LENT #5: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF THE HARD WAY

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

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 5

LENT #5. LUKE 4:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Holy Spirit speak in your heart right now.

LENT #4: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF TEMPTATION

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

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

LENT #4. LUKE 4:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LENT #3: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF BEING ALONE

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It is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow Him to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 3

LENT #3: SOLITUDE

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil.

(Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

I want to remind you that we are not doing our normal verse-by-verse exposition of this Bible passage. Instead, this is a topical series, centered around the season of Lent, and using Luke 4:1-13 as a kind of jumping off point to consider various spiritual disciplines that go along with Lent, and also certain temptations. So, for instance, this time we will talk about solitude. I don’t mean to imply that the spiritual discipline of solitude is one of the main concerns of Luke 4:1-13 – though obviously, Jesus was alone for forty days, that isn’t the main point Luke is making. However, also obviously, Jesus was alone, and there are other Bible verses about solitude, and so we’ll use the event of Jesus’ solitude here as a starting point for thinking about the spiritual discipline of solitude.

I promise you, we will get to verses 3-13 before Lent is over! I didn’t actually plan it this way (I wish I was that smart) but this is turning out to be a sermon series about finding grace in unexpected ways. We’ve talked about the unforeseen grace of suffering. Last time, we considered the unanticipated grace of being hungry – where we talked about fasting.  Today we will look at one more surprising way to encounter God’s grace – through solitude.

So, as mentioned, Jesus spent forty days alone at the beginning of his ministry. Just in case we might say “well, it doesn’t explicitly say there was no one else there,” Mark gives us these details:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

(Mark 1:12-13, ESV)

Being with the wild animals did not mean that he had a pack of friendly wolves keeping him warm at night. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, most humans around the globe considered wild beasts to be a huge threat to human life and flourishing. To readers in the first century, the mention of wild animals meant deadly danger and terror. To be with the wild animals meant that he was utterly alone with all the perils that exist apart from the help of other human beings. Mark mentions the angels that ministered to him, but Luke and Matthew record that the angels came only after his temptation was finished. Even if the angels were with him the whole time, believing there are unseen spirits sent by God to help you is not the same as having another human being there with you, someone whom you can see and hear and speak with.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it bears repeating. Part of why Jesus was able to be the perfect substitute for human beings on the cross is because during his time on earth, he limited himself to the confines of his human nature. God-the-Son joined his divine nature with human nature in the person of Jesus. And prior to his resurrection, Jesus did not use his divine nature. Instead, he depended upon the Father and the Spirit for all things, just like all humans must do. He could have used his divine power to protect himself, or to find strength during those forty days. However, he set aside that divine nature, not using it, instead living as all humans must live, in faith in God the Father and God the Spirit. Philippians chapter 2 makes this clear:

6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

(Philippians 2:6-8, NLT)

So Jesus committed himself to using only human resources. Jesus, limiting himself to his human nature during his time on earth, could not sense the angels any better than you or I. And, limited to human resources, he spent forty days alone.

This is not the only time Jesus sought solitude, by the way. Many times, throughout the gospels, it records Jesus going off alone to pray by himself.

35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” (Mark 1:35-37, ESV)

12 During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, CSB)

5 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16, ESV)

18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18, NKJV)

13 When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matthew 14:13, HCSB. [The “it” that Jesus heard about was the death of John the Baptist])

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Matthew 14:23, ESV)

All of these are separate events, by the way. Clearly, even though many people wanted his presence all the time, Jesus made it a priority to spend significant time alone. He was not the only person in the Bible who did this, by the way. Jacob was alone in the wilderness when he had his vision (which we sometimes call “Jacob’s Ladder”). Jacob was again alone when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. Moses spent roughly a third of his life in a desolate wilderness. He was not alone all the time, but as a shepherd, he probably spent significant time by himself (Exodus 3:1).

David spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness, when he was a shepherd. In fact, anyone who was a shepherd in ancient times spent many days at a time apart from other human beings, so we have to add the prophet Amos to the list of people who often spent time alone. The prophet Elijah spent a long time alone, at least two different times. So did John the Baptist, prior to Jesus.

Jesus himself invited the disciples to spend time apart from others, with just him:

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

(Mark 6:30-32, ESV)

We know that very early on in the history of Christianity, many were practicing the spiritual discipline of solitude. Some people took it too far, and withdrew from all community, but that is not what Jesus modeled. It is clear from the Bible that all Christians need to be firmly rooted in Christian community. But there is also need for each of us to be connected to Jesus ourselves, on our own, not only through others.

Like many things in the Christian life, there is a balance here. I have preached before about the importance of Christian community. Let’s not forget there is also an importance to spending time alone with God, with no one else around.

I will freely admit that solitude is the easiest of the spiritual disciplines for me. I crave time alone, and I look forward to it. I have had to learn, and to discipline myself, to be deeply connected to Christian community, to be involved in the lives of others. So, in the same way, perhaps being connected to others is easy for you, but you might need to learn, and discipline yourself, to spend time in solitude with God. Jesus certainly showed us that is important, and, as with fasting, Christians throughout the past two thousand years have practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude.

Some of you may have engaged in this before, but I want to make sure to help everyone understands solitude, even if you are a “beginner,” so I’ll start with the basics.

If you are a real “people person,” or if you are a parent of young children, you may need to start with just a few hours alone – say, half a day. If you are struggling with depression, it may not be the best time to start practicing the discipline of solitude – although, there is a possibility it could help. Use caution and good judgment if you are depressed.

It is best if you can do it someplace other than your home, so you aren’t distracted by things you could be doing, but sometimes you may not have an option. If you have a greater tolerance for being alone, you should maybe consider camping remotely, or renting a cabin that is physically distant from your home, and spending a night, and then a whole day, alone with God. My typical times of solitude for the past twenty-five years have been three or four nights, and thus two or three entire days alone, though I have spent as much as eight days alone in a cabin two miles from the nearest (dirt) road. I try to get at least a couple days alone at least once a year, though I prefer twice.

The intention of solitude is to spend time together with God apart from time with anyone else, apart from things that distract you from the presence of God. There are some practical implications here. During your time of solitude you should plan to be out of touch with people and the world – no phone, no texting, no social media or internet. Don’t use the time to catch up on work – this is time for you and God.

What you actually do, or don’t do, during the time, depends in part on how much time you have, and on what helps you connect with the presence of God. If you are spending only a couple of hours, I would suggest maybe reading a chapter of the Bible, then doing a short devotional reading, and then spending time sitting in silence, in conscious recognition of God’s presence. After that, maybe you could walk, and pray out loud to God with no one else around.

When I take two or three days of solitude, I usually bring along one or more Christian books. Sometimes I have a particular thing I might want to hash over with God during the time, so I’ll bring a book specifically about that topic. I’ll read more slowly than usual, and often pause, and – this may sound weird – talk with God about what I’m reading. For a time of two or three days I usually also take along a couple fiction books. This is because when I have that much time, I spend it not only consciously doing “spiritual things,” but also relaxing in God’s presence through reading, hiking, and fishing. For me, reading is not a distraction, but an engagement with God. When Kari and I go away together, we don’t spend every second staring into one-another’s eyes. Sometimes we are both reading something in the same room. The fact that we are reading does not altar the fact that we are also together. So, when I have a good amount of solitude time (two days, or more) I do have periods that are less directly focused on God, and yet the entire time is imbued with an awareness that it is just God and me, together.

Sometimes in solitude, I have long periods of silence. But I also listen to music at times, because that often opens a spiritual window to God in my heart. The main idea is to have a block of time that is dedicated to spending with God. The way you spend that time might vary, but the  most important thing is to set aside anything that distracts you from God’s presence: phone, internet, other people, and so on.

You may sometimes get together with a good friend, or go away with your spouse. When you do that, you might turn off your phones, and use the time to focus on that relationship. That’s exactly what you are doing with times of intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude does require some adjustment, however. The first couple hours of being alone, you are very likely to feel like you are wasting time, and to think that what you are doing is silly and pointless. You’ll end up thinking about stuff you should do, and people you need to talk to. You won’t feel like it is spiritually productive at all. This is normal. It is part of the process of solitude. If you simply allow these feelings to happen, and continue to be alone with God, eventually, all the stuff going through your head will begin to quiet down. You will begin to settle in to a quiet refreshing place with the presence of God.

Many people feel lonely during times of solitude. This too, is normal, and actually can be very helpful for your spiritual life. We cram our lives so full of people, activities and things, that we seldom stop to simply recognize our own selves, and the presence of God. Intentional loneliness helps us to slow down, and see our need for God, our dependence upon him. It gives us perspective that is almost impossible to get otherwise in this insanely busy modern world.

When you are constantly in touch with everyone you know, constantly connected to news, and social events, and even to the random thoughts of acquaintances you haven’t seen for years, it wears out your soul. The human soul was made for connection with other humans. But it was also made for connection with God, and sometimes, in order to have that, we desperately need to be alone with God, without other distractions.

If you are never alone with just yourself and God, you will never really know the state of your own heart and soul. Socrates is famous for saying these words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But even before he said that, Solomon, the wisest man in the world, said something very much like it:

8 The sensible person’s wisdom is to consider his way,
but the stupidity of fools deceives them.

(Proverbs 14:8, CSB)

In other words, it is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow God to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem. David, Solomon’s father, wrote this:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the everlasting way.

(Psalms 139:23-24, HCSB)

He understood the importance of time alone with God, time for God to use your own mind to dig into your soul and bring up things that need to be addressed. Elsewhere, he wrote this:

9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

(Psalms 32:9, ESV)

When we never separate from the world and take time alone with God, we are being like a mule. We are not letting God guide us, or address things in our lives that need addressing. As scary as it may be sometimes, we need to stop and find out what is in our souls. We don’t have to be afraid, because God is with us as we do that.

Jesus went into the loneliness of exile from Heaven on our behalf. For what felt to him on earth like an entire lifetime, he was apart from the light and joy and fellowship that was normally his in Heaven. His going apart, his separation from the fellowship of heaven, accomplished the most wonderful thing possible for us – our salvation.

God does not ask us to separate from himself. But at times, it may be vitally necessary for us to have time set apart to allow Him to draw us closer.

Please listen to this song, written and recorded by my wife, Kari. It might be another way of encouraging you to find value in time alone with God.

To listen to the song, click the play button:

LENT #2: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF HUNGER

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent 2

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

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

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

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

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)

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

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

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

(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)

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

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

Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LENT #1: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF SUFFERING

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God the Father made it quite clear that he was pleased with Jesus. It is certain that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. And yet, the Father’s approval, and the Spirit’s leading brought Jesus into a wilderness where he had nothing to eat, and had to battle with the devil. Our circumstances are not a reliable guide to understanding how God feels about us. Often, God leads us into suffering, because he is treating us as his children; treating us, in fact, exactly how he treated Jesus.

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

Lent 2022 #1. Luke 4:1-4

On March 2, this year, we entered the church-season of Lent. The “church year” with its various seasons – like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. – is not found in the Bible. It was developed over time, in conjunction with “church festivals.” Church festivals include days like Christmas, Pentecost, Resurrection (Easter), All Saints, and also days celebrating the lives of various famous Christians. The church year developed as church leaders found it useful to remember different important parts of the Bible, and to highlight certain Biblical themes and events. Eventually, by the middle ages, the lives of most people in Europe revolved around the church year, and the various festivals of the church. It was helpful, at that time, for people to have their lives rooted and grounded in the Church year. The rhythms of their lives, all year round, were deeply attached to themes and holidays that reminded them of God. The very word “holiday” actually comes from the phrase “holy day.”

There are negatives to the church year. The seasons and festivals of the church year are associated with various Bible readings. Eventually, the Church began to focus only on those particular Bible readings, which were chosen by human beings to create the church year. Most people did not have their own Bibles, so they only heard the Bible when it was read at church. Because of the way the church year is structured, no one ever heard a whole Biblical book read in order – that is, in context. Not only that, but the readings of the church year (called “the lectionary,” or “the pericope” [pronounced per-ik-uh-pee]) leave out well over half of the Bible. Many pastors only preach on the lectionary, which means, in such churches, there is over half the Bible that you will never hear taught or explained. When pastors preach on the lectionary, it is, by necessity, preaching out of context. I know some pastors who would argue that the lectionary, along with the church year, is the context, but those are man-made contexts, not the context given by the Bible itself.

All of this is good to know, and important to take into consideration. The church year is man-made, neither created by, nor demanded by the Bible. Paul writes this, in Colossians:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

(Colossians 2:16-19, NLT)

It is easy to see how those verses apply to the church year. But there is another aspect also. We should not judge those who do find the church year helpful. In addition, the church year is the product of centuries of thoughtful consideration. Times have changed, of course, but I think sometimes we in the 21st century are perhaps too quick to dismiss ancient Christian practices that followers of Jesus found helpful in former times. Even today, millions of people find the church year helpful for following Jesus. I do think it has its deficiencies, but I also want us to be able to draw from what is good and helpful in Christian tradition.

All that is a very long way of saying that this year, I would like to at least experiment with following a church-season – in particular, the season of Lent. I do not intend to follow the church year always, but I do want to expose you to this ancient Christian tradition. As always, we will base it firmly in scripture. In fact, it is possible that we will spend all seven weeks of Lent in just one scripture passage, but we will see.

The season of Lent is arranged to last forty days, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness, and battling temptation, just before he began his world-changing ministry. It also echoes the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday, and end with Easter. We will begin this Lenten season by looking at that experience Jesus had in the wilderness.

1 Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

(Luke 4:1-4, CSB)

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has spent thirty-years living in obscurity, most of it in the town of Nazareth. Most sons in those days probably ended up doing whatever their fathers did for a living, so it is likely that Jesus was a builder, like Joseph. Now, at the age of thirty, led by the Spirit, he visits his cousin John, and is baptized by him. At his baptism, the Father made it known that He was pleased with Jesus. He affirmed Jesus in his Divine Sonship. And then, the first thing the Spirit leads Jesus to do is to go out into the wilderness, where he is to refrain from eating, and face the temptations of the devil.

There is an important point here. I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with the devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian who says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get easier as a result of this, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, he is often kind enough to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus. He usually uses suffering to help us absorb that message.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father had his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with  his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is angry at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him. And he ended up in a wasteland with no food, fighting the devil.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. Because we are in Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in the desert with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you – it comes to you through Jesus, which is to say, perfectly!

And here is one of the first lessons we can take from the season of Lent: there is a time and place in the Christian life for hardship and discipline. It is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s not because God is displeased with you, or that you need to get your act together. It is because that is the best possible thing for you, at this time.

I’ve come to this place with my own intense physical suffering. I have prayed, and received prayer for my suffering, including many types of prayer, and from many different people. I’ve tried literally dozens of things, medically. Yet I am still in pain. I trust therefore, that if God continues to allow it, it is because this difficult thing is, in fact, the very best thing for me. The writer of Hebrews addresses this same topic, telling us to consider the suffering of Jesus. His temptation in the wilderness was part of his earthly suffering:

3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:3-11, CSB)

God disciplines us for our benefit, so that we can share in his holiness. Though it isn’t pleasant at the time, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It is not punishment, but training; training in holiness. Most importantly, God deals with us this way because he loves us, because he considers us his children, bearers of his own name.

So here is the first lesson for this year’s Lenten season: allow God to use whatever hardship is in your life to bless you, and train you to share in his holiness. If you can alleviate your suffering, go ahead and do it. But if you find yourself dealing with some kind of hardship that you have no control over, perhaps you could be open to the idea that God will use it to bless you. God is treating you as a beloved child, as a member of the family.

All suffering is difficult. But not all suffering needs to be evil.

Let me say this again, because many 21st century American Christians don’t really know this, or want to accept it: not all suffering is evil. In fact, when we are in Jesus, nothing that we suffer needs to be evil. Instead, the Father can use every bit of it to bless us, and to train us to share in His holiness.

We should not miss this fact, also: God didn’t just use the suffering that happened to come to Jesus as he went about life. There was plenty of hardship in the ordinary, everyday life of someone who lived in 1st Century Israel under the Roman empire. There was poverty the like of which most of us have never seen. There was injustice. There was hard work. There was no modern medicine, so even a headache was not easily solved. But God called Jesus deliberately into even more suffering.

I don’t believe we ought to go looking for ways to suffer. But we don’t need to fear it either, and we need to recognize that sometimes, God’s gracious hand is in the thing that causes us suffering. It is a tremendous comfort for me to know that I suffer because it is God’s best will for me. It is a wonderful joy to know that there is purpose in my pain, and it is accomplishing something in God’s Kingdom, even when I don’t understand it. I am being treated as God’s beloved child. I know this not only because of the Hebrews passage above, but because this is exactly how God dealt with Jesus Himself.

Let the Lord speak to you today about the joy and discipline and love that He can impart to you through whatever suffering he calls you to.

Let me add one final thought. I have heard many Christians say that they believe revival is coming to America. Many of the people who say this are people that I know and respect. But even as they are convinced that revival will come to the American church, I am convinced about the way it will come to us: through suffering. I cannot see any way that American Christians can come to a profound, life changing place in their faith, and have a significant impact on our culture, without suffering. I am more and more convinced that a time of suffering is coming to the church at large. When it comes, let us not be surprised by it. Peter, who knew what suffering  is, wrote:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12-13 (CSB)

Let us not be worried, or fearful, or dismayed. Jesus suffered, and part of following him, involves following him in suffering. It can be difficult, yes, but it is not bad, not evil. It might be the most wonderful thing God can do in us and through us.

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, CSB)

Once again, we see the connection between being a child of God, and being called to suffer.

During this time of Lent, let us use the season to prepare ourselves, to train our minds and hearts to recognize that suffering does not need to be evil, and it can actually accomplish much good for the kingdom of God. Let us use the practices of Lent to train ourselves, so that we recognize we are indeed God’s children, and he will use us in his kingdom, and in this world.

1 PETER #12: ORDINARY PRIESTS, SPIRITUAL SACRIFICES

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

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

1 Peter #12.  1 Peter 2:4-5

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

1 PETER 2:4-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Ephesians 4:11-16, NLT)

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

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

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

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

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

(1 Corinthians 12:4-7, HCSB)

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

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

(1 Corinthians 12:12-20, HCSB)

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

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

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

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

(Romans 8:18, HCSB)

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

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

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

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

(Romans 12:1-2, GNT)

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

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

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

Blessed be Your name.

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

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

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

1 PETER #11: DELICIOUS WORDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Romans 10:13-17, NLT)

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

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

(Romans 15:4, ESV)

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

(2 Timothy 3:14-17, HCSB)

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

(Hebrews 4:12-13, CSB)

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

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

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

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

(Psalms 34:8, ESV)

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

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

(Ezekiel 3:1-3, CSB)

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

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

(Jeremiah 15:16, CSB)

The writer of Psalm 119 felt exactly the same way:

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

(Psalms 119:102-103, HCSB)

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

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

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

Proverbs 4:11-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 PETER #10: THE TWO ESSENTIALS OF THE CHURCH – LOVE AND TRUTH.

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The two foundations of Christian community are truth and love. Truth without love does not reflect God’s nature, and often turns people off. Love without truth ends up not being real. It provides affirmation without actually being loving. In Christ, we find the perfect balance of both truth and love.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 10

1 Peter #10. 1 Peter 1:22-25

These verses provide us with the two essential foundations of what it means to live in community with other Christians. Often, we don’t realize that being part of a church is, according to the Bible, the same thing as being in community with other Christians. I don’t mean we have to live in the same neighborhood, or start a commune. But properly speaking, churches are gatherings of Christians who are committed to one another in Love and in Truth. These are the two things Peter addresses here.

He starts with love. In the first place, there is a group of people that we should differentiate from all others: those who have been purified by obedience to the truth. It means those who have accepted the truth about God and Jesus Christ in faith, and who submit to that truth in the way we live our lives. In short, love begins in the family of God: our first call, after we have begun to love God, is love our fellow Christians.

I know that some of you will get hung up on the way Peter words things here. The ESV reads: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth.” That makes it sound like we are the ones who have purified ourselves, and we’ve done it by obeying. First, the Greek word “obedience” carries a different set of ideas with it than our English term. One way to describe it might be: “listening attentively, with the intent to act on what is heard.” It is also very much related to submission, or compliance. So the idea is, we have heard the truth, and our intention is to act in accordance with what we have heard. We submit to the truth we have heard.

Second, we need to remember to interpret individual verses according to the whole teaching of the Bible. Therefore, we should not take it to mean that we have somehow made ourselves holy, or acceptable to God, by what we have done. We know from other, more clear verses, that this cannot be the case. It is God who justifies us, calls us, and purifies us. Any attempt to make ourselves holy is doomed to failure (See Galatians 2:16 & 3:10; Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 5:1-8 & 8:33-34 if you are not sure about this). For Peter’s point here, I’ll give you “Tom’s Explanatory Translation”:

Since you all have aligned yourselves with the reality (about God and Jesus Christ), submitting to that reality has purified you. You have brothers and sisters who have also been purified in this way, therefore, you must love one another like a good family; in fact, love one another sacrificially, with unwavering commitment.

I’ve said it before, and I will continue to repeat it: after loving God, our next priority as Christians is to love each other. Too many Christians seem to forget that the command of God is, in the first place, specifically about loving other Christians. It is not that we should ignore or hate people who aren’t believers, but rather, that we cannot effectively love those who aren’t Christians if we have not learned to love our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Love is a unique thing in that you actually develop more when you give it away. In other words, it is not like there is a finite amount of love, and if you love your fellow Christians, there won’t be enough for the world. No, our love for the world (people who don’t know Jesus) is supposed to overflow from our love for one another. In fact, this is a reflection of the love of God Himself. God, who is one being, exists in three Persons. The Father loves the Son and Spirit, and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. All of the love that God has for the world – that amazing love we talk about all the time – is merely the overflow, the excess, you might say, that comes out of the love between the Persons of God. So, in the same way, we are to love our fellow Christians first, and when we truly do that, it will overflow into love for the world. Contrary to some thinking, loving the world before loving other Christians does not convince the world. Jesus himself made this very clear:

34 “I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. 35 Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other.”

(John 13:34-35, God’s Word version)

The thing that convinces the world is not that we are trying to love them. No, it is our love for each other that says volumes to non-Christians. The nature of our love for each other makes us open to, and eager to find, new people with which to fellowship. But after loving God, our love must begin within His family. John reminded Christians of this in his first letter:

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

(1 John 2:9-11, HCSB)

Now, this last passage is worded very strongly, but we should remember a couple things. First, love is not a feeling – it is a commitment to value another. We can commit to value someone else even when we don’t really feel like it. Secondly, I believe that John’s words above are intended as a diagnosis, more than a prescription. What I mean is, if we are truly trusting Jesus and loving God, it will result in love for other believers. If, on the other hand, we have contempt for our fellow Christians, that is a symptom that helps us diagnose a problem. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the likely explanation is that we have not actually received the grace of Jesus Christ. The answer is not to try harder, or pretend to be loving. Instead, we need to examine our relationship with God himself.

I want to say this, also. When we make love into something too general, or we turn it into a kind of nice idea, it loses the force of real love. I am not asking you to love a bunch of Christians you have never met. Love the ones you know. Concentrate on loving the Christians with whom you have regular fellowship – for instance, those in your house church, or small group.

If you happen to be in a large church, you probably need to begin by finding a smaller group of Christians with whom you connect regularly. The kind of love that Peter is talking about involves actual, close, human contact. It involves taking care of one another when there are physical needs.

It also means being genuine with one another. When Peter writes about sincere love, the actual word used refers to masks worn by actors. We are supposed to take off our “masks” when we are with our Christian community. We need to be real with one another. Because of that loving each other will sometimes involve the messiness of dealing with each other’s foibles and weaknesses – and our own. This love is not supposed to be theoretical – it is practical. It is “doing life together.”

Let’s look now at the second essential part of Christian community: Truth. In the first place, it is only when we align ourselves with truth that we are able to love. We became part of God’s family through hearing the truth, and submitting to what we have heard, with the intention of living accordingly. Without truth, love is fake. Without THE Truth, our relationships with each other are not based on a solid foundation.

Peter explains that our love is based on the fact that we are born again through the truth of God’s living Word. Here again, by the way, is an affirmation that we do not some how impart holiness into ourselves – we are brought to spiritual life (born again) by God’s action, not our own. We also have Peter explaining the eternal nature of God’s living Word.

Many Christians call the Bible “God’s Word.” I am among them. I have shared before how it is unique among the world’s religious books, and, in fact, unique among all the books in the world. Of course the Bible is really like a whole shelf of books. It has been repeatedly verified in its historical details, to the point where it is the most reliable ancient document in existence for every period that it covers. On the other hand, no archaeological discovery has ever contradicted a historical detail in the Bible. In fact, my wife Kari (not knowing I was taking this particular tack for this sermon) just emailed me an article about how Biblical texts are actually helping scientists learn more about the earth’s magnetic field. In the article, I found this quote:

This isn’t the first time the Bible’s accuracy has been vindicated, of course. The Old Testament predicted the existence of ancient groups like the Hittites long before anyone discovered evidence of their culture. Its description of the assassination of the same Assyrian king Sennacherib matches the one his son, Esarhaddon, provides in his records. At the ruins of Jericho, many archeologists believe there is evidence of a sudden structural collapse, which would align with how the book of Joshua describes the city’s destruction.

Of course, many mysteries remain about how the many pieces of the archeological record fit with the Biblical one. But in the words of archeologist and Jewish scholar Nelson Gluek, “[It] may be clearly stated categorically that no archeological discovery has ever controverted a single Biblical reference.” Yet, “scores of archeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.”

(https://www.christianpost.com/voices/the-bibles-accuracy-vindicated-again.html, accessed 1/18/22)

The scholar quoted above, Nelson Gluek, is certainly neither the first, nor the last, to make that observation. The whole article above is worth a read, but please finish this message first! 😊

About two years ago, I was reading some of the writings of the early church “fathers.” These were the next few generations of leaders after the apostles. I was struck by something when I read the writing of Clement of Rome. Clement is actually mentioned in the Bible, in Philippians 4:3. He was known to be one of the companions and co-workers of the apostle Paul. He was perhaps the first, and eldest, of the “early fathers.” Not long after Paul’s death, he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth. Much of the letter is very good, and encouraging. But at one point, Clement takes several paragraphs to describe the legend of the phoenix – a bird, he reports, that lives for five hundred years. When it dies (goes the story) a new bird grows in its place from a worm that feeds on the decayed remains of the old. The new bird carries the bones of its parent, says Clement, to a city in Egypt.

Now, while he is merely using it as an illustration, it is clear that Clement believes the legend to be true – in fact, he uses it as in illustration of the resurrection! Obviously, it is not true. If Clement’s letter had become part of the Bible, I would have to admit that, at least in that respect, the Bible was not reliable, and in fact, I think it would have caused some people to question the historical truth of the resurrection.

Think about the situation. Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul, a well known and respected leader throughout the early Christian church, almost of the same generation as the apostles. Luke’s writing became a part of scripture. Mark (John-Mark) was also a companion of Paul, younger, and his gospel was also included in the Bible. Clement was a companion of Paul, a well known leader in the church. And yet, Clement’s letter was never, at any time in history, considered part of the Bible, the Word of God. Why not? Externally, he seems just as qualified as Luke or Mark. My take is that God intervened to prevent something that was patently untrue from being part of his Bible.

Now, you might say that was just a lucky exclusion. But if Clement believed that legend, it is quite possible that others of the first generation of Christians believed such things. It may even be that the apostle Paul himself believed it. Even so, that legend never made it into the Bible. There may have been other false things, like the legend of the phoenix, but different, that the first Christians believed. Perhaps even the apostles believed them. Yet God somehow prevented any of that sort of thing from becoming part of scripture. In fact, when you think about it, it is remarkable that a document written two thousand years ago is absolutely free from those types of false myths and legends. Luck doesn’t seem adequate to explain it.

If you go back to Old Testament times, it is certain that almost everyone believed that the earth was flat. There are Psalms that use imagery that suggests a flat earth. But those Psalms are not teaching that the world is flat – they are merely using poetic images to describe the greatness of God’s creation in terms that everyone in those days would understand. The verses themselves are not about the shape of the world, but God’s greatness. So, in fact, there is no direct teaching in the bible that tells us the earth is flat. That alone is remarkable, unless we believe that God had a hand in the Bible.

By the way, if you are thinking that people went back later on and changed what the Bible said, you can forget it. I know some people think that, but it is the stuff of pure fantasy. Believing that is like believing… well, like believing the earth is flat. We simply know too much about how the Bible was formed, and when. If you want more information about how the Bible came to be, and why we can trust it, please pick up a copy of my book, Who Cares About the Bible, on Amazon.

Let’s get practical about God’s Word for a moment. Sometimes, submitting to the truth of the Bible means we must affirm certain truths that will make us unpopular. Now, I don’t mean we need to go out of our way to “drop truth bombs” on everyone. If someone has a large nose, you don’t have to go out of your way to point that out, even if it is true. However, there are some aspects of obedience to the truth that we must affirm; and some of them are difficult, and might make others angry at us.

For instance, the Bible is very clear that it is not acceptable for someone who has trusted Jesus to continue to live in a long-term pattern of sinful behavior. I’m not talking here about someone who struggles with the same sin, over and over. That person is struggling against sin, which shows that their faith is alive and active. They are continually repenting, and seeking God’s forgiveness. But I’m talking about someone who has said, “I don’t accept what the Bible says about how I want to live. I’m going to do my own thing, and I believe I am a good Christian anyway.” The person who lives like that for a long time is endangering their faith, and it is our responsibility, as fellow believers, to encourage them to stop.

1 Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.

(Galatians 6:1-3, NLT)

We are not too important to ignore the word of God! We all must submit to it, and sometimes, the most loving thing means sharing a hard truth with a  fellow Christian. A Psalmist shares the perspective of a wise Christian, when it comes to being told the truth about sin:

4 Don’t let me drift toward evil// or take part in acts of wickedness.//Don’t let me share in the delicacies//of those who do wrong.//5 Let the godly strike me!//It will be a kindness!
If they correct me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it.

(Psalms 141:4-5, NLT)

The writer of this psalm is pointing out that if others correct him, and prevent him from drifting further into sin, it is actually a kindness. Telling the truth in that way is an act of love. He prays for the wisdom to remember that. James, brother of Jesus, agrees:

19 My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, 20 you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins.

(James 5:19-20, NLT)

Some people who call themselves Christians have begun to actively deny parts of the Bible. It is not loving to tell them that they are right, when in fact, they are not.

Imagine you go to a doctor because you have a strange lump. The doctor knows you, and he knows that if he says you have cancer and need treatment, it will upset you. You might even lash out in anger at him. So, instead, he tells you what you most want to hear: “It’s nothing to worry about.”

But many months later, more symptoms appear. You go to another doctor, and she says: “I’m so sorry, but you have cancer. If we had caught it sooner, it would not have been a problem, but now, it is too late for any treatment to be effective. You need to get your affairs in order, because you don’t have much time left.”

Which doctor is more loving – the one who was truthful, saying things that are hard to hear, or the one that lied to you so that you wouldn’t feel bad? Obviously, we believe the truthful doctor was more loving. In fact, the untruthful doctor would have, for all intents and purposes, destroyed your life by failing to tell the truth.

There are Christians who seem delighted to tell people that they are sinners, and they might burn in hell. Frankly, I’m not sure that all such people are real Christians. For instance, the infamous Westboro Baptist Church is not actually a Christian church, but a cult that denies many of the teachings of Jesus. But there are others, within real churches, who are sinning by delighting in bringing bad news.

Even so, real Christians are called to be ready, at times, to warn people who call themselves Christians about what could happen to them if they continue to ignore God. People who don’t claim to be believers are in an entirely different kind of category, and I don’t have space to deal with that here. However, if someone claims to be following Jesus, but is actually ignoring Him, that person is in a unique kind of spiritual danger. They might think they are healthy, while all the while spiritual cancer is eating away at them, untreated. The most loving thing for a fellow Christian to do, is to tell the truth about what the Bible says.

Truth (especially the truth of the Bible) and Love are the essential foundations for any Christian community, any church. When we have only “love,” without truth, we find that while we might be accepting, we aren’t necessarily loving. All we have is meaningless affirmation and emotion, that often does not help, and sometimes even hurts, one another. If we have “truth” without love, we can become hard and cold, and we stop reflecting the loving heart of God, and we drive people away from Jesus unnecessarily.

When we have both truth and love, they balance one another, and they lead us to maturity.

14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

(Ephesians 4:14-16, NLT)

1 PETER #9: THE HERO OF MY LIFE’S STORY

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Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the world. That means that God knew ahead of time all of the pain and suffering that would occur after he created the world, but he did it anyway. He did it for love. The fact that Jesus was planned from the beginning also means that He is the Hero in the story of my life. My life is here to show the glory of Jesus to the world. This is true of all of us who have trusted him.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 9

1 Peter #9.  1 Peter 1:17-21

Last time in our 1 Peter series, we talked about what it means to live in the fear of the Lord. Among other things, it means we do not need to fear anything else at all. Next, Peter reminds us that our salvation does not come from perishable things, like silver or gold, but rather from the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

This is one of those places that we might miss if we read too quickly. I think most of us do not think of silver or gold as perishable. To get literal about it, there are Roman gold coins from the time Peter wrote still in existence. That doesn’t seem very “perishable” to me. In fact, to get even more technical and literal, even though it is rare to find a two-thousand-year-old gold coin, the actual gold that was used in Roman coins is still almost certainly in circulation today, one way or another. What I mean is, over the centuries, people who had gold coins, or acquired them in some way, melted them down for other purposes. Nobody just throws gold away, and two-thousand year old gold is just as valuable as gold that was mined yesterday. The same goes for silver. Even though, unlike gold, silver tarnishes, it does not lose its value, and it does not cease to be silver, no matter how much time passes.

It is almost certain that Peter knows all this. In those days, people used coins made of actual precious metals (and some less precious, like copper). They were quite familiar with the properties of those metals. Peter certainly knows that fire does not destroy gold, but only refines it (1:7). So, why does he call gold and silver “perishable?”

In the first place, he knows that most people would think like me, and say, “wait a minute. Gold doesn’t really perish.” He’s getting our attention, and saying in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, yes, it is perishable.

Second, he knows that, no matter how long they may actually last on earth, the value of gold and silver to human beings does not last. To be very direct about it: the moment I die, gold becomes completely worthless to me. I might spend my life amassing millions. When I die, it will mean nothing to me. Most of us spend our lives desiring, and often pursuing, more money. When it comes to the end, however,  the amount of money you have is meaningless. It can’t help you when you stand before the throne of God. The moment you die, it is absolutely worthless.

Third, the value of gold and silver is relative, not fixed. There is nothing absolute, or permanent about its value. A  huge, untapped gold mine might be discovered, and then suddenly gold could become as common as rocks, making it worthless. Or humanity might decide for some reason that they don’t care so much about gold anymore – after all, other metals are much more useful for making things. Gold is only worth something because people have decided it is. They could just as easily decide they don’t care about it anymore. This is even more true of paper and “electronic” money. Inflation is the process by which money becomes less valuable. It happens all the time, and, in fact, is happening in 2022, when I am writing this. You can’t trust money to remain valuable.

Finally, in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, gold and silver are like moldy bread. That is the message of these verses: that Jesus Christ is infinitely valuable, and through faith, we have a part in that infinite value. What we have in Jesus is the most precious thing in the universe, and it will remain the most precious thing in the universe for all time. Remember, we have a hope that can never perish, spoil, or fade.

Just a quick note about the first part of verse 18. Peter mentions that his readers were ransomed from the futile ways handed down from their forefathers. This statement makes it almost certain that at least some of the readers were Gentiles. Neither Peter, nor Paul, nor any New Testament writer, considers the heritage of the Jews to be “futile ways.” They all agree that the Jews did not recognize Jesus, who was the point of it all, but they are clear that the Old Testament scriptures point to Jesus, and that, taking into account that it is about Jesus, the Old Testament is a reliable guide to faith and life. Peter would never call the Old Testament, nor Jewish traditions, futile. He might have argued that people used those things in futile ways, but the things themselves have value.

Peter continues:

20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:20-21

Here is a stunning truth, tossed out rather casually by Peter: Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. This sounds very theological, and so we often get a kind of glazed look in our eyes and move on. But it says something incredible about God.

Before He even began to create the cosmos, God knew that the humans he was going to create would turn against him, and reject Him. Before he spun the first light out of nothingness, he knew that we humans would create a massive mess of things, and bring death, and evil, and cruelty and horror into existence. Before anything at all existed (except for Him) he knew that he would enter a world of suffering; he knew that he himself would suffer a torturous death, and even go to a hell that had not yet been spawned, in order to save the creatures he was going to make. He knew it all long before it even began, before he put creation into motion.

And he created us anyway.

Knowing the horror that we would unleash by rebelling against him, God created a plan to neutralize our rebellion. He planned out ahead of time how he would defeat evil. That’s what Peter means when he says that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. When Adam and Eve fell, and sinned, in the Garden of Eden, God was not taken by surprise. His plan was already in place.

Now, why would God do this?

We Christians believe that God is one being, but that he is a Three-Person Being. The three Persons of God love one another with an eternal, infinite love. In fact, of all the worlds’ religions and philosophies, Christianity alone can legitimately show that love is at the core of God’s nature, and therefore, love is the foundation of the universe.

Because there is no limit to God’s love, he chose to make creatures who could share in his love. Now, love must always involve a choice. Imagine you could create a person who would love you unconditionally, no matter what. If you slapped this person in the face, he would adore you. If you mistreated him, ignored him or threw him out, he would still adore you. There would be no choice.  He would have to love you, because you created him without any say in the matter. Now, for the first few days, it might be kind of fun to have someone like that. But after awhile you would realize that this person actually has no will of his own. He doesn’t love you for your own sake. He doesn’t appreciate your good qualities, or forgive your foibles. This person simply does what he is programmed to do. In fact, after a while we would realize that if there is no choice in the matter, then it is not actually love. Real love involves a choice.

Now, if God is ultimate goodness and love, the choice against God has to be a choice for evil. So, as soon as God created angels and humans who were capable of love, he also created the possibility that evil would come into being. And, of course, it did.

To put it simply: He planned from the beginning that he would make creatures who are capable of true love. Therefore, he had to take into account from the beginning that there would also be evil. Therefore, he also planned from the beginning that he would send Jesus Christ into the world in order to defeat evil without destroying love. And he did it all for us, so that we could love each other, and especially so we could love him.

There is another important implication of the fact that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. It means that Jesus is the hero of the story. First, he is the hero of the grand salvation story found in the Bible. Second, Jesus is the hero in the story of my life, and the story of your life.

I don’t naturally think that way. I tend to think that the story of my life is about me. This leads me to act as if life is all about what I want, and what I need. Even if I devote myself to unselfish things, like my family, and the ministry of the gospel, I still look at it as if life is all about me. However, this way of thinking – that life is all about me – does not typically make me happy. It leaves me trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. It leaves me trying to solve problems on my own. Even if I let Jesus enter the story of my life, if my life is still all about my own aims and goals, then it is up to me, ultimately, to figure things out. Jesus might help me (in this way of thinking), but the final responsibility for everything is still mine.

But Jesus was planned before the world began. Every person’s story is actually the story of what Jesus will do in and through their life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels. He made a very interesting choice in telling the stories. The action is narrated by a man called John Watson. We are told the story from the point of view of Watson’s life. To illustrate what I mean, it reads like: “I met Holmes at our club, and then I told him about the empty room,” and so on. You might say, it is the story of Watson’s life. However, the story is not about Watson. The hero of the story, and really, the main character, is not Watson, but Sherlock Holmes. Watson’s life, and his story, were designed by Conan-Doyle to show the greatness of another character: Sherlock Holmes. If we were to put it in theological terms, we might say that Watson’s life becomes a platform to give glory to Holmes.

In the same way, our own lives are meant to be a platform to show the greatness of Jesus Christ. The story is not about us. Yes, we see it from our own perspective, just as Watson sees things from his own perspective. But the real story of our lives is not about us; the real story is about the Hero, the One who was known from before the foundation of the world: Jesus Christ.

When I realize that my life is not telling my story, but rather, telling the story of Jesus, a lot of pressure is taken off me. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to save the day, or move things forward. Jesus is the main character of my life’s story. Jesus is the hero. I’m a sidekick. We sidekicks are still important. Without Watson, the story of Sherlock Holmes would not have been told. In a similar way, God wants to tell a story about Jesus through my life. There is a story through my life that will bring glory to Jesus in a way that is different from the story told through someone else’s life. But I am not the point. I’m along for the ride, along to admire and trust the Hero, who was foreknown from before the foundation of the world.

Now, this sounds very wonderful and lofty, but what does it really mean: “Jesus is the hero of the story of my life?” Let’s get real. I was thinking about this just a few minutes ago, while my pain was starting to get worse. Some nights, when that happens, I’m looking at hours and hours of pure misery. I prayed without much hope, “OK, Jesus, since we’re talking about this, I need a hero to save me from the pain in this moment.”

I’m telling the truth when I say that within a few minutes, the pain stopped getting worse, and even backed off a little bit. But let’s keep it real. I have often prayed for relief, and received none. What then? What happens when the hero doesn’t save you?”

Here’s the truth: He has already saved us. Yes, I live a difficult life. But the end of the story was written before the beginning of time, space and matter. Jesus always planned to go through hell so that I only have to go through earth. I won’t be thrilled if my suffering lasts a few more decades, but a few decades is nothing compared to the eternal joy that awaits me, because the Hero has already won the final battle. For followers of Jesus, every defeat in this life is temporary – even death! Every moment of suffering will be overwhelmed by joy piled upon joy. The Bible fully acknowledges the reality of suffering in this mortal life. But the end of the story makes everything else more than worth it:

6 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.

(Romans 8:16-19, NLT)

So, recognizing that Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the earth, we can live a life of hope:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

NEW YEAR: 2022. KILL THE RESOLUTIONS!

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Pexels.com

New Year’s resolutions are a tradition far more dangerous to following Jesus than enjoying a pagan-inspired Christmas tree. The way we do resolutions gives us false hope, and encourages us to focus on things that probably don’t matter much, in the light of eternity. Scripture shows us a better way, a more encouraging, and ultimately, more effective way, to engage in change.

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 New Year 2022

NEW YEAR’S 2022

I love Christmas. There’s no way you could call me a Christmas scrooge. I like the spirit of the season. I enjoy getting gifts and I like giving them too. But when it comes to New Year I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, some New Year’s traditions appeal to me. I think it’s a good thing to look at where you have been for the past year, and then evaluate and consider possible adjustments in your life for the next year. Hanging out with your loved ones and considering how important they are to you, is also a great New Year’s tradition.

There are other traditions that aren’t so great, like beginning the brand new year by getting falling-down drunk. I also don’t care for the tradition that there is no more eggnog available in stores after New Year’s Eve. And there is one New Year tradition to which I emphatically say, “bah humbug.”

New Year’s resolutions.

Let’s face it, almost nobody keeps them. Nobody remembers them. Do you remember your resolutions for last year? But it’s not just that New Year’s resolutions don’t really accomplish anything for most people. The fact is, New Year’s resolutions, the way our culture practices them, reinforce a false understanding of spiritual reality and human nature. New Year’s, when we make resolutions, is a time when we reaffirm our belief in the power of the flesh.

Consider your most typical sorts of resolutions. We resolve to lose weight. Most of us don’t ever think about how, we just say we want to. We resolve to exercise three times a week. We resolve to say one nice thing every day, or to finish writing a book, or even to read the bible every day. Maybe we resolve not to get falling-down drunk next New Year’s Eve.

None of those resolutions are bad. New Year’s resolutions are full of good intentions.

Three things draw us to New Year’s resolutions. First, we see there is a problem. There are things in our lives that should be addressed. This is a very positive thing, and it is the only part of the resolution concept that I approve of.

But secondly, we gravitate toward resolutions because we are inclined to believe that we have the power within ourselves to change ourselves and make the world a better place.

Third, we tend to make New Year’s resolutions because our focus on what is in this world, instead of our eternal future. I’m not saying it’s bad to lose weight. I want to be healthy. I want to look like my old svelte self. But whether I lose weight or not, I will die someday. When this body is gone, it really won’t matter whether or not I lost weight in 2022. Most of the things we resolve at New Year’s don’t matter eternally. I’m sure some people make eternal-oriented resolutions, but the vast majority of our focus is on things that really don’t matter very much.

New year’s resolutions fail so often for two reasons.

First, they are ultimately self centered. I resolve to do this. I resolve not to do that. The focus of almost every resolution is self. Even an unselfish resolution – like saying something uplifting every day – are not focused on all the encouraging things there are to say – but rather, on the fact that I am going to say them.

Second, they rely on the power of the flesh. Aren’t you the same person that failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions last year? Isn’t the reason that you need to lose weight in 2022 because you failed to control your diet in 2021 (for me, the answer would be “yes!”)? Isn’t the reason you are resolving to exercise is because you have not been exercising? What makes us think that the mere passing of a certain date will make us able to do what we have not done yet?

It is a fake chance to start over – to start over in exactly the same manner you failed before. It is doing what you have always done, and expecting a different result. The reason I’m talking so much about New Year’s resolutions, is because it isn’t just New Year’s. We tend to live our whole lives this way.

Generally, we recognize when we have problems. But our approach to solving them is to put hope in the same flawed person who got you your problems in the first place – you. We think we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ll think we’ll just act differently next time. But we can’t. We are trying to live not by the grace of “receive” but by the law of “do.”

God has a different approach to our problems. He would like to kill the sinful flesh. In fact, when we turn our lives over to Jesus, that is exactly what he does. Through faith, baptism buries us with Christ – our sinful flesh is dead and buried. We want to keep resurrecting it, so to speak, and trying to make it work for us. But the bible says, it’s dead. Let it rest in peace. Paul puts it this way:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2:20)

So, you don’t get to make New Year’s resolutions anymore, because the old you is dead. The life you have now is the life of faith, not flesh. It is the Life of Jesus Himself that shall be lived out through you now. Are you going to bind the life of Jesus to some barely-relevant, ultimately meaningless New Year’s resolution?

Colossians 3:1-4, says this:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

You died. Your flesh is counted as dead in God’s eyes. There’s nothing there anymore to fix or reform. You’re trying to put make-up on a corpse, and the result is only grotesque. Why are we messing around like this anymore? Paul says to fix our eyes and our focus on our real life – the eternal life that is ours with Jesus. It’s already in heaven, hidden until Jesus returns. That is where our focus should be for the New Year, not with what is already dead and dying.

Now, you may say, but Tom, what if there is something that really should change in my life, something that may have eternal significance, like getting into a habit of daily bible reading?

I’m so glad you asked.

When I was thirteen years old, I read a book called the Cross and the Switchblade, by David Wilkerson. It was the exciting true story of how a small-town pastor in Pennsylvania began a ministry to gang members in New York City. There was crime and fighting and it was a great book. Also in the book, was the story of how David Wilkerson got filled with the Holy Spirit when he was thirteen. I wanted that to happen to me, so I prayed that God would fill me with the Holy Spirit

As far I could see, nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t speak in tongues. Sometime, not long after that, I finished mowing our lawn. It was my favorite time of day, and our spot in Papua New Guinea was really quite pretty. I looked around and said, “God, you are so beautiful, I’m going to read the Bible every day from now on.”

That wasn’t the first time I tried to read the Bible regularly. I had started many times before, and never got much further than Exodus. But it was the first time I’d tried to read the bible after I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I read a chapter that night. I read the next chapter the next night. For some reason, I didn’t start in Genesis this time. I read the psalms first. Then the New Testament. Then I went back a read a few books in the Old Testament. Ten years passed…and I had never missed a single day of bible reading until I was about 23. During many of those years I traveled extensively. I often went out, and stayed up late, like any respectable young person. But somehow, I always read my Bible before I turned in, wherever I was, no matter what time it was.

Now, it wasn’t New Year’s when that happened. I didn’t think about some resolution I wanted to make. But the life of God, living through me (not my flesh) resolved in me to do this. I really don’t think I can credit myself with anything here. What thirteen year old boy decides to take up bible reading? What teenager can stick to a promise to read the Bible every day? Not me. It was the Holy Spirit, living in me, that brought forth the resolution, and the power to carry it out.

What we need in 2022, is not more effort. We need more Holy Spirit. More trust in what Jesus has already done for us. We need to hear from him, to obey when he speaks, and trust that he – not us – will carrying it out through us, using His power.

Take a moment right now with the Lord. Ask him to fill you again with his Holy Spirit. Or ask him to do so for the first time!

Now sit quietly a minute more. Let Him speak to you about 2022, about your life, about His life that he wants to live through you. Be aware this next week, of how he might speak to you. And trust him for the power to do what he wants to in you and through you!