YOU ARE TOO OLD!

old

In the season of Advent, we remember that God is still acting in this world, that Jesus has promised to return ,and that God still wants to bless and use His people, no matter who they are in the eyes of the world.

 

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Advent 2015 #1 . Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

If you are following along with our series in the book of Matthew in real time, this is not it. I preached Matthew #69 just at the end of November. Now, for the next four weeks, we’ll be focusing on the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.

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SUFFERING, GRIEF AND HOPE

hope

The truth is earthly suffering is intolerable unless there is a glorious, loving, sorrow-free eternity. We Christians are a people of hope. But our hope is not primarily in this temporary life. Everyone dies, sooner or later. All hopes – for this life – come to an end. Jesus, as usual said it best: “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 45

 

 

Matthew #45 . Matthew 14:1-12

The first part of Matthew 14 relates the details of how John the Baptist was killed. It’s important for us to remember that the life and teachings of John the Baptist continued to influence a large number of Jews for at least a generation after he was killed. I think this is one reason Matthew describes this incident in detail – it would have been important to the readers he had in mind when he was writing.

Matthew has already told us that John was in prison. I want to spend a moment dwelling on the reason for that, and the thing that got him killed, because it may surprise us. The short version is, John was imprisoned, and then killed, for publicly supporting biblical sexual morality. He publicly said that Herod was wrong for having sexual relations with his brother’s wife, Herodias.

I point this out because I think it is very relevant today. Our culture is extremely intolerant of people who insist that sex has any moral significance in and of itself.

If you say that sex has intrinsic moral significance, then you set it within a larger moral framework and set limits to the legitimate use of sex. In doing so, you declare certain sexual acts illegitimate, something which is now considered hate speech…

By divesting sex of intrinsic moral significance [an activist] has helped to create a world where those who attempt to set limits to the legitimacy of sexual activity are seen as the moral equivalent of racists and the intellectual equivalent of flat-earthers: Irrational bigots who have no place in the public square. (Carl R Trueman, First Things, 2-23-15 http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/02/congratulating-wesleyan).

There are many people who call themselves Christians who either don’t know, or don’t believe what the bible says about sex. There are many more who don’t like it, and refuse to adhere to it. A lot of people think that it gives Christians a bad name if we go around saying what the bible says about sex. Even more suggest that sexual morality is a “secondary issue” and we Christians should stay out of it for the sake of the gospel.

But John the Baptist died for it.

He could have said, “Well what Herod does in his own bedroom is Herod’s own business.” It’s likely that he could have made a public apology to Herod and Herodias, and at least have been spared execution. But he didn’t. He insisted upon telling the truth, and doing so publicly, and not retracting it. It got him killed.

Someday, a sermon like this may lead to my own imprisonment. It is no longer a question of disagreement in our culture. The power-brokers in the media, academe and government, as well as millions of narrow-minded citizens, want people like John the Baptist to be silenced. They don’t want to hear something they disagree with.

We have not yet come to executions for saying that adultery is a sin. But our government is already considering laws that make it a hate-crime to say in a public speech that homosexual behavior is a sin. In October of 2014, the city of Houston demanded in a subpoena that pastors turn over any sermon or communication with their congregation that mentions homosexuality, the lesbian mayor or transgender issues. To refuse to turn over the sermons would have been contempt of court, punishable by imprisonment. The government’s position is that pastors were using their religious positions to campaign politically, since there was law on the ballot about gay and transgender issues. But the fact remains, when the pastors spoke about the law (if they did) they did so because the issues raised by it are of biblical concern, and it is manifest that the city government wanted to silence and punish them for it.

Now, please understand me clearly. I am not saying that we should go around investigating everyone’s sex life, looking for something to criticize. But I do think sometimes we Jesus-followers avoid the topic because we don’t like getting flack for calling sin “sin.” I simply want to point out that perhaps this passage shows us that the issue of sexual morality is more important than we want to think, and I do suspect that it is with that issue that the persecution of Christians will begin in the Western world. Lest we think it is a secondary issue, remember that John the Baptist died for speaking the truth about morality. I think we Christians should consider this very carefully before we decide to keep silent about it.

~

After John was killed, his disciples buried his body, and then they did something very important: they went to Jesus. There is no doubt that they were full of grief and sorrow. There is no doubt that some of them wondered why Jesus didn’t do anything to save John. But they went to him anyway.

Jesus’ reaction is also important:

When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matt 14:13)

Obviously, the news of John’s death had an impact on Jesus. He wanted to be alone to process it. Jesus and John were relatives, and they had known each other all their lives. John had worked hard to prepare people for the ministry of Jesus, and he had unfailingly pointed people toward him. In short, they were family, friends and ministry partners. And now John is gone. Jesus knew his eternal home was heaven. He knew he would see John there again. But that didn’t change the fact that just like us, Jesus experienced pain and suffering in the world, and it hit him hard at times.

I think it’s important for us to dwell on this for a minute. We human beings have a very difficult time with pain and suffering. How can a good and loving God let these things happen? The answers to this are only partial, and sometimes complex. But I take comfort from the example of Jesus here. On the one hand, he knows everything is going to be all right. In fact, he knows that in eternity, everything is better than all right. John’s suffering on earth is over. He himself will be with John again in just a few short years. On the other hand, in the present moment, he grieves.

The truth is earthly suffering is intolerable unless there is a glorious, loving, sorrow-free eternity. About a year ago, I spoke at the funeral of a twenty-one year old who died unexpectedly and tragically. I said then that of course it was good and right to grieve. I said that we Christians are also people of hope. But our hope is not primarily in this temporary life. Everyone dies, sooner or later. All hopes – for this life – come to an end. Paul writes:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. (1Cor 15:19-23, HCSB)

Jesus shows us that it is good and appropriate to grieve the tragedies of this life. But he also gives us a better hope, an eternal hope. I am reminded of the old song, Wayfarin’ Stranger:

I’m just a poor, wayfarin’ stranger

Travelin’ through this world of woe

But there’s no sickness, no toil or danger

In that bright world to which I go.

 

I’m goin’ there to see my Father

I’m goin’ there no more to roam

I’m just a goin’ over Jordan

I’m just a goin’ over home.

Jesus, preparing his disciples for his own death, said this:

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

We will have trouble and suffering in the world. Hope which cannot apply equally to the free man with the possibility of making his life better, and also the man doomed to suffer and die in prison, is not hope at all. Jesus offers us real hope, eternal hope. There is a time for grief, and Jesus himself grieved for his dear friend and cousin John. If this was the experience of Jesus, we should not think that we will be exempt from it. But even in grief, there is hope, hope not based on everything coming out right here and now, but on something greater and more lasting than anything in this life.

Like John’s disciples, and Jesus himself, it is often appropriate to mourn. But also like John’s disciples, let us bring our grief to Jesus, and receive from him the eternal hope we so desperately need.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

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625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WHEN JESUS OFFENDS YOU

offended taylor swift

Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it. What do we do when that happens?

 

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 Matthew Part 36

 

Matthew #36 . Matthew 11:1-6

When Jesus had finished giving orders to His 12 disciples, He moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else? ” Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.” (Matt 11:1-6, HCSB)

I believe that one of the first two or three sermons I ever preached was on this text. I really wish I could remember what I said, because I’m sure it was brilliant. Actually, of course what we do here is always to try and listen for what the Holy Spirit has to say to us through the text right now. So perhaps it would be a bad idea to simply go back to something I said 20 years ago.

Let’s get a little background here. As we know, John the Baptist started preaching before Jesus began his public ministry. We saw already in the book of Matthew, that John (the Baptist) believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and pointing people to Jesus was John’s major mission. In addition, we learned that Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins, and while they were both pregnant they spent some time together. At that time, John, still unborn, leaped in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary when she was with pregnant Jesus. So these two have a long history together.

There is evidence that after Jesus came upon the scene, many of John’s followers left him to follow Jesus. Apparently John felt that this was good and right and appropriate. The apostle John (a different individual) records that some of the Baptist’s remaining disciples complained about those who left John for Jesus. But John the Baptist responded like this:

“No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-31, HCSB)

John viewed Jesus as the bridegroom, the man of the hour, and himself as the best man. This was absolutely correct and good. But no one, not even John, knew before-hand quite what Jesus’ mission on earth was really supposed to look like. As Jesus’ ministry unfolded, circumstances caused John the Baptist to wonder.

What happened was this. Sometime after Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist, being the outspoken person he was, criticized Herod Antipas, who, under the Romans, was ruler of Galilee (this was the son of Herod the Great, who had tried to have the Messiah killed as a baby). He chastised him for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own wife. Herod might have put up with this, but Herodias did not, and John was thrown in prison (Matt 14:3).

John, like most Jews of his time, probably had the idea that the Messiah was going to liberate the people of Israel from foreign oppressors like Herod and the Romans. He went into prison believing that the Messiah was his cousin, Jesus. This is just a guess on my part, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable one: I believe that John expected Jesus to liberate him during the course of his messianic campaign. So John went to prison thinking: All I have to do is wait and when Jesus starts the war to drive out the Romans and the Idumeans, he’ll free me from prison, and I’ll join him in the victorious campaign.

Even if John was not caught up in that sort of thinking about the Messiah, he still probably thought: the Messiah is my cousin. I’ve served him and his cause faithfully. Surely he will not let me rot in prison. After all, that’s reasonable. Friends don’t let friends die in prison, if they have the power to prevent it.

At least, that’s what we think.

So after John had been in the dungeon for a while, it was natural for him to become a little bit impatient. After a little while longer, it is clear that he began to wonder if he had been wrong about Jesus being the Messiah; that is, in fact, the reason he sent people to Jesus as recorded in this text.

Now, I want us to observe something very significant. What caused John to wonder? Think about it. John had a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, and his preaching about the coming of the Messiah was based upon those Scriptures. But those Scriptures had not changed since John was put into prison. John also knew Jesus personally, and Jesus was still the same person that John had known since before he was born, the same person, in fact, whom John had pointed out to others and said “There is the Messiah. He’s the one I’ve been talking about.” So John’s knowledge had not changed, and the Scriptures had not changed, and Jesus had not changed. What caused John to wonder was that his own circumstances had changed, and Jesus had done nothing about it.

This is tremendously important. Jesus was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not behaving the way John thought he ought to behave. As crass as this sounds, the truth is that Jesus was not doing what John wanted him to do, and that caused him to doubt Jesus.

I have met many, many people who have the same struggle as John. For years, I’ve eagerly looked forward to the day I could meet with someone who was an atheist for purely intellectual reasons. In my imagination, when I met such a person, we would have an engaging, far-reaching, stimulating discussion. It would end with the atheist realizing for the first time that his arguments are in fact illogical and not founded on the truth. With the intellectual obstacles removed, the atheist would become a person of faith.

But the truth is, everyone I’ve ever met who claims to have an intellectual objection to Christianity, in fact rejects faith in Jesus because God has disappointed them personally in some way. It never fails. It sounds noble to have intellectual objections to faith. But the truth is that people reject God because at some level he did not behave according to their expectations, or do what they wanted him to do. At times, I’ve had the same struggle myself.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that what John the Baptist wanted Jesus to do was trivial. It was no trivial thing to be put in prison in first century Galilee. The prisons were generally damp and unsanitary, filled with rats and disease. Nutrition was poor, fights and abuse by guards were frequent. Many people died simply from being in these conditions for long period of time. John had no standing, no patron to plead his case with Herod. His prospects were incredibly grim. It wasn’t unreasonable for him to want Jesus to rescue him. What could be more natural than to expect the Messiah to rescue his own cousin, the same man who had proclaimed him to be the Messiah to many people?

Many of the things that we want God to do for us are not unreasonable either: to save the life of a child, to heal a parent, to restore a marriage, to prevent something that any reasonable human being would call a tragedy.

But we find, like John, that sometimes Jesus simply doesn’t do it.

This fact made John wonder, perhaps it even caused him to doubt. At least John did the right thing with his doubts: he was honest about them, and he took them to Jesus.

Jesus did not chastise him for having doubts. He said this:

Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. (Matt 11:4-5, HCSB)

This little statement from Jesus makes reference to no fewer than five messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Job 29:15; Isaiah 26:19, 29:18, 35, 61:1-2). In essence, Jesus’ reply is this: “You want to know if I’m the Messiah? I am fulfilling the messianic prophecies about healing the blind, healing the lame, cleansing those with leprosy, healing and death, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor.”

To say it even more plainly, Jesus was telling John to remember and rely upon the scriptures. He was reminding him what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, urging him to compare it to Jesus himself, and then to trust.

Jesus then adds this comment: “and blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me,” (my translation). I think Jesus is cutting to the very heart of the matter. He knows that we are sometimes offended or scandalized by the fact that he does not conform to our expectations. Again, in John’s case it wasn’t about social or religious expectations; it was about a personal desire that was entirely good and appropriate, which Jesus chose not to fulfill. In a way, he is saying, “I know you don’t understand, John. But you will be blessed if you don’t let your lack of understanding cause you to be offended by me.”

But Jesus is not only talking to John. His words are for all of us. Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it.

Like John, the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to bring our doubts and wonderings to Jesus himself. We can be honest with him. He did not rebuke John for doubting, or for his honesty. His answer to John is also for us: Look to the Bible, it is the most reliable witness to whom Jesus is. The Bible has not changed. Jesus has not changed. The only thing that has changed is our circumstance, and that is not a reliable guide to truth. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is the same person we read about in the pages of the Bible. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that the Bible is reliable and can be trusted (By the way, if you are not sure about that, I encourage you to go through my 10 part sermon series entitled, “Understanding the Bible.” The first sermon can be found here, and you can go on sequentially from that). We know from all this that Jesus is real, and that he loves us. We know also, that this life is not all there is, and there are many reasons for things that we will never be able to comprehend. Sometimes, we can only see part of the picture, and the rest of the explanation can only be understood in the light of eternity.

And Jesus says to us, “You are blessed when you’re not offended by me.” We are blessed when we allow Jesus to be who he is, even when it doesn’t conform to our own expectations of him. We are blessed when we trust him, in spite of our circumstances.

John never did get out of prison. But Jesus says, later in this text, that while he is alive, John is not as well off the very least individual who is already in the kingdom of heaven. There is a plan. There is an answer. It is just that sometimes the plan and answer extend into the next life, where we cannot see right now. Ultimately, in the light of eterinity, John was better off more quickly because he was not released from prison.

With John, will you hear the words of Jesus now? Will you trust him? Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

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Thank for your prayers, and your support!

WELCOMING JESUS

002-john-baptist

The kingdom of Heaven is still at hand. The Lord still wants to work more fully in your life. We can still help prepare the way and welcome him in by repentance. The Holy Spirit does the work, all he needs is our willingness.

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 Matthew Part 5

Matthew #5 . Chapter 3:1-10

I want to remind you that when I preach, I am really trying to do two things. First, I want to make sure we understand the basic background of passage, and the basic meaning of it. Second, I am always “listening” to see what the Holy Spirit might want to say to us through it. Sometimes I focus more on the first thing, and sometimes more on the latter. I guess my point is, I doubt that any single thirty-minute-teaching can capture everything there is to capture about a bible passage. So, I assume that in some ways I am leaving some things out that might be said about any bible passage. Just keep it mind – there’s always more to learn, even from bible passages you know pretty well.

At this point, Matthew skips from the early childhood of Jesus directly to his adulthood. Luke tells us that John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth was related to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and in fact, Mary spent some months with her while they were both pregnant. According to Luke, John responded to Jesus, even when they were both unborn babies.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:39-44, ESV2011)

Because their mothers obviously had a close relationship, it is almost certain that John and Jesus knew each other as children. Certainly, by the time they were adults, before John began to preach, John knew Jesus personally (Matt 3:14), and believed he was the Messiah.

John’s father was a priest, descended from Aaron. This meant that John would have been technically eligible to serve as the high priest. Instead, however, he went into the wilderness of Judea and began to preach. It’s hard to pin down exactly where he was. In the Old Testament, “the wilderness of Judea” referred to an area south and east of Jerusalem, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. However, it records that John baptized people in the Jordan river, which is north of the Dead sea. Most likely, John wandered around for a little bit.

Not much is said here, but John’s ministry was very remarkable in many ways. The journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan river where John preached was extremely rough. To go from Jerusalem to listen to John would have involved a round trip of several days, and it included very hard travel and the danger of bandits along the way. And yet, his preaching was so compelling that many people made the trip to hear him. Jewish historian Josephus records that John began a significant movement that lasted even into the 100’s AD. Obviously, many of his followers missed his message about Jesus as the Messiah, and started their own sect of Judaism. John the Baptist was a very big deal. Matthew’s concern, however, is not with John himself, but his role in preparing people for the Messiah, Jesus.

Matthew says:

3 For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:

A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way for the Lord;

make His paths straight!

This is the eighth fulfilled prophecy that Matthew refers to. Besides reinforcing his theme of fulfilled prophecy, Matthew shares this to explain that John’s remarkable ministry was all aimed at preparing people to receive the Messiah when he arrived.

How, exactly, did John prepare people to receive Jesus? Matthew says the basic message was: “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (3:1). That’s a very brief summary, of course. I think the idea was that John preached that God wanted to do something for people personally, that he was drawing near to His people. The appropriate response to the presence of God is realize how we’ve strayed away from him, and turn back to him, away from our sins and wanderings.

The people responded by confessing their sins, and being baptized to show that they were repenting. By the way, the New Testament makes a distinction between the baptism of John, which was for repentance, and baptism into Jesus (see Matthew 3:11; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; Acts 19:4; Romans 6:3).

When the religious leaders came to see John, and to be baptized by him, he had some harsh words for them. As I mentioned earlier, John was enormously influential and popular with ordinary Jewish people. Most likely, the religious leaders came to be baptized by him in order to gain popularity with the “regular folks.” But John saw through that, and castigated them for it.

His response to them made two basic points. First, he told them to “produce fruit consistent with repentance. (verse 8).” In other words, “if you are truly repentant, act like it.” Second, he warned them not rely on their ancestry as Jews to do them any good with God (verse 9).

Let’s stop here for this time, and try and unpack what the Lord might say to us through this text.

First, is the Kingdom of Heaven near? I believe since the coming of the Holy Spirit in about 30 AD, the Kingdom of Heaven has always been near to anyone willing to receive it. If you are reading this and you have never turned your life over to Jesus, he is coming to you right now. He wants to shower you with his own real presence, with grace, joy and a new start on life. The way to receive that is the same way shown in this text: to repent. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him.

Many of you reading this blog have already repented and turned to Jesus, and received him as your Lord and your salvation. That’s wonderful. But for us who have done that, Jesus is still at hand. He still wants to show up in our lives in greater and more profound ways. He wants to give us even more grace, more joy, more peace, a more abundant life in Him. To receive these things from him, our path is the same: repent!

Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Jesus wants to come into this part of his life – the kingdom of heaven is near. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.

I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). What I mean is, the Lord uses gradual transformation like this to strengthen our hearts and minds and to make us more like him. When you repent you are on a new path. You may not walk the path perfectly, but you are no longer going the old direction. Your your progress, however slow, however often you might fall down, is in the new direction, toward Jesus.

I want to make something clear however. A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. A lot of people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.

John the Baptist had some very harsh words for religious people who did not really want to repent, but only wanted to pretend to do so to look good to other people. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people who take this approach. Let me say with John the Baptist: Give it up. Pretending to repent without really doing it is pointless, and it will not save you or help you in any way.

I will add that people who pretend are the ones that typically give Christians a bad reputation. So you are hurting not only yourself, but others too.

The good news, it is never too late to truly repent, not as long as you are still alive. Jesus wants to come to us; some of you for the first time, others in new and deeper ways. How do you need to prepare for him? Where can you make the way more straight for him through repentance?

~

I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

 You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

 Your check will be tax-deductible. Unfortunately, we cannot do the tax deductible option with the paypal donate button, however the money does go directly to support my family and me.

 Thank for your prayers, and your support!