and an income, and even food. In return, you place yourself at the service of the military branch that you joined, for example, the Army. You can’t leave your Army post without permission. You can’t live just anywhere you want to, and you must do what the Army tells you to do. Until your term of service is over, you are not entirely “your own person,” so to speak, yet, there are limits to what the Army can make you do. That’s a pretty similar picture to slavery in the world of the New Testament.

In many ways, we could apply the instructions to ancient slaves to anyone who is an employee. Many people view their jobs as a sort of necessary evil. We need money, so we give up our time and skills in exchange for it. Most employers are concerned mainly with making money for themselves, and employees are merely a means to that end. Knowing that can steal our motivation to do good work. But I think we can hear these words to bondservants and apply them to our employment and careers:

23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.

By the way, if we really can take this attitude and do our work for Jesus (more than for our employer) and do our best to please Him, we will have a reward from him. In addition, usually if we are doing our best work, it generally makes us more successful at our jobs, which usually benefits us  even in this life as well.

There are instructions for business owners, also. Employees are not  just units of your business. You will have to give account to God for how you dealt with his human beings while they were under your authority.

This should be one of the most practical verses in the bible for a lot of people. A great and simple question we can ask ourselves is this: “Can I do this in honor of the Lord?”

There may be jobs, or even entire careers, that we can’t be involved with, because we can’t honor the Lord in them. This is obviously the case with some things. Even though it is legal in many places, a Christian cannot honor Jesus by being an erotic dancer or sex-worker. If you want to do everything for Jesus, it would be a conflict if you wanted to be a Buddhist priest, or a hit man, or a mime. Sorry just kidding about the hit man. No, of course, I’m kidding about the mime, but who can resist a good jab at mimes? They can’t talk back. For that matter, neither can some Buddhist priests. But I digress.

More seriously, in my opinion, (which could be wrong, of course) it would be impossible to honor Jesus through working at an abortion clinic. I think it would be hard to be an actor on certain TV shows or movies, and still do it for Jesus. As our culture moves father and farther away from Christianity, we may have to give up careers that used to be respectable. For instance, if Christianity were made illegal and it became law that prosecutors must seek legal penalties designed to stop people from practicing Christianity, then probably Christians should stop becoming prosecutors.

The Colossians lived in a world when certain careers required that they make sacrifices at the temple or shrine of the god that watched over that career. Christians simply could not have those types of jobs. I could be wrong on this one, but that’s my thinking, currently.

In addition to issues of career, let’s think about this this one: “Can I post this on social media, heartily for the Lord?” Some people should not hit the post button because what they are going to put up there is lewd or crude. Others because it is in a tone or language that does not honor Jesus Christ.

As a creative person, I am often considering the question of whether I am honoring Jesus with what I write, and how I write it. I think any artist who is a Christian needs to ask those types of questions. I am not talking about censorship, or making everything explicitly Christian. I am talking about living with Jesus as Lord of your life. If we are doing that even a little, it should show in the way we practice art. I’m certainly not in favor of setting up rules or committees to determine if someone is doing this correctly. But I think we who are serious about following Jesus need to be asking ourselves individually what it means to honor him in everything we do.

Now, all of this could be very daunting. Even if slavery was no worse than being in the Marine Corps, what if you have a difficult master, or commanding officer? It’s hard to work with all your heart for someone you don’t like or respect, a person who can easily make your life difficult, and often does just that. It’s hard to have to make choices that penalize us for being Christians. We need to the remember the beginning of this whole section of Colossians:

1 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, CSB)

Our treasures are not in this life. Our real life – really our entire life – is ahead of still. I am saying this a much to my 93 year old father as to my 20 year old daughter. Because the source of our life is not on this earth, it is not found in our own willpower. It is in Christ alone. As Paul put it in describing his own way of life:

20 I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, CSB)

We live for Jesus not by trying harder, but by trusting that his power is at work in us, and allowing his Word and his Spirit to guide our choices. Will you allow him to both guide you, and empower you so that whatever you do, you do for him?

COLOSSIANS #34: THE BEAUTY OF TRUST

Photo by Ihsan Aditya on Pexels.com

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THIS WORLD IS NOT OUR HOME

Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

In this time of angry, partisan politics, it is vitally important that we Christians remember that this world is not our home. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, and our first allegiance is not to any earthly country, but to Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of those who belong to him. This fact should change the way we view and practice politics. Those among the capitol mob who thought they were doing God’s will are horrifically wrong.

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 “This World is Not Our Home”

THIS WORLD IS NOT OUR HOME

SCRIPTURE REFERENCES: Colossians 3:1; Matthew 5:38-42; Romans 8:18-25; John 18:36; Matthew 26:52-53; Matthew 10:28-31; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

During my twenty-five years as an ordained pastor, I have almost never used my preaching to deliberately speak to current political events. The Bible addresses subjects that are important in politics, and I have always done my best to try to explain what the bible teaches on such issues when they arise in the text, along with some suggestions for ways we might apply the bible to how we think politically. But I have never (as far as I remember) used a sermon as a platform to say something about what was going on politically at the time.

Until now.

I believe that what I want to say should be said soon. I believe it is an important thing for me, as a Christian leader, to say. And, if you are reading this, it means that I believe that the Lord wants me to say it, that, in fact, the Lord wants to speak to you and me about something very important. If nothing else, this is a good reminder about setting our hearts on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1).

Let’s start with some background. When the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, there was video from many places throughout the Muslim world showing people out in the streets, celebrating that heinous act of murder and destruction.

I really wanted to hear a lot of Muslim leaders condemning the terrorists specifically for being bad Muslims. I did not hear that. You can speculate however you want about why that condemnation was not widely heard. That’s not my main point.

Fast forward to the events of 6th January, 2021. I have read with dismay that many of those involved in the attack on the United States Capitol on the 6th of January, 2021 think that they are good Christians. Some of them carried signs and flags with Christian messages. Christian music was blaring throughout the area. Christians have been among some of the most vehement supporters of Donald Trump. As far as I have a part, I don’t want to fail to say this:

 Those who were involved in the capitol attack are bad Christians. Their actions have no connection to following Jesus Christ. The words of Jesus, and of the scriptures, condemn their actions. They are not beyond forgiveness. But what they did is not Christian, not justified, not justifiable. They have put a terrible blot of shame upon the name of the man who died for his enemies. I do not mean to sound as if I think I am better than them; I’m a sinner too. But I think Christian leaders need to say this very clearly: These were not Christian actions, and they can’t be justified, or considered OK in the light of the Christian faith. Anyone who thinks they did this for Jesus, or because of Christianity, is horrifically mistaken.

How can I say for sure that those who attacked the capitol are bad Christians (to the extent that they claim to be Christians)? Let’s hear from Jesus Christ himself:

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42, ESV)

Was the election truly stolen? I have no idea. Does my ignorance shock you? My short response is this: in the Kingdom of God it doesn’t really matter. In the kingdom of God American politics are really not that significant. Christianity thrived for almost eighteen centuries without the USA. Certainly, America has been a force for a lot of good and freedom in the world. But let’s not get confused. Christianity and Americanness are two entirely separate things. The majority of the Christians in the world are not American. You can be a very good Christian without being American. Being a Christian is not synonymous with being an American patriot, nor vice versa. And most importantly, America might need God, but God doesn’t need America. What I’m trying to say, is that even if America becomes the most evil nation ever to exist, God’s plans will not be thwarted.

And so, what if the election really was stolen? What then? The words of Jesus are clear:  Then do not resist the one who is evil. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Jesus’ words, not mine. We can’t claim to be his good followers while we disobey his teachings.

When I was in seminary there was a movement in theology that I felt was both wrong and dangerous. It was called liberation theology. The main idea behind it was that Jesus had come to bring political liberation to the oppressed. Therefore, the main point of Christianity, (according to liberation theology) was to work for the liberation of the poor, and the righting of injustice.

Liberation Theology was wrong, not because it fought injustice, but because it thought that was the point of being a Christian. Throughout its 2,000 year history, Christianity has indeed been the greatest force in the world to help the oppressed and to work for justice. If you aren’t Christian, that statement may surprise you, but it is true. Even many people today who are not Christians, and who work against injustice, may not realize that they are motivated by values that come from the teachings of Jesus.

Even so, Jesus also taught that his kingdom is not of this world, and the most important things are not to be found in this life. Jesus makes life worthwhile for his people even when we suffer unjustly, even if we never, in this mortal life, receive justice. The good that we can experience in the life to come is so overwhelmingly wonderful that Paul writes:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (ESV, Romans 8:18-25)

Clearly, our main hope is not in this life. Real Christians wait patiently for what we do not see – in other words, for our eternal hope. The sufferings we have in this life are not worth mentioning. If you can even legitimately call an allegedly stolen election “suffering,” it is not worth mentioning, let alone worth marching on the capitol, or taking it over. Our hope is not in Donald Trump, nor in any political leader that might arise in the future. Our hope is not even in an objective, fair election process.

I say again – anyone who claims that they did this because of their Christian faith does not understand what it means to be a Christian. As a Christian leader, a solemnly called and ordained teacher of the Bible, I call any Christians who were involved with the shameful events of January 6, 2021, to repent of your reckless, unchristian behavior, which gives a bad name to Jesus Christ. I beg other Christian leaders to make the same call.

When the locals brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Listen to what Jesus said:

36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world (ESV, John 18:36)

Jesus said if his kingdom was about this world, then yes, his followers would be fighting. But his kingdom is not primarily about this world, and therefore he stopped his followers from fighting. When Peter used his sword as they came to arrest Jesus, Jesus rebuked him for it:

52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (ESV, Matthew 26:52-53)

 Yes the values of God’s eternal kingdom lead us to peacefully seek justice for all, particularly the oppressed. Yes the kingdom values lead us to make this world a better place. But this world is not the point. This life is not “about” this life. Our real kingdom is waiting for us in eternity. Therefore, the followers of Jesus do not use violence to establish the kingdom. It would be pointless to do so, because that kingdom is already established in eternity. It is not a kingdom on this version of the earth.

What about our rights? Shouldn’t we fight if they come to take away our rights? Once again, let’s hear from Jesus himself:

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Arenʼt two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Fatherʼs will. 30 Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. 31 So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows. (ESV, Matthew 10:28-31)

I want to make sure we understand something. It is not wrong to defend our bodies or homes or loved ones from attack. But violence does not advance the kingdom of God. It is not the way that God achieves his agenda on this earth. In some extreme cases it may be unavoidable. But we are horribly wrong if we think violence is an acceptable way for us to bring about God’s purposes.

It is important to understand something about how Jesus was put to death. His enemies made him out (falsely) to be a revolutionary, someone who was leading people to rebel against the government at that time. Do you hear me? It was his enemies who tried to portray him that way. Those enemies tried to get Jesus to say something seditious when they brought up the matter of taxes.

17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 27:17)

Actually, the people paid taxes not only to Caesar, but also to Herod. Herod was a terrible despot, a dictator who crushed the people with taxes, and built lavish palaces for himself. Caesar, of course, was Tiberius, the Roman emperor at the time. He wasn’t the worst of the Caesars during the first century (for instance, not as bad as Nero, Caligula or Domitian) but he was neither fair, nor just, nor concerned for the welfare of the common people in his empire. He was a dictator who held absolute power. What do you think? Should we pay taxes to a pair of dictators who crushed the people without concern for life or freedom? Let’s see what Jesus says:

 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (ESV Matthew 22:18-21)

When he says “unto God the things that are  God’s” he is referring to the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. So he is saying, “yes, pay your taxes. Don’t worry about the government. Worry about your relationship with God.”

The apostle Peter wrote two letters. In Christian theology, the entire New Testament is considered to be the teaching of Jesus. It isn’t just the words in red (words spoken by Jesus, specifically) – we believe that all of the New Testament was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The apostles did not invent things – they passed on the teachings of Jesus. So, what is the teaching of Jesus about government, passed on through Peter?

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (ESV, 1 Peter 2:13-17)

Who was this wonderful emperor that Peter wrote about, the one who was in charge at that time? It was almost certainly Nero, the man who was later responsible for Peter’s own death. There is evidence that Nero also had a party in which he lit up the grounds of his palace by setting Christians on fire.

By the way, there are some people who believe that this riot was actually started by far-left activists who were pretending to be Trump supporters, in order to give them a bad name. What if that is true? Go back to Peter’s instructions, and remember that when Rome was ravaged by fire, Nero and his officials falsely blamed Christians for it (this was his justification for burning Christians as human torches). Yet, Peter tells Christians to honor Nero and his government as far as possible, and the Holy Spirit preserved those instructions for us, even after Nero had done those unspeakable things.

Now, Peter did say, earlier in his life “We must obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29).” That statement was made when the authorities ordered he and John to stop telling people about Jesus. Peter understood godly disobedience. When the authorities try to prevent us from obeying Jesus, we must obey Jesus, and not the authorities. When they try to compel us to do what is sinful, or wrong then we must disobey.

Can anyone make a case that the capitol mob was somehow being prevented from obeying Jesus? I can’t. Can anyone make a case that somehow, the authorities were compelling them to sin, or disobey Jesus? Again, I think you would find that extremely tough sledding.

Godly disobedience is for when the government says we can’t worship Jesus, or tell others about him. It is for when people tell us we can’t have or read Bibles, or pray to Jesus. Also, godly disobedience is non-violent. We don’t attack. We don’t even defend. We merely refuse to do what is wrong, and continue to do what is right. What happened on January 6th, 2021 in Washington DC has nothing to do with godly disobedience. It is not Christian, and all true Christians ought to be broken and repentant that there were people present who thought they were true believers.

By the way, I am not concerned about any of the people in our churches and network. But I want us to be clear about this when we speak to others. I would like us to be a part of a chorus of strong Christian voices that rise up to condemn these actions as not-Christian. I want us to be part of a movement to stop the confusion between American patriotism and Christianity, particularly the kind of radical “patriotism” that resulted in the storming of the capitol.

I want us to call the church at large to remember that our greatest treasure is Jesus, and we can never lose Him, no matter what the government does or doesn’t do. I want us to remind our brothers and sisters that we live not for this life, but the one to come. The same restraint that teaches us to say “no” to sin for the joy that awaits us should teach us to be patient and at peace with whatever the political situation is at present. If Jesus and Peter could ignore the despotism under which they lived, surely we can handle a few years of control by a political party we don’t like.

By the way, just in case someone might dismiss my words with “He’s just another one of those Christian progressives,” let me set you straight. As far as Christianity goes, I believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible in the original documents, and there is a wealth of evidence that those original documents have been reliably preserved. That’s a solid, mainstream conservative position, and I hold it because I have studied the Bible for so long. Everything else I believe proceeds from my belief in the significance of the Bible. As far as politics go, I believe in limited central government, and am a passionate supporter of the first and second amendments in particular, and of the constitution in general. You might accurately call me an independent libertarian, though with some differences. A progressive I am not. But before, during and after any sort of politics, I am a Christian first, second, and always. My allegiance – and that of all who call themselves Christians – should be first to Jesus, and Jesus alone. No country, no political party or philosophy or system should ever be able to make us compromise what it means to follow Him.

I know many people are angry and upset about this election, and they feel like this is the beginning of the end. But truthfully, we should not be so shaken by something like earthly politics. In fact, Hebrews says:

28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful. (CSB, Hebrews 12:28)

I’m afraid many Christians have forgotten that our kingdom is not of this world, and nothing can shake it. Listen to the words of Paul:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. 18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, CSB)

We Christians are first, and foremost, citizens of heaven. Earthly citizenship cannot change that, and all earthly citizenship should be modified by the fact that we belong to Jesus first. Yes, our heavenly future motivates us to work for peace and justice here and now, but the way we go about that should reflect the fact that we are already secure in the kingdom of God.

Let the Holy Spirit apply these scriptures to your heart today.

THE BEAUTY OF MALE AND FEMALE, PART 2

Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya on Pexels.com

These instructions to men and women teach us to die to our own self-centeredness, and live for others. They also they point us to the incredible love and sacrifice of Jesus.

COLOSSIANS To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Colossians Part 33

Colossians #33  Col 3:18-19 PART B

Last time we looked at Colossians, we considered the fact that God created our genders deliberately, and with a purpose. The Bible teaches us how to work with that fact in loving each other and following Jesus. The latest science decisively confirms that human beings are gendered to the core. However, because we are all made in the image of God, gender is something even deeper than biology. Women and men are made to relate to one another in a way that shows the world something of the glory of God. This happens in all sorts of contexts, not just marriage.

By the way, I want to be sure we acknowledge and recognize that some people have difficulties in coming to terms with their biological gender. As Christians, we must have compassion and grace for people who have these difficulties. Our churches should be safe places for such folks, places where there will be no insults or cruel words. The facts of science and biology do not change the very real emotional struggles that some people have.

At the same time, as Christians, we should not compromise what the bible says. In the case of gender, science is also crystal clear. Our call is to speak the truth, but to do so in love. Simply agreeing with whatever anyone thinks is not loving– often that is actually cowardice. We are afraid of getting flak, or of being seen as hateful, or we want to be “on the right side of history.” But it is when we disagree with someone that true love can be shown. Jesus pointed out that naturally, anyone loves his friends. But real Christian love can occur when we care for people and respect them as human beings even when they disagree with us, even when they make choices that we think are wrong. Real love, deep love, always wants the best for others, even when those others may not recognize or agree with what “the best” means. So it is my ongoing hope and prayer that anyone at all would feel welcomed by our house churches, and also that in our house churches anyone at all would come face to face with the truth of the gospel, which is that we need to repent, turn away from all sin and self-centeredness, and surrender all to Jesus, receiving his grace and forgiveness.

The Bible claims to be God’s special revelation to humankind. It comes through human authors, but it originates with God. In short, it is God’s Word to us. One of the things the bible tells us is that all human beings have sinned, and our thoughts, attitudes and desires are often corrupted by sin. If this is true, it means that the bible will contradict and challenge some of our thoughts, attitudes and desires. Since every human culture was developed by sinful human beings, the Bible will challenge every culture at some point or another.

One of the most difficult things in understanding the Bible is learning to recognize our own cultural biases, and being willing to consider things that challenge our “normal” way of looking at the world.

The culture of Papua New Guinea when I was growing up was one that highly valued both debts and vengeance. The economy of that culture was based upon people owing each other favors, and sometimes people owing each other revenge. For that culture, accepting what the Bible says about forgiveness – especially forgiving and loving enemies – was challenging and difficult.

Texts like ours today in Colossians about men and women present a challenge to 21st Century Western culture. Our culture does not see gender the way the Bible teaches us to see it. In addition, our society encourages us to be highly sensitive about the possibility that someone or something is oppressing women (or, in fact, oppressing any one of several different categories of people). I’m not saying that is always a bad thing to be sensitive to this, but we should be aware of our own biases  when we read a text like this one. In case you think I am wrong, and you believe that our culture is more likely to oppress women than to be worried about oppressing them, let me give an example.

There has been a great deal of awareness raised about the fact that more men than women are involved in Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). More men than women get degrees in STEM fields, and work in those types of careers.

A few years ago the Microsoft Windows lock screen was used to raise awareness about the fact that the STEM fields are dominated by men. These days, scholarships, internships and opportunities abound for women interested in STEM education and careers. In addition to all that, there are vast numbers of organizations and foundations which exist to help women especially get both bachelor’s and graduate degrees in all fields. There is constant awareness-raising for women’s education.

However, the truth is, women have far outpaced men in education for more than forty years. Since 1980, far more women than men have gone to college and received degrees at all levels. Women dominate many different academic fields. On average, female college professors make more money than their male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience.

The average male high school senior reads at the same level as the average female eighth-grader. Grade school boys are disciplined and reprimanded more than twice as often as girls. Boys and men have fallen far behind in every academic area except STEM.

So, where are the organizations and foundations trying to create more opportunities for men in the arts and humanities? Where are the endowments for specifically male writers, or the scholarships for men to make up the gap in literature, or sociology or history? Where are the windows lockscreens agonizing over the fact that men don’t even go to college as often as women, let alone graduate with a degree?

I will say it again: our culture is primed to expect women to be oppressed. Am I saying that women are never oppressed? Of course not! But I am saying that when it comes to gender and sexuality, our culture has a chip on its collective shoulder. We are waiting to get angry about gender injustice, even in cases where the facts say there is no issue there. So, take a deep breath. Recognize that we may not be totally objective about gender issues. Try to be conscious of our cultural biases while we deal with these verses.

In order to avoid knocking the chip off our shoulder, I will deal first with what these verses are telling men to do and be. Again, however, I want to make sure that we recognize the cultural biases that make it necessary to take these verses out of order. For you women, as you read, look past these instructions to men, and recognize and remember the great love that Jesus has for you.

With that long introduction, let’s look at this verse, and then one that says the same thing, but with more detail. For our verse today, I provide my own translation:

You husbands, love your wives sacrificially, and do not cause them to be grieved, or make their lives bitter.

And then, the expanded instructions come from Ephesians 5:22-33:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (ESV, Ephesians 5:22-33)

The New Testament uses three different Greek words for love. There is eros (air-rohs), which is romantic/sexual love; phileo (fil-lay-oh), which is brotherly/friendship love; and agape (uh-gah-pay), which is self-sacrificing love. Husbands are told to agape their wives. Agape is the way God loves us. Jesus provided the ultimate example of agape when he suffered on the cross, died, and suffered hell on our behalf. He did not need to do any of it for himself. It cost him everything to love us this way. This, my dear brothers, is how we husbands must love our wives. We love, even when it costs us dearly, when it costs us our own comfort, our own desires, yes, even if it costs our own well-being.

We men are to sacrifice for our wives. We are to cherish them and nourish them physically, spiritually and emotionally. Jesus is not passive in the way he loves the church. He pursues us. He gently, but purposefully moves into our lives, giving us opportunities to trust him. So we too should relationally pursue our wives, purposefully seeking to deepen and strengthen our connection. As Jesus led through self-sacrifice and service, so we too are called to lead – not by commanding or controlling, but by serving like Jesus did.

Men are often consistent in pursuing their wives sexually, because that is something that we want. But we must also pursue a deep relational and emotional connection with our wives, to seek to meet their needs as diligently and consistently as we seek to meet our own.

Just in case we miss the point, let’s use some concrete examples. You are both tired from a hard day. You sit down together, with no energy, but someone needs to do something about supper. As a husband, loving your wife like Jesus loves the church, what is your response to this situation? I think most often it should be that you, called to love sacrificially, take responsibility for dinner. Now, that doesn’t rule out ordering pizza, but it should mean that you serve your wife by taking care of the thing that nobody wants to deal with.

Or suppose your wife feels the need to talk about something, even perhaps, just how her day went. You are tired, or there is something else you want to do, or maybe even the game is on. Sometimes sacrificial love means giving her time and attention when you really don’t feel like it. By the way it wouldn’t be wrong to ask her if you could have the conversation after the game you want to watch is over, but be sure she’s OK with that, and be sure to follow through.

Sacrificial love for your wife may mean that you get up and deal with your daughter’s nightmare, or the cat’s throw-up. It may mean that you take responsibility for caring for the house, or doing the finances. In our case, Kari wants to be part of handling the bills, but we discuss our finances and make decisions together, and it is understood that if she doesn’t want to work (and is willing to take a hit in our standard of living) she doesn’t have to.

Above all, sacrificial love means you men accept responsibility for your life together as husband and wife. Leaning on Jesus and all of his power, you do your best to make sure that your wife feels loved, safe, and secure, to the extent that you can. I can’t make Kari feel at peace with everything, but I can make sure that her lack of peace isn’t because of me. I can’t make her feel secure, but I can ensure that she isn’t insecure because of me.

One aspect for men of loving sacrificially is that this also encourages men to be actively involved. If we are supposed to love like Jesus, it means we ought to be pursuing our wives, and actively leading our families closer to Jesus. Obviously, we won’t do those things perfectly, but we are to try. Coming home, watching TV and offering up one-syllable responses to your wife’s conversation are not usually consistent with loving your wife sacrificially.

Too many men prefer not to take a stand, or take ownership. Sometimes, we’re afraid of messing up, and we think our wives probably know better than us anyway, so let them do it. But that is not legitimate sacrificial love. Sometimes we don’t really know what to do, and we forget to ask Jesus. Sometimes, we’re just plain lazy, and it’s easier to be passive than to try, and then fail anyway. It feels safe if we don’t have to lead. But we men don’t have that luxury. We are supposed to love our wives to such an extent that they are the ones who feel safe, because they know that we will care for them as much as we care for ourselves, we will love them, even if it means hardship for ourselves.

By the way, women, you don’t get to take these words and taunt your husband with them. These words are not here for you to say: “Hah! You are supposed to love me sacrificially, so here’s my honey-do list, and be sure not to wake me up from my nap when you’re done.” These words are spoken from the Lord to the men, and I think it is meant for men to struggle through what it means to apply them. Your turn will come next.

The biggest threat to any marriage (actually to any relationship at all) is the fact that all of us are deeply self-centered. We are focused on ourselves, on our own needs, what we want, and what it takes to get our wants and needs satisfied. The verses here are meant to destroy our self-centeredness. Men, you don’t get to be passive and coast through life doing as little as necessary. You don’t get to demand whatever you want from your wife. Neither do you get to check out, and ignore your responsibilities. Instead, you die to yourself by loving her sacrificially. You allow the Holy Spirit to put to death your self-centeredness by learning to love your wife selflessly. When you do that, you are doing your part to show the world the glory of God.

The model for men is Jesus Christ. Now of course, husbands, you will never be able to love your wives as well as Jesus loves all of us. However, Jesus invites you to lean on him, and allow Him to work through you and in you, so that you don’t love your wives from your own strength, but from all the resources that Jesus has. Ask him to help you, and lean on him as you love your wives.

For both men and women, our attention is supposed to be directed away from ourselves, and to Jesus. Like a perfect husband, he makes us, his people, secure. We know we are loved, and safe. He has provided all that is needed for forgiveness and a life of eternal joy in Him. He is patient with us, and He loves us, not because of what we do for him, but rather because he has decided to do so, and nothing will sway him from that commitment. He didn’t wait for us to come to come to him – he died for us while we were still enemies of God. Let’s remember God’s grace to us through Jesus, and thank him for it.

This is Not How it was Supposed to Be

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

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

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

Christmas 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or was he?

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

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

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

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

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

(NLT, Romans 8:28-30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #4: SECOND CHRISTMAS

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

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

2 Peter 3:1-18.  Advent Week 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

ADVENT #3: STAYING FILLED

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Sometimes it can feel like the Christian life might be a bit repetitive and boring. But we cannot live on continual excitement. We have to keep returning to get our spiritual fuel replenished, and sometimes that involves very ordinary, everyday sorts of things. Part of being ready for Jesus involves being faithful, day in, and day out. If we seek Him, he has the resources we need to remain faithful and ready.

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 3

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This the the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

Back in those days, weddings were a very big deal. Many people were bone-cracking poor, but a wedding gave them a genuine reason to celebrate. In addition, most people were likely to get a lot more food at weddings than they usually would. In some cases the feast would go on for seven days, so those who were lucky enough to partake, may have counted on a wedding to help them through hungry times. All in all you might say that folks looked forward to a wedding the way we might look forward to… Christmas. Interesting, right?

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. After that year was concluded, there was a procession, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (not exactly bridesmaids as we think of them, but close enough). The “bridesmaids” all carried lamps, or torches made from oil-soaked rags. Generally, these lights burned for about 15 minutes. When the bridegroom came, they formed a lighted procession around him, which traveled to the home of the bride. While they went along, others joined them, it became kind of a traveling party. They arrived at the Bride’s home, and she joined her husband, and from there, they all paraded joyfully back to the house of the groom. Immediately, the feast and week-long celebration began.

Jesus describes ten bridesmaids. They probably had their lamps lit in expectation of the bridegroom, because he says “they went out to meet the groom.” But he was delayed. Remember, this is a third world country, two-thousand years ago, before the invention of clocks or watches. Things happened when they happened. Usually, they happened on the correct day, but it was very hard to nail people down to specific times. Anyway, while they waited, either their lamps went out, or they eventually put them out. The groom was so long in coming that they fell asleep. When at last he came, they lit their lights again. Five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil, and their lights were replenished, and ready to burn for as long as was necessary again. But the five others had no light left. By the time they had found oil, it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

Jesus tells this story as part of his teaching about his eventual return to earth. Most parables are told just to make a few simple points, and this is no exception.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message is here simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the Ultimate Wedding Feast, the return of Jesus.

Often, when you start your spiritual life with Jesus, it is very exciting. It changes everything. Sometimes, we experience a renewal of our faith, and that is also very exhilarating. But we can’t live on excitement forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. At some point, the rubber meets the road. The bridesmaids were thinking, “I thought something was supposed to happen by now. This is dull, and boring.” It’s easy for us to begin to feel that way, spiritually.

However, we need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. Going to work, coming home, running errands, spending time in Christian Fellowship, serving others. It can feel like we get stuck in a rut, sometimes. And sometimes we do get in an unproductive rut. However, far more often, it is not a rut, it is just real life, and we need to be faithful, patient and persevering.

To make it through times like that, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we have seen somewhat recently, the apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

We know the basics, right? We need to be regularly reading, or listening to, the Bible. We need to be regularly connected with other Christians in genuine fellowship, and worship the Lord together with them. We need to allow the Lord to use our lives to serve others. Some of that is what feels like a rut, sometimes, but we cannot hope to keep our lamps full without these things.

There are other things that can be added to these to help us. I think these others things could be different for different people. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Desiirng God” by Jon Piper, or, “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, or “The Pursuit of God” by AW Tozer, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I have also found that the Lord often refills me through new music. I get refilled by being in nature, by thinking and writing.

Other folks get refilled in different ways – by exercising, or by making something with their hands, or writing poetry. For some it comes through times of concentrated prayer and fasting. Fasting is always good to try, if you are really stuck. Others, obviously, find it very useful to listen to sermons on the TV, radio, or the Internet. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

Finally the time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

ADVENT #2: THE SEASON

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

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 2

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

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

Advent Week 2. Matthew 24:36-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 6:1-2 adds this thought:

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

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

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

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