GIVING THANKS FOR THE BAD THINGS

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THANKFULNESS 2019

This will not be a normal, full-length sermon. I want to spend this week in Thankfulness. Although Thanksgiving is not one of the feasts given in the Law of Moses, it is certainly a Biblical idea. Look at a small sample of verses about thankfulness from the New Testament:

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. Taking it one step further, to having a feast-day for thanksgiving is only natural. It should never be consider necessary, however: Jesus has done all that is necessary. But a festival of thanksgiving can certainly be useful in orienting our hearts toward God in the right way.

This year, I want us to spend some time in real thanksgiving. I’ll offer some thoughts to help keep us focused and oriented. Many people have discovered that thankfulness can absolutely transform your life. So, for example, say you have a job that you really hate. But, if you start each day by thanking God for the things you don’t hate, you find that it balances out the negatives in your life, or at least, it does to some degree. I often start my thanksgiving with something small, like hot water as I take a morning shower, and towels, and coffee. The more I thank the Lord, the more I think of other things I can thank him for. Many, many people have found this sort of thing to be very helpful in maintaining a peaceful heart and positive attitude.

I want to challenge us this year to take it one step further. I speak from personal experience when I say that I have learned to thank God even for things that I really, really don’t like. To do so, is an act of trust. When I thank God for something that I wish he would change, I am acknowledging that He is in control, and I am not. I am reorienting myself around the truth that he knows better than I do. I am agreeing with his Word, that:

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

This can be tremendously freeing. It can create a vast reservoir of peace and joy in your life. I know this to be true, because I have experienced it. In my struggle with chronic pain, I began to find real peace and joy when I started to thank God not, in spite of the pain, but for the pain. At the same time I began to thank him for all of the other stupid stuff that was going on my life that I wished was different.

When I started doing this, it was  pure act of will. I said, “I think I need to do this Lord. So, I don’t feel thankful, but even so, I am thanking you for this pain.” I went on and thanked him for financial hardship, and several other things. One of the first times I did this, Kari and I did it together. I won’t say we ended by feeling truly thankful, but we did start to feel a little bit more peace.

As it became more of a habit, I can now say that I am truly thankful for the pain (not just in spite of it). The pain is still there. I still have to figure out how to cope with it. But the fact that I am suffering is not a source of angst or frustration with me. God is working through it to create the best possible outcome for me, and I am so thankful for that.

So, this season, won’t you join me? Join me not only in focusing on the good things, but also in thanking God for the things we wish he would change.

I recognize that I didn’t arrive at this point on my own. It was a gift of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, empowered me to begin thanking him in this way. If you are willing, he will give you the same gift. Let’s ask him to do that right now, so that we can begin to experience the height of joy and depth of peace that thankfulness can bring.

Colossians #5. Endurance With Joy; Walking By the Spirit

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When we face hardships, struggles and sufferings in the strength and joy that God gives, we show the world that God is good, that he is powerful, and that he loves us. Part of this strength flows to us as we trust what God has already done for us in the spiritual realm. The Bible calls this “walking by the spirit.”

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Colossians #5. Colossians 1:9-14

9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (ESV) Colossians 1:9-14

Last time we focused on verses 9-10, and the fact that true salvation through faith in Jesus results in a changed life. I want to point out, that the idea of changed life is encased, before and after, with the truth that it is  God who does the work to create that changed life. We can say “no” to him, and stop the process. But it is important for us to understand that we don’t achieve a changed life from within ourselves. We don’t get it by trying harder. We get from God himself, when we trust him fully. We obey the commands of scripture because we trust. Another way of saying it is that obedience is the result of genuine faith. If we have an obedience problem, it is most likely because, deep down, we have a problem trusting that God is good, and all powerful, and he loves us.

We talked about what it means to be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, and that such a thing is a gift of God, from the Holy Spirit. We talked about the importance of walking in a manner worthy of the Lord. Next, Paul prays that the believers would be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy. I want us to pay attention to that little word, for. In Greek, it is the word eis, occurring here as an accusative preposition. What that means is that it indicates the purpose of something. You see, we might be tempted to go a certain direction when we hear: “strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might.” We might think that this means we Christians are to move from victory to victory. It might sound like we have God’s glorious might so that we ourselves should become mighty and glorious. I have heard Christians who talk as if following Jesus means that everything in life just gets better and better, and you suffer less and less. You go from victory to victory, and the picture of “victory” is more or less, “everything goes well for you.” But it is very clear here that the purpose of our strengthening, the purpose of God giving us his glorious power is so that we might endure with patience and joy.

Enduring with patience and joy implies first of all that there is something to endure. Generally, that means something difficult, since we don’t talk about “enduring” the best day of our lives. Also, what we must endure requires patience, which again, does not sound like one great victory after another. Finally, it seems like what we are called to patiently endure might not normally be thought about as joyful. In simple terms, Paul is praying that the faith of these believers would strengthen them to face trials, sorrows, suffering and difficulties in a way that shows Jesus to the world.

Some of you know that I experience a great deal of physical pain almost every single day of my life.  It is true, that if I were to be healed miraculously, many people would praise God. But I am convinced that more people have been blessed by watching how Jesus strengthens me with endurance, patience and joy in suffering than would have been blessed by my miraculous healing. Through the endurance, patience and joy God has given me, the world sees that Jesus is sufficient and good, even in the middle of hard times. That is a powerful testimony; I think more powerful than many more obvious miracles. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the obvious kind of miracles, also. But we sell God short when we forget that he can heal and strengthen us from the inside in ways that are truly miraculous.

All of us face difficulties of one sort or another. We battle the sin in our own flesh. We are tempted, and lied to, by the devil. We live in a sinful world. Sometimes, one, or all three of those things makes life extremely difficult and trying. The promise of scripture is not that we never face trials, but that, when we do, we can press in to the goodness, power, strength and love of God.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (ESV, Isaiah 43:1-3)

Sometimes we do pass through the waters, or the fire. I am in the fire right now. I am in pain as I write this, the same pain that has plagued me every day for four years now. God meets us in the fire and in the flood. His mighty power will strengthen you, and you can endure. Not only that, but you can endure with patience. Wait, there’s more: you can endure with patience, AND joy. The promise is here in scripture, and that should be enough, but I add my testimony. Those of you who know me personally know that it has been true in my life.

Those who know me also know that I am not walking around, pretending everything is great. Of course I struggle. I’m not talking about a fake happiness, or pretending nothing is wrong. But on the whole, the mighty, glorious power of God gives me strength to endure with patience and joy. I believe with all my heart and soul that God is good, he is powerful, and he loves me, and the pain cannot shake that. In fact, through my pain, I know it better today than I did before the struggle began. Many people ask me how I do it. I don’t. God does. And what he has done for me, he will do for you, if you let him.

The next phrase from the text is: giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

Certainly everything we have talked about so far is worth giving thanks for. But there is more. He has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. If you think that you are not qualified to be a saint, you are both right, and wrong. No one is qualified to be a saint. No one deserves the inheritance that is given to us in Jesus Christ. But God has qualified those who trust him. So it is not our qualification that makes us worthy to be saints, or share in the inheritance of Light. It is God himself who makes us qualified. Paul explains briefly how:

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

In the Greek (as in English) both of the verbs “delivered” and “transferred” give the sense that this is a done deal. It is an action that is completed. I know that we look around us, and say, “it doesn’t look complete to me. It looks like I’m still in between. I’m still being delivered, and being transferred. But that would not be the correct interpretation here.

This is a very important concept. The Bible teaches us that we live in two worlds at the same time. This is possible, because there are three distinct aspects of being a human being. We have bodies. We have souls. And we have spirits. Our bodies are fully in the world we see. Our bodies have not been delivered – they suffer the effects of sin, and will eventually die because of it. Our spirits, however, have already been delivered from darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom of light. If you are a believer, your spirit-person is already perfect, already holy and blameless; it’s a done deal. Your soul connects your body to your spirit. This is where the main battle is fought. Your soul is connected to your spirit, which is “already there.” It is also connected to your body, which will never be perfect, and never be in heaven. Your soul is where the tension is.

So when we hear these things, we have to understand it really is true. You (your spirit-person) has already been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus. It is already done. Yes, this mortal body will have to die. Yes, there is still  struggle going on in your soul. But in your spirit, it is a done deal. A lot of what we call Christian living is all about believing that this is true, and allowing what has been done to your spirit to flow down into your soul and body, so that you are influenced by the spirit, rather than the flesh. This is what the Bible calls “walking according to the Spirit.”

Another way the Bible describes it is like this:

11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Romans 6:11)

I think we have several important things to meditate on throughout this next week.

  • What are the struggles that you face? Have you availed yourself of the strength of God to allow you to endure with patience and joy? What are some ways that you might do that more?
  • It is God himself, through Jesus Christ, who has qualified you to be a saint, to share in the inheritance of the kingdom of light. Do you believe this? If not, what are the thoughts that you need to battle in order to trust that this is true?
  • Do you know, that if you are a disciple of Jesus, your spirit-person has already been fully transferred from darkness to light? What are the things that will help you believe this truth, and walk according to this spiritual reality?

Revelation #20 THE JOY THAT AWAITS

THE JOY THAT AWAITS

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

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Revelation #20.  Revelation 7:9-17

I believe Revelation is divided into seven major sections. Each section begins with a return to the perspective of heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, and about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Next, we entered the Heavenly throne room, and got a glimpse of the Glory and Power of the Lamb and the One seated on the throne. After that came section two, in which God laid the groundwork for the coming of the end of the world as we know it. Now, we begin a new section, and so we return once more to the Heavenly view of things.

The first two heavenly visions were concerned primarily with God. Remember, at the beginning of the book, John had a vision of Jesus. All focus was on Him, and what he said. The second part of the book began with a vision of the Heavenly throne room. Neither of these visions were primarily about human beings: the focus is on God. The first thing about Heaven is God himself. The entire universe is all about God. Heaven is about the magnificence, and glory, and goodness, and power of God. God doesn’t exist to serve us. Heaven wasn’t made for us, it was made by God, for God. God in his grace has made it possible for us to enter into His presence, and to find eternal joy there. But we should not make the mistake of thinking it is all about us. It is always all about God, and the goodness of God is such that he gives us a place by his side, that he makes room for us in his presence. This third vision is focused on what it looks like, or feels like, to be in the presence of God. John is reminding us where all of this is headed. With each new section, he reiterates what we have to look forward to in the presence of God.

John begins the new vision of Heaven with this:

9After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9, HCSB)

Heaven is filled with people of every ethnic group (the Greek word translated “nation” could also be “ethnicity”). There are people there from every tribe, every language, every distinct “people group” in the world. Heaven is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, joyful celebration. Some people think of Christianity as a European religion, or as the religion of Western Culture. But that has never been true. From the very beginning, Christianity crossed social, racial and cultural boundaries, both in doctrine, and in actual practice. There are churches in India, Ethiopia, and Egypt that date back 2,000 years. Although Christianity is currently struggling with secular culture in Europe and America, it is growing dynamically in Africa and China and other parts of the world. It has been embraced all over the globe.

This is all in accordance with what Jesus and his followers taught from the very beginning. Jesus always intended the gospel to go to all nations (again, the word could mean “ethnicities”). In fact, he commanded it.

18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

The apostles obeyed, and passed on the value that this gospel is for all people, both near and far. We who are in Jesus are not foreigners to each other, but fellow citizens, fellow members of God’s household.

17When the Messiah came, He proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. (Eph 2:17-20, HCSB)

Jesus is greater than race, nationality or language. By the way, this is an affirmation of the very beginning of Revelation, where John reminds us that we belong to God’s kingdom, and we are citizens of “God’s country” in a way that takes preeminence over any earthly citizenship.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…(Revelation 1:5-6)

It also says this in the book of Galatians:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV).

I want to make sure I say this clearly. The Bible does not teach a universal “brotherhood” of all humankind. It does not say that all people are God’s special children. It says that all those who trust Jesus are the children of God, and are brothers and sisters, no matter what our cultural or ethnic background. Without Jesus, we are not in God’s family, not according to the Bible. It is Jesus who makes us into the family of God.

11He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. 12But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, 13who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13, HCSB, italics added for emphasis)

But if we are in Jesus, we are one with all others who are in Him. No human conventions should divide us. It doesn’t matter what race or gender we are. The fact that we have surrendered our lives to Jesus means that we are brothers and sisters with everyone else who has done the same. Our unity in Jesus is greater than our cultural and ethnic differences. The early church most definitely lived that out:

 1Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1, ESV2011)

Barnabas was a Jew, as was Saul. Simeon was called “Niger,” which means “black,” so he was probably an African. Lucius was from Cyrene, which is in modern day Libya, so he would have been an African of different ethnicity than Simeon. Manaen was probably an Idumean, from the area now known as Jordan.

Even today, despite racial tensions in some parts of the world, Christianity is by no means dominated by any particular ethnicity. Ethnicity is not something that ever divides true Christians. In Revelation, it is a great joy to see people of every tribe, tongue and nation in heaven. Our race, color, culture ,and language are never barriers to the unity we have as followers of our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

I feel so blessed in that I have had the chance to travel to almost twenty different countries, and to meet so many Christians of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It’s amazing and encouraging to hear eight or ten different languages spoken as you gather for worship, and then to see the unity of everyone’s love for Jesus when worship begins. It is a powerfully moving experience, and I think this passage in Revelation tells us that in Heaven it will be like that, only so much greater!

I want to add something else that I find interesting. “Secularism” is a way of looking at the world apart from religion. Secularists are often atheists, or, if not, they still tend to think of God as impersonal and uninvolved in human affairs. In the US and Europe, most people in government, higher education and the news media are secularists.

Many secular people pride themselves for being in favor of diversity in race and culture. However, secularism in itself (the way of looking at the world apart from God) does not appeal to a very diverse group of people. Most secularists are products of Western culture. It has very little appeal to people from other backgrounds. Christianity is far more culturally diverse in actual fact than secularism.

Moving on, this multitude praises God together. They are clothed in white; their clothes are made white by the blood of the lamb. Now obviously, when you dip clothes in blood, they don’t come out white. This is a symbolic picture. It means that the sacrificial death of Jesus has cleansed them from all sin, and made them holy and righteous in the eyes of God. We are supposed to remember that it is Jesus who makes us holy and righteous, not anything we ourselves do. The palm branches may signify a kind of victory celebration.

In verse 13, one of the twenty-four elders asks a question that we all naturally have: “Who are these people?” I believe (as do several other respected commentators) that these are the same people who were sealed in the last passage (7:1-8). I think the sealing of the 144,000 (which we covered last time) is a picture of what it looks like on earth. All of God’s people are sealed, but sometimes it seems like there aren’t very many of us. In our daily lives, if we haven’t traveled much, we may even feel like all Christians seem to be of the same people group. That’s how it appears on earth. On earth we must be protected from God’s wrath, and from the Devil. On earth, the true extent and glory of the Church is hidden. But now, starting in verse 9, John shows us what it looks like in Heaven. When we get there, we see that there is a huge multitude that cannot be numbered. Far from looking limited, far from looking like all God’s people come from one nation, John shows us the true spiritual reality of God’s people in heaven.

Once again, some commentators make the argument that the 144,000 are Jewish people who come to faith in Jesus after all of the Gentile believers are “raptured,” and the multitude in our passage today are those Gentile believers who were raptured before the great tribulation. However, that interpretation depends upon an elaborate system of picking and choosing obscure parts of several different books of the Bible, and weaving them together in highly specific ways to create a kind of “timeline” of the end times. It does not arise naturally from the text of Revelation, not even remotely. The Holy Spirit inspired the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, and Revelation. But He did not clearly inspire the timeline that people make up by picking and choosing from those books. That timeline is not contained within any text of scripture.

I certainly could be wrong. But every instinct I have as a scholar of the Bible tells me that picking and choosing from different books to create a distinct message that is not clear within any of the books individually is bad Bible interpretation.

In addition of course, the actual text of Revelation says that these people:

“…are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14, NIV).

The Greek makes it clear that they were in the great tribulation, and now, they have come out of it. In other words, they were not raptured before it started. In fact, some commentators feel that the “great tribulation” refers to the struggles and sufferings of the church throughout all of history, not just the end times. John, however, sees them at a time when all suffering and sorrow is behind them.

15“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (Rev 7:15, ESV2011)

Let’s be honest. If we take this at face value, it sounds a little bit boring: serving in a temple all day and all night. But we need to remember that this is figurative and symbolic. Picture it this way: Think back to a time in your life when you were with a group of people that you knew well, and loved. Everyone was at peace with each other, there was laughter, fun, good food. Imagine a time like that, one of those moments that you wished would never end; you wished it could just go on and on like that forever. That is what it means to serve God day and night in his temple.

It says that God will shelter them with his presence. There have been a few times in my own life where I have sensed the presence of God in a particularly strong way. It is overwhelming, it is joyful. This is not some dreary, boring ceremony; it is the essence of joy, it is life itself, continually poured into us, continually overflowing out of us.

It says they shall neither hunger nor thirst, and they shall be protected from the sun. Again, this is figurative language. It means, more or less, that all of our needs will be met, and that we will never suffer anymore. This is because the Lamb himself will be our shepherd. He will guide us to springs of living water, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. God himself will remove all of our grief. He will satisfy our deepest needs and longings. He will lead us from goodness to goodness.

This is what God’s people are sealed for. This is our future, if we continue to trust Jesus, if we continue to surrender our lives to him. This is God making everything right; this is him making room for us in his all-joyful, all-satisfying presence. This is what we’re waiting for, and the book of Revelation is assuring us that this is indeed coming, that God is putting into motion the things that need to happen for this to come about.

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

THANKFULNESS

thankful-kneeling

The older I get, the more I am inclined to believe that thankfulness is a key part in receiving the grace and love and joy that are offered to us through Jesus Christ. When we thank God, we are, in a way, reaching out and receiving what we thank him for. We are agreeing with what the Bible says about his graciousness and love toward us; we affirming something true about the nature of God. We are saying, “Yes, I have received your love and grace,” and as we declare that to be true, it somehow becomes more real to us.

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THANKSGIVING

[I preached this two years ago, and if anything, it is even more relevant today. In case you didn’t memorize at the time, here, once again, are some helpful, Biblical thoughts about giving thanks].

Thanksgiving has become an American holiday and tradition, but it does originate from deep, Christian spiritual roots. One of the things that I find interesting is that many of significant Thanksgiving celebrations early in the history of America took place in the middle of very difficult times.

The “original thanksgiving” took place in the New England settlement of Pilgrims during the sixteen-hundreds. It is true that at the time they celebrated, they had a good harvest. But they had just gone through an incredibly difficult year in which large numbers of the Pilgrims had perished from disease and malnutrition. From a simple cataloging of bad events versus good, they had much more to be upset about than to be thankful for. Yet they held a three day feast, thanking God for his blessings.

The first national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by the brand-new American government in 1777. It is true, at the time many people were elated by the American victory over the British at Saratoga. But also at the time of the proclamation, the British still occupied the capital city of the new country (which was Philadelphia at that point) and also held New York City and several significant southern cities. The war was far from over, and times were still quite desperate, and yet they called for a national day of prayer, thankfulness, and repentance toward God.

Considering this history, perhaps it is appropriate that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday during the middle of the Civil War. Once again, the war was far from over, and many desperate times and terrible battles were both behind and ahead. Yet President Lincoln wrote of the many blessings that persisted in spite of war, and said:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It isn’t my intention to give a history lesson. But I want to point out explicitly that the early Americans seemed eager and able to thank God, even in the middle of significant hardship. In fact, the American Thanksgiving tradition arose more from hardship and war than from peace and prosperity. Even more, I want to point out that this idea of thanking God at all times, even in difficult circumstances, is a biblical practice.

Job chapter one records a series of calamities that befall Job, a righteous man. At the end of it all, this is what he did:

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;

may the name of the LORD be praised.”

Psalm 69 was written by someone who felt he was “poor and in pain.” His appropriate response was to thank the Lord:

But as for me — poor and in pain — let Your salvation protect me, God. I will praise God’s name with song and exalt Him with thanksgiving.  (Ps 69:29-30, HCSB)

Paul says, “Good, bad, normal, it doesn’t matter. Give thanks all the time.”

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

The older I get, the more I am inclined to believe that thankfulness is a key part in receiving the grace and love and joy that are offered to us through Jesus Christ. I have long known that when I confess my sins to the Lord and repent, what really helps me to feel forgiven is the act of thanking him for that forgiveness. When we thank God, we are, in a way, reaching out and receiving what we thank him for. We are agreeing with what the Bible says about his graciousness and love toward us; we affirming something true about the nature of God. We are saying, “Yes, I have received your love and grace,” and as we declare that to be true, it somehow becomes more real to us. I think this is one of the reasons that the New Testament is so clear about the fact that whenever we pray, part of our praying should involve thankfulness to the Lord. Thankfulness breeds faith and grace.

Thankfulness also leads to peace and contentment. Philippians 4:5-7 teaches that thankful prayer is an antidote to worry:

Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:5-7, HCSB)

Yes, it is good and proper to ask God for what we need, and to share our burdens with him. It is also important to thank him as we offer up those prayers. Through turning our burdens over with thankfulness, we experience the peace of God, which is beyond understanding. The fact that it is beyond understanding means that sometimes we will experience peace when our circumstances suggest that we shouldn’t be able to do so. It is thankfulness, at least in part, which leads to this sort of peace in all circumstances.

I have found that thankfulness (and the benefits of peace, grace and faith which come with it) can be encouraged by some self-discipline. Sometimes, it is helpful to just make myself start thanking God. I don’t like mornings, and I’m not usually very happy until after mid-morning. But, stepping into the shower grumpy and irritated, I can begin by thanking the Lord for running hot water, and then soap, and then a towel. I can thank him that I have my own bathroom. That reminds me that I have my own house to live in, and it is plenty for my whole family. I can go on, and thank the Lord for warm, clean socks, and the existence of coffee, and then for my wife and children. You see how it goes: once we get started, there are an endless stream of things to thank the Lord for. I think one thing that is Biblically appropriate is to frequently thank Jesus for his sacrifice for us, and for his promise of eternal life to us.

Thank the Lord today and this week, and let him encourage thankfulness in your heart!

LEAVING ALL FOR JESUS: THE HAPPY, FUN SIDE!

happy

Following Jesus is not a reliable way to wealth, health and earthly security. But Jesus is unequivocally promising his disciples that their sacrifices will not go unnoticed or unrewarded.

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 69

 

Matthew #69. Matthew 19:27-30

27Then Peter responded to Him, “Look, we have left everything and followed You. So what will there be for us? ”28Jesus said to them, “I assure you: In the Messianic Age, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel.29And everyone who has left houses, brothers or sisters, father or mother, children, or fields because of My name will receive 100 times more and will inherit eternal life.30But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matt 19:27-30, HCSB)

After the encounter with the rich young ruler, and the discussion about the difficulties of riches, Peter points out to Jesus that he and the others did what the rich young ruler was unwilling to do. In all of the Gospels, the disciples are usually portrayed as very human and fallible. In some ways, this is both a very human moment for Peter, but also a touching one. Peter sees the rich young man keeping his great wealth. But he, and James, and John, and Matthew, and perhaps some of the others, left thriving businesses to follow Jesus. They didn’t have the same kind of wealth as the rich young man, but at least those four certainly appeared to have viable livelihoods until they started following Jesus. You almost get the sense that as Peter watches him walk away he wonders “Did I do the right thing? Was this guy smarter than me?” I don’t see Peter here as a failure, or dense. Instead, I think he is just being very real. He left an actual business, and actual way of making a living, for something very insubstantial: faith. Peter was a fisherman. You can see fish, you can smell them, and you can trade them for coins that you hold in your hand. He owned boats and nets and sails and oars – real things that hold real value for people. But you can’t see faith, you can’t smell it, and you can’t touch it physically. You certainly can’t trade it for money. It is only natural for him to be insecure from time to time. It is only natural to wonder: “What kind of future can I really have, when I have left everything that might have given me security?” Following Jesus can feel very lonely at times, especially when you see others who are not as “sold out” as you are, and yet they appear to be thriving in this life.

Especially in these types of sermons, I feel a little funny pausing to ask for your prayers, because I have all these fine words about giving up everything to follow Jesus. But the truth is, we all need help in that journey, me no less than anyone else. We don’t do this on our own. So I do deeply appreciate your prayers for this ministry of Bible Teaching. I believe the Lord works when we invite him to, so please invite him to work in and through this ministry, and to provide for us. Thank you!

It seems like these days, most Christians make one of two errors when we start talking about Jesus rewarding his followers. The first error, I mentioned last time: the prosperity gospel. Some people, calling themselves Christians, teach that following Jesus is a way to wealth, health and prosperity. We considered this in the previous message in this series. But there is another error. For some Christians, perhaps because of the falsehood represented by the prosperity gospel, it has become “unfashionable” to talk about being rewarded for faith. However, clearly, in our passage for today, Jesus promises rewards to those who make sacrifices for him.

Mark and Luke record Jesus as also saying that his followers will receive some of these rewards “in this time” (Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30). In fact Mark has, “now, in this time.” I think there are three things to consider about this.

First, there are a few main Greek words for “time.” One is hora which is literally, “hour.” Another is hemera which is literally “day.” A third is kronos, which you may recognize in English as the root of chronological, or chronograph. It refers to specific moments. A fourth word is kairos which is used to designate a special or proper moment in time, as in “My time has come.” Kairos is the word Jesus uses in Mark and Luke. So it isn’t necessarily “chronological time” (that would be kronos) – it is the proper time, the right moment in which the apostles will receive their reward.

Second, let’s suppose for a minute that we should take it literally as “in this very moment.” The fact is, Peter and the others did not receive literal houses and fields and so on in that moment, nor did they literally receive them during their lives on earth. But it could be something like this: at the moment they made their sacrifice for Jesus, their reward in heaven was set apart, and reserved for them. So, in a sense, they received their reward immediately, but they had no way to make use of it until after they had died and gone to be with Jesus. By the way, this does not contradict the first point.

A third idea is that in following Jesus they found 100 times the joy that they might have had with the families that they left in order to follow the Lord; they found 100 times the peace and security that they might have had from possessions and money; They found, leaving home for Jesus, that they were at home anywhere in the world in his presence. That sort of reward begins now, in this life, and continues on in eternity.

I think it is clear that Jesus is not speaking literally. When he says they will receive brothers and sisters, I highly doubt that he means their mothers will conceive and give birth to more siblings for them. But they did indeed find relationships with other Jesus-followers that became as close and wonderful as those between brothers and sisters. They did not receive literal houses; and yet, within a very short period of time they could go to almost any city in the Roman empire and find a house where they would be welcomed, where the Jesus-following owners would invite them to stay and be refreshed.

By the way, I have found this true in my own life, going all the way back to my childhood as a missionary kid. We left behind friends, uncles, aunts, and grandparents when we went overseas. But we found people there who are now just as close and dear to us as our blood relatives. I have many “aunts and uncles,” dozens of “cousins.” I too, have houses all over the world where I know I would be welcome. In terms of relationships, I have already been richly rewarded for following Jesus.

I could even say the same, in terms of “fields.” I don’t love cities. We live in a semi-rural area, on ten acres of land. Ten acres is really nice – much better than the tiny little lot we came from, but we do have neighbors on either side of us, probably 100 yards away or less. Shortly after we moved here, we met the man who owns 400 acres and a tall hill, running up against back of our property. He invited us to go hiking on his land anytime we wanted to. His is a beautiful piece of land, with trees and rocks and little creeks and from the top of the hill, views that go on for twenty miles or more. One day I was hiking up there, and I prayed, “Lord, why can’t we have all this?” (yes, sometimes I’m that shallow). I don’t hear audible voices from God, but sometimes I get a sense of a “conversation” between He and I. What I heard that day was: “What is that you want here that you don’t have? Did you want to pay to keep the meadows mowed? Did you want maintain the fences or pay taxes on the land?”

I realized that I “had” the land in any way I wanted it – which was simply to roam around and explore and look at wildlife and views. I don’t own it, of course, and I’m deeply grateful to my neighbor for letting me hike there, but I don’t have to own it to enjoy it. So sometimes, when we give up ownership for the Lord, he gives us the enjoyment of things we don’t own. And frankly, I probably enjoy my neighbor’s land more because I don’t have to maintain it.

Now, I don’t want to get too caught up in material things. I am saying that Jesus promises some sort of sense of being blessed for following him, even here and now. But of course, the main reward is spiritual things, not physical. I also think it is clear that many times scripture uses things we can see and touch – like fields, houses, brothers and sisters, to describe spiritual truths that we cannot fully grasp, this side of heaven. So, for instance, part of our reward in the spiritual realm, will be something sort of like a house is to us in physical realm. It isn’t necessarily an actual house, but maybe something like the joy and security and rest you get from a physical house will be given to you in some way (100-fold, says Jesus!).

Again, following Jesus is not a reliable way to wealth, health and earthly security. But Jesus is unequivocally promising his disciples that their sacrifices will not go unnoticed or unrewarded.

At first, the promise seems a little, well, underwhelming. We give up real things like houses and fields and boats and money, and we get insubstantial things like love and joy and peace. We give up things we can hold and smell and touch for things that we don’t actually “get” until after we die. But stop and think about it for a minute. We know that everyone dies. In the entire history of earth, no one has ever managed to take a single physical thing from this world with them when they die. So we know that whatever we accumulate here – the things we smell, and touch and hold – are temporary, and useless to us after we die. But Jesus offers us rewards we can have even after death. It’s like he is saying, “If you give me your monopoly money, your pretend money, I will give you solid gold ingots.” We are trading the temporary for the eternal, and that’s a darn good trade. As missionary-martyr Jim Elliot said:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he can never lose.

Jesus says something else here, in verse 30, that I find tremendously comforting:

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

At first, I felt ashamed that these words comfort me, but, as usual, Jesus is saying something very profound and important. As a Christian, it is a great temptation for me to compare myself to others, especially when I’m feeling insecure. Peter might have been comparing himself to the rich young ruler. The young man kept his wealth, and Peter gave up his own. In this life, it appeared that the young man had made the wise decision, and Peter the foolish one. Peter had nothing, the rich man had everything. But Jesus says, “things are not always going to be the way they seem right now. Those who appear to be making it here and now, those who are ‘winning’ by the standards of the world might actually be ultimately losing. In the same way, those who appear to be ‘last,’ the losers, they might be the ones coming in ‘first.’”

What I get from this is that it is pointless to compare yourself with others. We can’t see, here and now, whether who is really “getting ahead.” As much as we might feel like we are being left behind, left out, the opposite may be true.

I think it is important to remember that this life is not all there is, and that sometimes, the greatest rewards are the hardest to quantify. Jesus is telling us that he will not forget what we have given up for him, and he will not fail to reward it, starting now in some ways, but more fully in the Life to come.

ARE THERE “EXTRA” REWARDS IN HEAVEN?

IRS Treasure in heaven

The concept of rewards in addition to simply being in heaven is one of the least-taught, least understood aspects of the New Testament. Too often we look at the subject as though in heaven we will still struggle with resentment, pride and envy.

 

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 57

 

Matthew #57 . Matthew 16:27-28

My wife recently told me that I’m still trying to pack too much into one sermon. So this time, I’ll attempt to cover only the next verse in Matthew:

For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done. (Matt 16:27 HCSB)

If we just stop and think about this for a moment, it could be problematic. I mean, I have always taught that we are judged based on our response to Jesus, not on the good works we have done (or failed to do). But here, it sounds like we will be rewarded based not on our faith in Jesus, but on our behavior. If we investigate, we find something puzzling: The New Testament appears to teach both things.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul brings up the issue of rewards in heaven:

Now the one who plants and the one who waters are equal, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. (1 Cor 3:8-9)

According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one must be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire. (1Cor 3:10-15, HCSB)

This is one of the least understood and taught doctrines in the New Testament. Paul says the foundation is Jesus Christ. But then he talks about the quality of what we build on that foundation, and receiving rewards for what our work. But Paul makes sure we understand that it starts with the foundation of Jesus Christ; in fact, the foundation that was revealed by Peter’s confession. Let’s begin by making sure of it.

The Bible teaches in numerous places, over and over again, that we are saved only through God’s grace, which comes to us through a faith-based relationship with Jesus Christ.

Here are just a few of many, many, many verses that affirm we are not justified before God by what we do, but by God’s grace given to us when we trust Him. I’ll italicize a few parts for emphasis:

We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:3-9, HCSB)

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom 3:27-28, HCSB)

He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)

He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7, HCSB)

Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:16-17)

Clear enough for you? Over and over again, the New Testament teaches that we are saved when we trust Jesus Christ, and our own “good works” have nothing to do with it. So we know that our eternal destiny – whether we go to heaven or hell – is determined not by us being good enough, but by trusting Jesus. That is the foundation. Paul says, you can’t build on any other basis (1 Corinthians 3:11). If we have that foundation, we will spend eternity with Jesus and our loved ones in the New Heavens and New Earth. The whole Bible is crystal clear on that.

However, we do find many places in the New Testament, including several places in Matthew, which talk about rewards for doing good works. Now, we have just reiterated that heaven itself is not a reward for doing good. So when the New Testament talks about some kind of reward in the afterlife based upon what we do here, it cannot mean salvation. Well then, what kind of reward does Jesus mean here?

This is actually very important for how we interpret the Bible. When we read any other book, we assume that the author will not deliberately contradict herself. It should be the same with the Bible. So if the Bible says clearly (as it does) that salvation is not a reward for good behavior, but only the result of faith in Jesus; and then it says there is a reward for good works, we have to assume that the reward for good works is something other than salvation. As it turns out, there are many Bible verses that talk about these rewards. Just a few of them are Revelation 22:12; Matthew 5:11-2, 6:1-6, 17-18, 10:41-42; Luke 6:35; and this one:

7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. (Ephesians 6:7-8)

James writes that not many should presume to be Bible teachers, because they will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). Well, as a Bible teacher I know that my salvation will be judged based on whether or not I trust Jesus. So in what way will I be judged more strictly? The logical answer is: in the matter of my work, and any reward I might get for it.

Now, for many people, the idea of reward in heaven presents some problems. First, some people feel that it implies that there might be inequality in heaven. Second, some people feel it implies unhappiness there also.

Scripture is clear that in heaven, God wipes every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more grief or suffering or pain (Revelation 21:3-5). So rest assured, reward or not, your joy will be complete.

In addition, when we think this way, we forget that jealousy and resentment are the product of sin, the flesh and the devil. In eternity, all these things will be defeated and destroyed. We will be able to fully rejoice at the triumph of another, and bear in humble joy our own situation, unmarred by sin, bitterness, resentment or envy. Seeing someone else rewarded more than you will lead only to praise to God for his goodness, mercy and justice.

What Paul says in the Corinthians passage I quoted above is that those who have no reward will still be saved, but it will be like an escape through a fire. If we really imagine that, we get a sense for what it is like. Ultimately we will be safe, and will find joy in that. But as we initially enter heaven, if we have built poorly on the foundation of Jesus, we might find the judgment day to be harrowing.

Consider it this way: do you think it would be fair if Mother Theresa, with all her self-sacrifice, receives nothing more than me, with all my self-centeredness? We are both saved entirely by God’s grace. But shouldn’t she be rewarded somehow for the fact that in Jesus Christ, she used her life more faithfully than I used mine? Shouldn’t heaven celebrate and appreciate those who have done good things for the Lord on earth? Again, I think what we know of the kingdom of God is such that there will be no resentment involved.

Now, I want to speculate a bit on what the rewards mean. I do have some scripture that suggests what I think about this, but I can’t nail this down for sure. In other words, what I am going to share next falls more into the realm of conjecture than solid biblical teaching. In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells the parable of the Talents. In it, three servants were given different resources to use on behalf of the Master. They were rewarded according to how they made use of those resources. The reward is that they were given additional resources to use, according the ability they had demonstrated.

This makes me think of rewards in heaven in terms of capacity. Picture two buckets. One bucket can hold one gallon of fresh, clear water. The other bucket can hold five gallons of beautiful clean water. Now imagine both buckets, filled to the brim. Which bucket has more water? Obviously, the one that can hold more. But they are both full. The one gallon bucket has as much water as it can possibly hold. It doesn’t have as much as the five gallon bucket, but then, it can’t. It is still completely full. I think maybe heaven will be like that. We will all be as full as we can be. But some people will be able to contain more of God’s fullness and joy than others. The ones with smaller capacity will still be completely full and satisfied – but the ones with greater capacity will experience their joy to level that the others can’t.

Here’s another way to look at it. In my left eye, my vision is about 20/100. It cannot be corrected, and so I am considered legally blind in that eye. Now, my right eye is basically fine, and it does most of the seeing work for me. I can drive, and watch movies, appreciate visual art and generally enjoy life. Where my half-blindness affects me most is in depth perception. I have a horrible time shooting a basketball. Things that are far away look equally distant from me. If I see man standing 100 yards away, and another man 200 yards away, the only way I can tell they are not next to each other is because one looks smaller than the other. I can get some experience of 3-D movies, but not the same as other people. Binoculars only work for me if I close my left eye. But I was born this way, I have never seen correctly out of my left eye, and so I’m perfectly happy with my vision: I don’t really know what I’m missing, except the basketball hoop. I don’t feel sorry for myself and I enjoy my vision fully, and I feel no lack. But if there was something I could do to get true binocular vision, I would be a fool not to do it. Though I enjoy the visual aspects of life as much as I can, wouldn’t it be great if I could somehow exercise my eyes to get full range of vision?

One more analogy. When I was younger, I could eat all day long, and it did not affect my weight, my health or even how I felt. Now that I am older, I can’t eat so much, and certainly, what I eat has greater consequences for my body. I even get full faster. Sometimes I find myself at an event a party where there are all kinds of delicious food. At such times, I wish I could eat like I did when I was younger. I could enjoy more of that delicious food, if my metabolism was still young. I have a close friend who has aged differently than me. He can’t eat like he’s twenty, but he can still eat more than I can, with fewer consequences. Sometimes I envy him. I wonder if I had made different choices, if I might still have been able to enjoy as much food as he does. Now, what if I had the chance to get that metabolism back, so I could enjoy delicious food all the time without feeling too full, gaining weight or negatively affecting my health? There’s a billion dollar industry trying to sell people exactly that: everyone wants that.

You can get that, in heaven. You’ll have all the delicious food you can handle. But maybe some people will be able to handle more. I think this is probably how rewards in heaven will work. Everyone will be happy. They will get as much joy as they can handle. But if they had made different choices while they were living on this earth, they might have been able to experience much more in heaven. C.S. Lewis explores some of these ideas a little bit in his excellent and entertaining book, The Great Divorce, which is all about Heaven (it has nothing to do with divorce; the title was not well chosen). He speculates that perhaps even after we get there, we can still increase our capacity to experience more joy and fullness.

I used to say that heaven itself was enough reward for me, and so it should be – it is, in fact, far more than I deserve. Even so, what a fool I would be to waste any opportunity to enjoy heaven to the fullest possible capacity! Think of it like this: Do you really want to make a deliberate choice to enter heaven by the skin of your teeth, with the minimum possible capacity to enjoy it? That is an attitude that comes not from the Spirit, but from the flesh. And it is ridiculous, when you think about it. It’s like a teenager saying, “I don’t care about my future after High School. As long as I’m alive and can work a minimum wage job, I’ll be fine. So right now I’m not going to study or learn or prepare for the future. What is important is not life after graduation, but only life right now.” Some people have that attitude, but it is a very short-sighted one, and most people who do take that approach end up regretting it within a few years.

Jesus’ words should encourage us to take a more spiritual approach to the future, and to the here and now. It should be helpful to know that we do or endure here and now does not go unnoticed. It should motivating to think of the joy that awaits all of us who trust Jesus.

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MAKING USE OF THE SEASON

Christmas-Eve-Picture

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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CHRISTMAS 2014: Using the Season

I have felt disconnected from Christmas this year. What with one thing and another, we didn’t get a tree until about ten days before Christmas. The house wasn’t decorated, and we weren’t listening to Christmas music. We were busy, and I, at least, wasn’t out and about where Christmas stuff was happening. Then just a few days ago I did some Christmas shopping. I was ashamed to find that the decorations and music and the ways the stores are decked out actually started to get me more into the “Christmas spirit.” I thought, “Really? This is what helps me appreciate Christmas? This isn’t even what it’s about!”

Like it or not, the truth is, Christmas has become a cultural phenomenon. Sometimes, as Christians, we want to fight it. The commercialism can be disgusting. The whole holiday adds a great deal of stress to every December. And everyone seems to miss the point, anyway. We don’t want to get caught up in it all, because we know that when it is all over, we’ll just be left with new stuff that will eventually become old stuff, a ten-foot-high-pile of wrapping paper, a dead tree and maybe seven extra pounds.

But why not, this year, get into the whole Christmas thing again? Get caught up in it all, get excited, let the joy infect you – and use it to let Jesus draw you closer to himself.

No one knows for sure the exact date of Jesus’ birth but I did some research recently. Jesus was born less than nine months after his relative, John the Baptist. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest in the priestly division of Abijah. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple and when John’s birth was first predicted. 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 and Jesus was born in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a total lag time of just two months 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.

Even so, no one knows the exact date. So how did we get December 25th? In the middle 300s (AD) the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. At that time, the big Celebration of the year for the Romans, was Winter Solstice. They celebrated it on December 25, because that was the first day they could tell that the days were getting longer again. It was a big time holiday. It had nothing to do with Jesus.

But Constantine, after becoming a believer, decided to make use of the pagan holiday to help people think about Jesus. So he declared December 25 to be no longer Winter Solstice, but now the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. He used the joy and pageantry in the service of the one true God.

In some ways, in our culture, Christmas has returned once more to a pagan holiday. Christmas trees come from a pagan tradition. The way stores use Christmas to drive sales has nothing to do with Jesus. Probably a majority of the people who celebrate Christmas, don’t care much one way or the other about Jesus. Even so, like Constantine, we can make use of it.

Think of it this way: what is it that we like about Christmas? What gives us so much anticipation and excitement. What makes it “the most wonderful time of the year?” I think most people look forward to one or more of these things:

• Time spent with loved ones.

• Rest – very few people have to work on Christmas

• Receiving gifts (and, in some cases, people look forward to giving them too)

• Food and Celebration

• Connecting with something deeper and bigger than ourselves (often through traditions).

Each of these are worthwhile things in and of themselves. We can make them even more worthwhile by using them to provide a boost to our relationship with Jesus. Let’s look at how.

TIME SPENT WITH LOVED ONES. One the greatest joys of Christmas is spending it with someone we love. One of the greatest sorrows is the first Christmas you spend after a loved one is no longer with you. If you are missing loved ones this year, use that to remind you of the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of his forgiveness, and his resurrection from death, our sorrow will be turned to Joy. One day, nothing will ever part us from those we love:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Rev 21:1-4)

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

REST. We love the break of Christmas. Most people don’t do unnecessary chores at Christmas. We can relax and enjoy at least a single day. But God has promised us a rest that continues, not just for one, day, but forever:

God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. For this good news—that God has prepared this rest—has been announced to us just as it was to them….So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall. (Heb 4:1-2 & 9-11)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

Turn the mood of this Christmas season into leverage for helping you rest in Jesus.

RECEIVING GIFTS. What did you get for Christmas last year? To be truthful, I cannot remember without putting some serious thought to it. What I do know is this: I am usually thrilled about new gifts, but it isn’t terribly long until the thrill wears off. But the Lord gives us gifts that never spoil or fade:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Matt 6:19-21)

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:11-13)

Use the joy and anticipation of gifts to help you receive what the Lord is offering us – his Holy Spirit, and an unfading eternal future. Use the presents to help you focus on the eternal and immeasurably valuable gifts that the Father has given us through Jesus Christ.

FOOD & CELEBRATION. Often in scripture, food is used as a metaphor for fellowship with God. As we anticipate eating, and actually eat, let’s consciously invite the Lord to be a part of our lives.

Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)

Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:20)

So let’s feast! Enjoy the food. And as we do, worship, and receive Jesus’ invitation to close fellowship. Celebrate with loved ones, and use it to remind you of the eternal celebration we will have when we are finally together with Lord and our loved ones in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

CONNECTING WITH DEEPER REALITY. I think it is during this season the greatest numbers of people are really open and willing to consider something bigger than themselves. At Christmas we seem more ready to acknowledge that we want more – not just more stuff, but more –something – in our lives. That something is a relationship with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

By the way, we can use more than just Christmas. I find that I usually deeply enjoy the period leading up to New Year’s also, and can use it the same way. But it isn’t even just season. We can use any time of joy, any celebration or event to which we are looking forward. We can use these things to point us toward what is greater and more eternal; the real celebration.

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

Pause for a moment. Can you sense we are on Holy Ground? The presence of Jesus transformed a plain, ordinary, smelly stable into a holy place. Let his presence do that for you not just at Christmas, but year round, wherever you find yourself.

Have a very merry Christmas!