Turn with me to Mark 8:27-33. This scripture occurs in the final year of Jesus’ earthly ministry as His focus has grown more steadily towards His journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He has already gathered His disciples and they have been with Him for a couple years. He has already done much travelling and teaching and has had a lot of run-ins with a lot of different people. At one point in his travels, it says,
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”
You gotta love, Peter. He goes from telling Jesus who He is to arguing with Jesus about the very same thing. “Who am I?” asked Jesus. Peter says, “You are the Christ.”, meaning the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God and divinely anointed leader who will liberate God’s people from their great oppressor. In Peter’s mind that meant military victory over Rome and the establishing of the Jewish people as the rulers of the earth. Then Jesus starts to clarify what it meant for Him to be the Christ. He told them what would happen soon – rejection from the leaders of Jerusalem, a false trial before the chief priests, cursed to be crucified on a Roman cross, but then to rise again in victory. That’s not what Peter wanted to hear. Peter had an identity crisis on behalf of Jesus. The Christ can’t die! That sounds like defeat! So Peter starts to argue with Jesus, rebuking the One he had just called Christ. “No way! That’ll never happen! You have the power to stop that. You could use your power to overthrow Rome! You don’t need to die on a cross. Surely the angels will protect you.” Sound familiar?
Now turn to John 6. You will see at the beginning of this chapter the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Everyone was really excited about that. Look at verse 14.
“When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Another identity crisis. Jesus, in His compassion, feeds the hungry masses. They are impressed, call him “The Prophet”, meaning a man like Moses who God used to miraculously feed Israel manna in the desert, and immediately want to force Him to become King. And Jesus takes off. Now why did the people want to make Jesus King, and why would Jesus take off on them? After all, being the Christ makes Him king, right? Why run away?
Turn to verse 25-26,
“When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’”
Same problem as Peter. Jesus Christ had come to save the people, not from the oppression of Rome, but from a much greater oppressor – death. And that plan required Him to go to Jerusalem, be falsely accused, have the sins of the world placed on His shoulders, and for Him to die under the curse. His coronation would come later, but that’s not what the people wanted. They wanted a king now. They wanted a new Moses. Jesus wanted to give them more. And if Jesus would have become King then, everyone in His Kingdom would still be under the curse of sin and death because He wouldn’t have gone to the cross. Jesus had a bigger picture.
Over and over in Jesus’ life, people kept misunderstanding who He was, why He had come, and what He was supposed to do. His family, friends, followers, and enemies all argued with Jesus about who He was and what He was doing. He was called crazy, demonic, and a blasphemer. Eventually, by the end of John 6, a huge amount of His disciples would leave, angry and confused about who Jesus claimed to be.
As we go through a study of the Apostles Creed in this section of the Heidelberg Catechism we are answering a few fairly straightforward questions that people have been asking about Jesus for literally two thousand years: Who is Jesus?
Last week it was the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” In other words, what makes the name of Jesus so significant, and what does it mean to us? And the answer was, “Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.” The name “Jesus” means “God Saves” and throughout His life Jesus claimed – and the Christian church has claimed ever since – that faith in Jesus is the only way anyone can be saved from the judgement of God against their sin.
Today we move from the significance of the name of Jesus to His title, “The Christ”. When Peter answered the question, “Who do you say I am?” that was His answer, and it was packed with significance.
Question 31 of the Heidelberg asks the question,
“Why is he called Christ, that is, Anointed?”
In other words, “What is the significance of calling Jesus ‘Christ’? What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One?
During the trial before His crucifixion, Jesus stood silently as He was accused of a lot of things, but none of them held up, even in that false, kangaroo court they had come up with. But the High Priest, who didn’t care who Jesus really was and just wanted Him dead, had one more card up his sleeve. It says in Matthew 26:63-66,
“And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’”
Jesus was crucified because of the claim that He is “the Christ”. Why was that such a big deal? The Heidelberg summarizes it this way:
“Because he has been ordained by God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.”
Why was Jesus’ and His followers’ claim that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, such a big deal? Because He it said, and the Christian church says today, that Jesus is God’s perfect prophet, priest, and king. Those are the only people that get anointed by God – prophets, priests and kings. What does that mean?
Prophet, Priest, King
It means that Jesus claims, and we believe, to be the greatest of all the prophets or teachers. Over and over Jesus claimed to not only be talking about God but to be speaking the very words of God (John 8:28, 12:49-50, 14:24). In that way, He is greater than Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist or Peter. Jesus is our chief teacher because He is the One who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God because He is God. He is the best interpreter of the Law because He is the lawgiver. He is the best preacher of the gospel because He Himself is the good news. He is the best proclaimer of the kingdom of God because it’s His kingdom. Everyone other than Jesus knows a part of God’s plan. Jesus knows everything and was willing to teach us a lot of it when He came, and then even more through His Spirit within.
He is also the greatest priest, greater than all priests that came before. A prophet’s job is to tell us God’s word. A priest’s job is to bring the people before God by doing what is necessary to make us worthy and then interceding on our behalf. Jesus does this better than any other. Every other priest is sinful, Jesus is sinless. Every other priest offered animals, Jesus offered Himself. Other priests have to repeat sacrifices, Jesus was once and for all. Other priests offer sacrifices for a certain group of people, Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Only one priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once per year, Jesus lives in Heaven and stands before God Himself. Other priests die, Jesus lives forever.
And Jesus is the greater King. Other kings are appointed by military might or birth Jesus was appointed by God. Other kings have boundaries to their kingdoms, Jesus’ kingdom has no borders. Other kings have thrones on earth, Jesus has a throne in heaven. Jesus’ kingdom has the greatest armies, the greatest victories, the highest power, the best laws, and will last for eternity because no one can overthrow Him. His word is not only law, but can actually bend reality to His will.
Who is Better than Jesus?
In the book of Hebrews in the New Testament the Christians there are being faced with persecution because of their faith and are considering giving up and either turning back to Judaism or their pagan roots. The whole argument of Hebrews stands on this question, “To where will you turn that is better than Jesus?” Back to Caesar, back to Moses?
That’s an echo of our question today. What makes Jesus special? Why should we put our whole faith in Him and no other, especially when it’s difficult, inconvenient, and causes us frustration or pain? Isn’t Jesus just a prophet like some other religions say? Isn’t He just a great moral teacher, as some secularists say? Isn’t He just a good model to live by, but not to take so seriously? Do we really have to give our whole allegiance to Him and Him alone, even when the world comes against us? Why does He deserve that kind of allegiance?
That’s what the audience to the letter of the Hebrews were considering. They were like the crowd in John 6 we talked about, standing before Jesus, asking for more loaves and fishes, as He said, “I’m not here to fill your bellies with bread. I am the Bread of Life. I was sent by God, spoken of by the prophets, and anyone who believes in me alone for salvation, that my flesh and my blood are the only way, will have eternal life. Everyone else who tells you any other way is a liar.”
Listen to what happened after Jesus said that.
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66)
That claim – Jesus’ claim to be the Christ, the greatest prophet, priest and king, the only way of salvation, the one to whom you must swear sole allegiance to on His terms – was too much to ask for many. They didn’t want Jesus they wanted bread, so they left. It continues,
“So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:67–69)
Gotta love Peter.
This was the same choice that was being given to the believers that the letter to the Hebrews was sent to, and is the same choice we are given now. Sure, we don’t live in a land where we face direct persecution or imprisonment for our faith, but our allegiance is tested in other ways every day.
I want to show another one of those videos that I showed you last week so you can see how this argument is shown in Hebrews, and hopefully inspire you to do your own study.
The Application for today is a simple one, and it comes from Question 32 of the Heidelberg.
“Why are you called a Christian?”
That title is an important one. If Jesus is the Christ and we are Christians, then there must be a connection. And the answer is this,
“Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.”
There’s a lot going on here that I’m not going to get into about the priesthood of believers and our eternal destination and place in God’s Kingdom, but I want to make this simpler. Do you trust Jesus as your Christ? Is He your perfect prophet, the One to whom you turn for ultimate truth? Do you trust Jesus as your perfect priest, the One who through His atoning sacrifice has made a way for you to stand before God cleansed from all your sins? Do you trust in Jesus as your perfect king, the Lord of your life who you obey with your whole heart? Where will you turn that is greater than He?
And then further, do you, as a follower of Christ, a Christian, in the Greek meaning “little Christ” – act as a “little Christ”? Do you publically profess and confess to being one of His, spreading the truth as one of his little-prophets, spreading the gospel, the message of reconciliation as what the Bible calls, one of Christ’s “Ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:18-20)? Do you, as a little-priest under Jesus, present your life to Him as a continual sacrifice (Rom 12:1), thanking him every day for what He has done for you? And, do you, as a little-king under Jesus, put on the armour of God (Eph 6:11) and do battle against your sin (1 Tim 1:18-19) so your life glorifies your Lord and King, Jesus?
This is not a threat from Jesus to “do a better job”, but an invitation to walk with Him. He offers you forgiveness and strength, defence and protection, a hope and a future, a mission and a reward if you are willing to accept Him as your one and only saviour. Will you do that today, and then live out that relationship every day?
“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:1–10)
Acts 2 tells the story of what happened on the day of Pentecost. At that time, thousands of Jewish people from all around the Roman world who had gathered in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus had all gathered together in one room, about 120 people, and in fulfillment of the promise of Christ, the Holy Spirit came rushing in, filled each one, kicking off the next phase in God’s plan of salvation – the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. The followers of Jesus began to speak in languages they previously didn’t know and everyone who heard was amazed and wondered what was going on.
Then Peter, the leader of the group, stood up and addressed the crowd with a sermon outlining what had been happening in Jerusalem, how it fulfilled the prophecies, and how it all revolved around Jesus of Nazareth, someone that they’d no doubt been hearing about. He told them of His life, false trial, lawless crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection which could be attested to by the hundreds of witnesses standing around them. He told them that it was their sin, their rebellion, which had put the Messiah, the Lord, the Christ, on the cross. Jesus was crucified by their hands.
Acts 2:37 says this,
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
In Acts 16 Paul and his partner Silas are arrested, severely beaten, placed in stocks and dropped into a prison. Here’s what scripture says happens next,
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
What would your answer be to these people? Pretend you are Peter. There stands before you the very group of people that crucified Jesus. Among them are the very people that chanted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” There stand the lawyers who kicked off the false trial, the people that spit on him as He carried His cross to Golgotha, who mocked Him while He was dying on the cross. A group of people corrupted by false teachers, full of hypocrisy, claiming to be the chosen people of God, but who despised and killed His Son, the Lord whom you love. Now they stand before you, their consciences on fire, frightened of the judgment of God, and they say to you, “What shall we do?”
Or pretend you are Paul. You’ve been working hard in ministry but almost everyone in town seems to be against you. They mock you, the crowds beat you, the city magistrates have you stripped and beaten, and you’ve just spent the evening in jail, lying naked in a pool of your own blood, your feet bound in stocks. Now, standing before you is this pagan, Roman, jailer. So far from Christian, it’s almost unfathomable. He’s been listening to you sing and talk about Jesus all night and has just had a brush with death as he contemplated suicide to escape the wrath of his masters, and now He’s worried about the wrath of this new God he’s been hearing about all night. He’s on his knees before you, terrified and confused, utterly undone. He looks up at you and says, “What must I do to be saved?”
What do you say? Maybe your temptation is to blast them. Stop being hypocrites! Stop persecuting us! Stop worshipping your own good deeds. Start listening to what we have to say! Get on your knees and kiss the dirt, thanking God he doesn’t blast you right here! And you, Roman Jailer, you pagan, your life is a total mess! You need a complete overhaul. Let me write a list for you of all the things you need to do in order to be a good Christian. First you need to clean up your life. Go to church, listen to some sermons, join a small group, start serving, and don’t forget to tithe… oh and pray and study your bible and fast and sell your belongings and stop drinking and smoking and playing cards and… and…. But that’s not right.
Paul’s answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31). Peter’s answer was, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38).
The answer to the question, “What must we do to be saved?” is a simple one. Believe Jesus is who He said He is – the friend of and saviour for sinners. Then, show that you believe in Him by admitting you are a sinner, repenting of your sin by changing your life, and be baptised in His name. It’s not that the repenting and baptizing save you. After all the thief on the cross who hung beside had no time to change his life, pay back his debts, do any good deeds, or be baptized, and yet Jesus says He’s in heaven right now (Luke 23:39-43). What saves you is faith. What shows your faith is a changed life and humbling yourself in baptism.
LD11: Why Jesus Alone?
Let’s turn to this week’s questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. If you recall, in this section of the Heidelberg we are studying the Apostles Creed and are on the second stanza, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord…”. So question 29 is,
“Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?”
The name, Jesus in Greek or “Joshua” in Hebrew, was a common name at the time and literally translates to “Yahweh Saves” or “God Saves”. Many Jews gave their children this name as a reminder to wait for God’s salvation, but in Jesus it took on new meaning. It didn’t mean “God will save us someday”, but “Here is God’s salvation!”
So the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” is answered,
“Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.”
Question 30 follows by asking,
“Do those who seek their salvation or well-being in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else, also believe in the only Saviour Jesus?”
In other words, if we put this in our modern context, is everyone who talks about Jesus, knows the name of Jesus, or claims to have faith in Jesus – but clearly puts their faith in other things as well –saved? Is someone who says they are a Christian, talks about Jesus, sings about Jesus, but also believes in praying to saints, uses magic or astrology, lives superstitiously, or trusts in their own goodness or abilities an actual, saved Christian? What about Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Roman Catholics who all talk about Jesus but add a whole bunch of other beliefs and requirements to the gospel. Are they saved?
The answer in the Heidelberg and I believe it is scriptural is:
“No. Though they boast of him in words, they in fact deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, the Jesus they talk about, cannot be the Jesus of the Bible.
This is what Paul was saying in the passage in Galatians. When he said,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Gal 1:6-7)
he didn’t mean that the gospel distorters were leaving the church or had stopped calling themselves Christians. He meant that they were staying in the church as teachers, but adding things to the gospel that were nullifying it, making it a message that damns instead of saves. (Check out this article)
This is what Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about – false teachers coming into the church and teaching that not only do people need to believe in Jesus for their salvation but that there is a list of a bunch of other things they had to do as well.
I want to show you a video that outlines the whole of Galatians so you can see Paul’s full argument here. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I believe that this video explains this much better, more visually, and more concisely what Paul is saying in Galatians. And second, because I want to inspire you to watch the rest of these videos on RightNow Media.
I’ve talked about the importance of starting up some small groups in this church, and this might be a great series to do in your home. You can find that series when you go to the Recommended Studies section of the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media. And, if you want to study the book of Galatians in more detail, then I recommend a new study series that has come out by Kyle Idleman. I linked to it on the Heidelberg Helps section on our RightNow media church page. It’s only 6 weeks long, the videos take only 11 minutes to watch, the discussion guides are all free, and if you’re worried you won’t know how to lead it, the leader’s guide is only $8. No excuses not to have a small group in your home.
Back to our study though.
I hope you see, from scripture and the catechism here, how seriously God takes the idea of adding anything to the gospel. There is no salvation in “Jesus and something else”. Our human nature makes us want to add a bunch of religious hoops to jump through, traditions that must be kept, and lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to be saved, but that’s not how Christianity works. That’s how cults and false religions work, but that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) As the Apostles say, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Our human nature, even when we are presenting the Gospel, even with the best intentions, makes us want to include a list of laws, books, and to-do lists with salvation. We want to tell people about Jesus and salvation, but also about how to clean up their lives and become good people – meaning, people like us. But that’s not the gospel. Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make versions of ourselves, turning people into little Pastor Al’s, or little you’s. He told us to tell people that salvation is a free gift from Him and to follow Jesus alone.
In the New Testament, it was the Judaizers who wanted people to add the Torah to the gospel. Then it was the Catholics who wanted to add traditions and religious superstitions. Then it was the Mormons and JW’s who wanted to add good works and strange rules and new bible books. All of these are equally wrong, offensive, and paths to hell. Why?
Because even if these people use the name of Jesus,
“Though they boast of him in words, they, in fact, deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus for salvation. They talk about Jesus but believe that his perfect life and crucifixion isn’t enough. They believe Jesus needs their help. Jesus needs their help. And Jesus refuses, God refuses, to share glory, to share worship, to share His holy temple, or the temple of your heart with someone else. To do so is blasphemy. To say Jesus’ perfect life, death on the cross, and glorious resurrection was insufficient to save, is blasphemy.
Do you remember last week when I said that believing God’s provision to be transactional only leads to pride or despair? This is the same thing. Believing that we are the ones who must save ourselves by following a list of rules will either lead to pride because we saved ourselves and therefore steal glory from God, or it will lead us to despair because we will always be worried that we haven’t done enough to earn God’s favour and will, therefore, be damned no matter what we do. That’s the message of the world religions, cults, and false Christian groups. Take pride in saving yourself, or always feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid because you’ll never be good enough for God. It’s terrible, and why Paul was so upset when he heard about it.
Let me close with this. The only way we can say we are ever right with God is because of our belief in what Jesus did for us – not because of anything we did for ourselves. All we must do is believe in Jesus as the risen Lord and we are saved. Yes, this requires seeing ourselves as sinners which leads to the desire to repent, and then to obey him by identifying ourselves as His follower through baptism and worship and joining a church and changing our lives – but none of that saves us. If we believe in Jesus, we are saved – no matter what sins we have committed, and even if we completely mess things up afterward.
That’s why 1 John 1:9 says,
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Not, if we beat ourselves up, or clean ourselves up, or do enough prayers, or read enough verses, or pay it all back, or anything else. Forgiveness comes to all those who believe in Jesus and ask for it. It’s automatic, built on the covenant He wrote, in His blood, on the cross. He did all the work.
I like something that Kyle Idleman, the guy who did the Galatians series on RightNow, said.
In Galatians… “Paul is letting the people in Galatia know that he has been down the religious road before and it doesn’t lead to freedom it leads to slavery. It doesn’t lead to transformation, it leads to frustration. It doesn’t lead to life, it leads to death. But Jesus has set him free from all of that. And what the gospel of freedom did for Paul, the gospel of freedom can do for you.” (https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/Series/229928?episode=Trailer)
In a few moments, we are going to have communion. We are going to come to the Lord’s Table, by His invitation, to celebrate and remember His life, death, and resurrection and His promise to save us if we would put our faith in Him alone for salvation from the consequences of your sins and the wrath of God. My encouragement to you is, as we sing the next song – maybe you don’t need to sing right now, maybe you need to pray instead while others sing – as we set up the table, as we stop for a moment, before we take the bread and cup, I want you to check your heart. Do you recognize yourself to be a sinner in need of repentance and salvation? Do you come to Jesus alone for that salvation or do you have other idols besides Him? Have you asked for and accepted forgiveness? Can you take the bread and the cup, knowing you are one of His children? Or, is there hypocrisy within you – false beliefs, other saviours that you turn to, the desire to save yourself, or secret sins that you refuse to admit or repent from? Are there people in your life you need to forgive as you’ve been forgiven, or you need to ask forgiveness from in order to be right with them and God?
You don’t need to clean yourself up to come to Jesus. You don’t need to be religious to come to Jesus. But you do need to admit yourself a sinner in need of Him as your saviour, and then get right with God in a prayer of confession. Take some time to talk to Him in song, in prayer, and in silence, before we take communion.
I’m consistently amazed how we can start studying something months ago, using commentaries written over a hundred years ago, studying a catechism written 450 years ago, based on scriptures written thousands of years ago – and how they all speak directly to our needs for today. Truly, our Lord, His Holy Spirit and “the word of God [are] living and active” (Heb 4:12).
Please open up to Matthew 7:7-11.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
A couple weeks ago, before we were interrupted by winter deciding to come all at once, we studied how God is not only the Almighty, Creator of the Universe, but also a loving Father. To quote the Heidelberg,
“That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.” (Q.26)
Today’s study picks up on one of the words in that answer and explains it further. It’s the word “provide”. The more I study the Heidelberg, the more I like it, especially because this is such a natural next question.
I can imagine sitting with someone and having this conversation. We talked a bit about this last time. I ask them, “Do you believe in God?”, they give some vague answer like we heard, and then they ask me, “Ok, what do you believe about God?” and, like a good boy, I give answer #26. But, what’s their natural next question? “But you’re life isn’t perfect. How can you say that God is all-powerful and all-good and all-loving, but so many of His faithful followers are going through such rough times? What about the terrible tragedies we see all the time?”
Question 27 asks that same question,
“What do you mean by the providence of God?”
How do you reconcile that God is your great provider when at the same time you are in want?
Right? We just read that Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened…. how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” So what gives? Why isn’t every Christian on earth healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable? What do you mean by saying God is your provider and you trust Him?
The answer in the Heidelberg goes as follows:
“God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”
Question 28 follows,
“What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by his providence?”
In other words, “So what?”. If the answer to, “What do you mean that ‘God provides’?” is that “everything happens according to His plan”, that doesn’t really answer why Christians aren’t healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable, does it? So, the next, logical question is, “How does it help you to know that all things come by the hand of God, even if some of those things are tragedies and adversity?”
The answer to 28 is that it means,
“We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love; for all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot so much as move.”
This is what it means to have faith in a God that is all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving. It means that we believe that whatever happens, whether “rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, health and sickness, riches and poverty…” they all come by the hand of a loving, faithful, wise, good, God who knows what is best – even when I don’t understand or agree with Him. In a word, it means “trust”. I go back to that line in answer 26,
“In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
God Tickets and Stuffed Bears
This doesn’t make sense to most people, even Christians, especially Western Christians, because, just like so many before us, we equate comfort and wealth with God’s blessing. If times are good, then we must be doing things right and have enough faith – but if times are bad, then that means we did something wrong and God is either mad at us or we don’t have enough faith. But that’s absolutely NOT how God works. The Bible says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) The idea that God is only good to good people, faithful to faithful people, loving towards loving people, generous to generous people, is unbiblical, and a dangerous thought for believers to have.
Why? Because it means that our faith, our forgiveness, our peace, our joy, our provision, our hope, is in our hands. It means that our faith is transactional – that we spend our good-boy and good-girl tokens at the God store and He dispenses blessings. We treat God like one of those arcades where you play games and get tickets. You’ve been to one of those, right? Where if you do well at skee-ball, hit the right number on the spinning thing, sink enough shots in the basketball game, that it spits out tickets to spend at the little shop so you can get a prize. Sometimes we treat God like that. We think that if we do enough good deeds we’ll gain enough tickets to spend on blessings and miracles. And if God’s not giving us what we want or need, it means we don’t have enough tickets for that item so we need to try harder.
But what’s that doing to our heart? When you go to one of those arcades and look at the items, and finally find that one thing you want – the video game, the giant bear, the cool shirt – what do you immediately think? That it takes way too many tickets. They want 20,000 tickets for that bear and the skee-ball machine only spits out like 12 at a time. This place is unfair. It’s a scam. We start to think of God like that. God’s unfair. God’s asking too much. God is a scam.
Or say we do really good at the games, hit lots of jackpots, sink a tonne of baskets, and get those 20,000 tickets. When we walk up to the counter to get our prize, what are we thinking? “I’m so great. I’m such an awesome person. Look at all the work I’ve done, the good I’ve done, and wow, do I ever deserve this blessing. I’ve earned it. I’m the best. God, all I need from you is for you to exchange these good deeds for that miracle, please. Then I’ll talk to you later once I’ve built up my stash again.”
Believing God’s provision to be transactional does not lead to faith in God, dependence on God, trust in God, hope in God, believe that God’s way is best – it leads to either pride or despair. Pride that you’ve done so many wonderful things that you’ve earned all the good in your life and didn’t need Jesus at all – or despair that you will never be able to do enough good deeds to get the really nice prizes from God, because God is unfair. Both of those are terribly dangerous versions of faith – but are very popular in the world.
What’s the solution to that type of thinking? Trust. And how does God grow trust in His people? By giving us opportunities to trust Him, so that we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that we cannot be our own saviours or our own providers.
Ask, Seek, Knock & James
Many people here can attest that this is true. That, it was during times of struggle or lack that they learned the most about God’s love and provision. That, it was during times of pain and confusion that they learned the most about God’s comfort and care. That, it was during times of fear and worry that their pride was finally broken and they came to God for help and learned what it meant that He is their almighty, loving Father. Sure, there were times of anger, whining, complaining, lashing out, depression – but at some point in all that, they fell to their knees, gave up trying to control the situation, gave up believing in their own goodness and willpower, and realized that God doesn’t just love them sometimes, only when they are good, but at all times, and that He will “turn to… good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow” because His love and provision is present and active even in adversity.
The man in that video figured it out and showed it through patience, service, and faithful tithing. He could have reacted a lot of different ways – self-pity, anger, grasping every penny, threats and arguments, refusing any work that wasn’t in his own skill set – but he didn’t. He took the jobs as they came with a thankful heart, waited patiently, gave faithfully, and allowed God to be His provider. That’s how it works in the Christian life.
That’s why Jesus says in that passage in Matthew 7, “Ask… seek… knock…”. It is when we stop struggling, gathering, controlling, hoarding, fighting, and eating ashes, and finally relent and come to God, humbly realizing that He is our saviour and provider (and we are not) that He can work.
To “ask” God for something requires that we not only understand that we have a need, but a need we cannot provide for. Why would we ask for something we know we can just get for ourselves? To “seek” means to connect those prayer requests to a life of faith, seeking “first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, knowing “all these things will be added to you” as you are seeking because God knows what you need (Matthew 6:32-33). To “knock” means to persevere in that faith and in that seeking.
Why doesn’t God just answer when we “ask”? Why does He require we “seek” and “knock” as well? Because we are such slow-learning creatures. These lessons take such a long time to learn.
Consider the words of James, written to Christians spread around the Roman world, who were suffering through persecution and poverty, oppression from without and conflict and church splits within, and the temptation to give up. Turn with me there, and we’re going to jump around a bit, but I want you to see the whole argument. Start in chapter 1:2-4.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.…”
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change….
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…..
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful….
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 1:2–4, 16–17; 4:2–3; 5:7–11; 13–18)
Remember The Prophets
I know that’s a large section of scripture, but I think it’s critically important for us to read today, because we need to understand that God is our provider and He is worthy of our trust. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God loves you where you are at right now and is more than willing to provide what you need. Not what you want, but what you need. Sometimes we don’t have because we do not ask. Sometimes we don’t have because we ask with wrong motives. Sometimes we don’t have because God is doing something special in our lives and the only way for us to become steadfast, perfect and complete in our faith, the only way for Him to build our faith-muscle, our faith-skill, is for Him to use “trials of various kinds” that require us to go through a time of testing.
In James 5:10 it says that when we get narrow-minded, near-sighted, and confused about God’s love we should look to those who came before. “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” In other words, we hold in high esteem those who go through tough times and come out the other side even more faithful than when they went in, right? So, when you are facing difficult times – trials, lack, fear, confusion, persecution, uncertainty – I want you to turn to two places.
First, to scripture, to remember what the lives of faithful people in the Bible looked like. Jesus was the most loving, faithful, perfect, most spiritual, most giving, person to ever live. How did His life go? Times of rest, times of testing, times of suffering, times of success, times of betrayal, and in the end, He was crucified for crimes He didn’t commit, and then rose to life in the greatest victory in history. We follow in Christ’s footsteps, do we not? So we too will also see times of rest, testing, suffering, success, betrayal, death, and victorious resurrection.
Consider the life of Paul. Same thing, right? A terrible sinner who hated Christians converted by a miracle to become a great missionary and faithful servant of Jesus. When he was a Christian killing Pharisee, he had power and prestige. When he became a follower of Jesus he followed in the footsteps of Christ – times of rest, testing, suffering, success, betrayal, death, and victorious resurrection. Who would make the trade from oppressor to oppressed? Paul did. Why? Paul answers this way in Philippians 3:7-8
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Consider the life of Joseph. Blessed and loved from birth as a favoured son. Given great revelations from God of the power and influence He would have. And what was God’s preparation ground for that greatness? To be hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, to be falsely accused, and spend years in prison.
Consider Job, the most righteous man on earth. His life was full of blessings. But what was God’s plan for him? The same path as Jesus and many believers. To use Job to show Satan what real faith looks like, and to teach the world a lesson about faith that would be passed on for generations. What did that look like in Job’s life? God allowed everything he had to be destroyed in a day.
What was Job’s reaction?
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20–22)
Those are the words of a man who understood and trusted God as his provider.
And I could keep going with names. If you know scripture, you know that this is the standard pattern for all those who are faithful to God. It is normal for God to send “trials of many kinds” to his people for our good and His glory.
But I told you that there are two places to turn. First, to scripture, and second, to other believers. Certainly, to those in this church who have experienced adversity and anxiety and who have faced it with faith and hope, because they are right here. This is one of the greatest values of small groups and home groups – which I hope you are in – because they allow you to not only share your concerns but also hear from other people who have gone through (or who are going through) similar times.
But these Christians don’t just need to be in our church, they can also be elsewhere. Like the stories on RightNow Media, or in books and movies.
And so, I want to close with a clip from a man that I admire as a faithful, godly, Christian pastor. He is a famous author who has written around 90 books that have sold millions and millions of copies. But he does something that not too many other authors do. First, a lot of his books are available free on his website, but the second one might surprise you.
That’s a man who understands the danger of losing sight that God is his provider and has set up boundaries in his own life to make sure he never forgets.
We’re back into the Heidelberg Catechism and are now in Day 9. Just a quick review before we jump into it though.
Our church, since last August, has been working out way through a teaching tool called the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s called “Heidelberg” because it was written in the 16th century by a man named Zacharias Ursinus in the city of Heidelberg, Germany, about 20 years after the death of Martin Luther. It’s called “Catechism” because it is a question and answer summary, written for churches, to teach children and new believers the basic principles of Christianity over the course of a year.
We are currently in Week 9, or Lord’s Day 9, is it’s called, and we’ve already covered a lot of ground. It began on Day 1 with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”. That’s critical, right? “When it all comes down to it, when everything else is stripped away, when trouble and trial come, when you are faced with the discomforts of life and the danger of death – where do you, as a Christian, turn for hope?”
The answer was
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
The rest of the catechism is really an exploration of that first answer, using all manner of scriptures and creeds to explain why that’s true.
So it asks things like, “What do I need to know in order to have this hope?”, “What happened to make things go so wrong with the world?” “What is sin and why is it a problem?” And when we find out that sin leads to judgement from God and eternity in Hell, it covers topics like “How can I escape this judgment?”, “Why can’t I save myself?”, “What makes Jesus Christ the best and only answer?”
Which is the end of the first section and leads to the second, which asks question 21 and 22 on Day 7, “What is faith, and what must I believe in order to be saved?”. All of this leads to a study of what is called “The Apostle’s Creed”, the oldest and most trusted theological summary Christians have, dating back almost 2000 years.
The Apostle’s Creed is divided into three sections, God the Father and our creation, God the Son and our redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. This brought us to Day 8. Historically, it is on Day 8 that whoever is teaching is supposed to talk about not only those divisions, and the doctrine of the Trinity, but also a bunch of the attributes of God. That’s a tall order for one week, so I got stuck there for a few weeks – ok, a couple months – until the Christmas break.
This brings us up to now where we are about to get into Day 9 which covers the first line of the Apostles Creed, and which I think is incredibly applicable for us today.
Where Does My Help Come From?
Please open up to Psalm 121 and let’s read it together. I want you to notice, before we read, that at the top of the Psalm this is called a “Song of Ascents”. The Songs of Ascents are travelling songs meant to be sung by those who were making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God. Some of these Songs of Ascents are thanksgiving songs, others laments, while others are about the beauty of God’s city and the history of God’s people. They were written to prepare the hearts of God’s people to come before Him – to face their sins and admit their need, to declare their trust in God, to share their anticipation of standing before Him, and declare to each other God’s goodness and steadfast love, even in the face of difficult times.
I think it’s appropriate that we read this one today, especially in light of the events of the past while, especially this week. I think it’s good for us to read it today.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
Now, before we get into the question of the day, I want to show this video.
A lot of people say they “believe in God”, don’t they? We all have friends and family members that, when they are asked if they believe in God, they say they do. Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks that question as it covers the first line of the Apostle’s Creed, “What do you believe when you say: I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?” That’s usually the question we don’t really get to, isn’t it? We’re almost afraid to ask, because we don’t want to start an argument or get into a debate with someone we care about, so we just leave it at “Do you believe in God?” and rarely press forward to, “Ok, what do you mean when you say you believe in God?”
Psalm 121 ties right into all of this, because the first line of the psalm is like an Old Testament version of this question. As I said, this was a travelling psalm to be sung on the way to Jerusalem for one of the annual celebrations. Picture the pilgrim having walked for miles and miles through the wilderness – there were no nice roads or walking paths in those days. He’s been walking for days, his feet are sore, his muscles ache, and his destination seems very distant. Suddenly, he sees the hills of Judah in the distance.
This is where commentators are split. Either this guy looks at the hills of Judah, knowing that he is finally close to Jerusalem, and breaks into a song of praise to the Lord for protecting him on his journey and bringing him so near the end – ooooor… he sees those hills and thinks, “Oh, great! Hills. I get to walk up great big hills now. This is where it gets really dangerous. Now I not only have to worry about wild animals and exposure but robbers and terrain and having to climb and climb all day long. How am I going to get through this?” And then breaks into the same song, saying, “These hills won’t get the best of me, because my help comes from the Lord who made every one of them.”
I sort of wish the interviewer in that video would have asked the question the way the Psalm did, “When you lift your eyes to the hills, where does your help come from?” Or, “When good times and bad times come, where do you look for who will bring you through it?” because that would have given a better answer.
The Heidelberg answers like this:
“That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
One thing that always impresses me as we study is how beautiful this document is.
God the Father
When Christians say they believe in God, we are making a very specific statement. As we saw, a lot of people in western society, are not very specific. This is why we spent some time talking about Special and General Revelation, which tells us that we don’t get to create a god of our own design based on whatever makes us feel good or seems right to us, but that we must believe in God the way He has revealed Himself.
If you don’t, you end up with what we saw in the video. Like that guy who said, “Yes, I believe in God, because I’m Buddhist.” That’s contradictory because Buddhists do not believe there is a God. Or, “Yes, I believe in God, but not really one that can be written down.” Or “Yes, because you gotta believe in something but I have no idea what that is.” So, then, how do you know what you believe?
As Christians, we absolutely believe that our God not only makes sense, but has told us a lot about Himself, and so it makes sense that a Biblical catechism and creed would make some very specific claims about God. As it says, a Christian believes “in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?”
What does that mean? It means that we believe that God has revealed Himself as a Father. That means He is personal. We talked a little about this on Christmas Eve when I preached on how God makes us part of His family through our faith in Jesus Christ. If you recall, I quoted Ephesians 1:3-5 which said,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
God reveals Himself as a Father. First, He is the eternal Father of Jesus, which we already covered in the sermon on the Trinity. And second, He is the Father of all mankind, since He is the One who created us in His image and continues to protect and guide us. When we sinned, we tried to divorce ourselves from our Father, attempting to usurp His position and make ourselves above Him and were, therefore, cast out from His family, but through Jesus are invited to be adopted back as His sons and daughters again.
That’s why Romans 8:15 says to Christians who are tempted and afraid to call out to their Father,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
We are taught in scripture, in Old Testament and New, that God is our Father because He has chosen to be. In Isaiah 63:15-16, the people of God cry out to Him in distress and say,
“Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me. For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”
The Jews were always tempted to rest their hopes and prayers on the mere privilege of being descended from Abraham. Regardless of how messed up they were, they would say, “Well, Abraham is our father, so God has to bless us.” Here we see the Jews renouncing this attitude and saying that their genealogy doesn’t really matter – what matters is that God has chosen to make them His children, and it is by that relationship that they make their appeal.
When Christians say that we “believe in God” we are saying we believe in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has adopted us into His family to be His children.
God Almighty, Creator
The second thing we are saying when we say we believe in God is that God is “Almighty”. We already talked about this when we covered God’s attributes of Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence, but it is worth mentioning again. The Apostles Creed begins “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” Jeremiah 32:17 says,
“Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”
That’s the God we are talking about. The God who designed and upholds and governs all things. The God who is higher and wiser and bigger than all. The One who knew what would happen when He created everything, already had a plan in place, and that can use everything, no matter how terrible, no matter how difficult, no matter how much grief it brings Him or us, for our good and His glory. That’s the God we believe in. Which is why, as the Heidelberg says,
“In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
We covered this on Wednesday night when we talked about Jesus’ words about not being anxious because God knows what we need, right? This is why Romans 8 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (vs 28) and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (vs 31) and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs 35, 37)
I love the line out of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver says that Aslan is “not… a tame lion.” At the beginning of the story, when Lucy first hears about the Great Lion Aslan (who is a Christ-figure), she gets scared and asks, “Is he safe?” and Mr. Beaver gives the answer, “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
This is the God in whom we believe and trust. He is not only the Almighty Creator, but also our Father. We do not believe in a god of our own making, for that god would be weak and useless when we needed it. Gods of our own design always fail because we know in our heart they are pretend. But the One, True God, who has revealed Himself to humanity, is real, alive, active, and powerful. He isn’t a being of our own design and is therefore not someone we can control. But since He has shown us what He is like, what He is capable of, and what kind of character He has, we can trust Him. This is the God our church believes in, so let us have faith in Him.
In what areas of your life are you struggling to believe God is not only your caring Father, but the Almighty one who can make it happen? What part of your life do you believe you must control because you don’t think God will do a good enough job? What do you need that you do not believe God cannot or will not provide? Have you shown God that you trust Him? Have you given your Father the chance to provide? Are you obeying Him, in faith, demonstrating that trust? Because He is faithful.
This is the God our church believes in, which we pray to, who provides for us, cares for us, who sent Jesus to save us. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Jesus Himself said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If you are a believer this morning, and part of His church, that includes you.
Please open up to Luke 10:25–42, but before we read it I would like you to notice something as we read. I want you to notice that even though we are going to read two seemingly distinct stories, happening at different times and in different ways, they are actually very similar. Both are quite famous parts of scripture, but it’s sometimes forgotten that they give the same message. The first one is pretty easy to understand but the second one is more subtle. Let’s read it together.
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.'”
So pause there a second. The beginning of this story makes it pretty easy to understand what’s going on, doesn’t it? Up comes a lawyer, who we already know is probably a bad guy because lawyers and Pharisees and Sadducees often came against Jesus to try to trap Him, trick Him, embarrass Him, or discredit Him – but they always end up losing to Jesus – until the end of the story where they break their own laws to crucify Him. So, by the fourth word we can have a pretty good idea that some shenanigans are about to go down.
What’s the context here? Everyone is sitting down somewhere and Jesus is in the middle of teaching when suddenly a Lawyer stands up to “test” Jesus. We don’t necessarily know his motivation is bad until we read the next verse, 29, which says,
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”
This lawyer had come to hear Jesus teach, and had either been impressed by Him or was getting progressively more upset at Him, but at some point pops up out of the group to ask Jesus the most difficult, important question he can think of: “How can I inherit eternal life?” Or, how can someone be saved from sin and death?
Remember, this is a Lawyer and in his mind, and in the mind of many Jewish people at the time, because of the teachings of the Lawyers and Pharisees, the way to impress God, to make God happy, to gain favour with God, to get eternal life with Him, was to obey the Laws of Moses.
That’s why they had devised so many extra laws on top of them. God said, “Don’t use my name in vain.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees said, “Ok, no one is allowed to say the name of God at all, ever, or even write it down.” God said, “Rest on the Sabbath.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees devised lists and lists of rules about every part of life – how far to walk, how to eat, how to wash, how many knots you can tie in a rope. So many rules that God’s “day off to rest and worship” became a terrible burden and frustration to the people. But if God wanted obedience and eternal life was at stake, better safe than sorry, right?
So that’s the mindset that this man had when talking to Jesus. Rules and laws make people holy and win God’s favour. So Jesus’ answer to Him is perfectly tailored: “What do you think God’s Law say about Eternal Life?” And the Lawyer gives the right answer. “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.”
But here’s the thing, and this is something everyone here understands and struggles with – me included. Knowing the right answer and understanding what it means are two different things. And then, understanding what the right answer means and then living by that truth are two different things too!
I’m reading through Pilgrims Progress again and just finished the part where a character named Faithful has had a conversation with someone he meets on the road named Talkative. It’s a really interesting encounter and I highly recommend you read the whole book, but it essentially goes like this. The main character, Christian, is walking with his friend Faithful and they’ve been having a great conversation. As they walk, they catch up to a man named “Talkative” who Christian knows but Faithful doesn’t. Christian hangs back so as to not have to walk with Talkative, but Faithful trots on ahead to strike up a conversation. Things seem to go pretty well because Talkative is really good at talking – and doesn’t care what the subject is. Faithful is quite impressed with how godly and religious Talkative is and falls back see what’s up and invite Christian to join the conversation.
Christian grins at his friend and says, “This man whom you are so taken with is fooling you just as he’s fooled so many before.” Faithful is surprised because Talkative seems like he knows so much about God and religion and faith, but after a while Christian basically says, “If you want to see what Talkative is really like, go ask him to talk not only about religion but ask him plainly how his belief Jesus has changed His heart and life.”
Faithful does so and it doesn’t take long until Talkative gets so offended and angry that he takes off. It seems that even though Talkative loved chatting about religion and theology and faith – he had allowed none of it to penetrate his heart and change his life.
It’s the same with this Lawyer, and most of the other religious leaders Jesus bumps into. They knew a tonne of scriptures, had memorized the entire Old Testament and had been trained to be experts in debate and interpretation – but as much as they knew about God’s Law, they had completely missed having a relationship with the Lawgiver. As much as they worked hard to obey the Laws, they had forgotten Who had written them and why they had been written in the first place – not to burden God’s people but freedom, not to separate them from God but to show them how to grow closer to Him, not to be a hammer to pound on their fellow citizens but a guide to help them know how to love one another and get along.
Who Is My Neighbour?
Jesus responds saying essentially, “Yes, your words are exactly right. If you love God and everyone else you come in contact with perfectly, you will have eternal life.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Our sinful nature makes this impossible. We can’t love God or anyone else perfectly because our sin not only clouds our judgement but makes us selfish and lazy. We cannot live in perfect love with anyone.
Notice that in the next part we see that the Lawyer jumps right past the “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” part because he thinks he does that already. Like the Rich Young Ruler, he believes that he has obeyed the entire law perfectly. Therefore, he assumes, he must love God perfectly. But, then, maybe because his conscience has been tweaked by something he’s done, or because he wants to impress the crowd or trap Jesus, the Lawyer asks one more question. “…who is my neighbor?”
Why did he ask this? Because as a Lawyer, he wants to know the boundaries of the law. What’s the limit, the line, the border that can’t be crossed? How far can I go before I’ve broken the law? It’s the same with us, right? Just consider when we’re driving. The speed limit is 70, but how much can we get away with before we actually get in trouble? 75? 80? How much checking our cell phone is too much? How far do I have to go before I absolutely have to wear my seatbelt? How long does the red light have to be red before I’m in trouble? What if it turns red as I’m driving through? Our question isn’t “How can I obey this law perfectly?” but “How much can I get away with before I’m in trouble?” That shows the sin in our heart. That’s what the lawyer was doing here.
“Ok, so I know God says I’m supposed to love my neighbour, but who, technically, does that include? How big of a circle can I draw before the people outside of it don’t matter? Who can I offend without worrying about it? Who can I ignore without God caring? Who can I hate and despise while still being able to say I love my neighbour?” From verse 30 Jesus gives the very famous answer.
“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan and gives a lot of details. Everyone would assume the victim was a Jew, and everyone knew that the trip between Jerusalem and Jericho was full places where people could get mugged and left for dead. Then come two good, law-abiding, religious, Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, who knew that God’s law said that if they touched a dead body they would be defiled and ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to perform their duties in the temple. So, better safe than sorry, they ignore the man so they can keep doing their jobs in the temple. Seems harsh, and the average person would have thought this wasn’t very nice, but the Lawyer, presumably, completely understood. But then the story takes a weird turn. Next comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans with pure, racist hatred. For a Samaritan to be the hero of a Jew would have been scandalous. But there it was.
If you’re having a tough time grasping the story, maybe think of the story this way: A man who had just finished working late at night in downtown Ottawa was walking up the stairs of a parking garage. It was Saturday at 2am, he was tired and already had his keys in his hands, when suddenly a group of men came through the door, mugged him, beat him, took his car, and kicked him down the cement stairs.
Not long after another man, a surgeon at CHEO who had been called in to do emergency surgery on a child came up the stairs and saw the unconscious bleeding man. He knew he couldn’t risk infection or contamination, and was in a hurry, so he stepped over the man’s body and headed to his car. Next came the pastor of a local mega-church. He had been doing some late night counselling and was headed home for some much-needed rest before he had to preach in the morning. He saw the beaten man, stepped over him, and walked away.
Next, up the stairs, came another man, a pimp. He had spent the evening collecting money from the women under his employ and shooting scenes for his porn website. He was a little drunk, a little high, and his knuckles still hurt from having to get a little rough while he was collecting his dues. But when he saw the man lying on the stairs, he had compassion. He lifted him up, brought him to the hospital, made sure he got a room and then went to the gift shop to buy some magazines for when the man woke up. He even told the nurse that if no one came for the man to give him a call on his cell phone so he could help out.
Now look at verse 36,
“’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’”
Jesus forced the Lawyer to answer his own question. He was looking for the borders and loopholes in the law and Jesus closed them tight. Who is your neighbour? Who does God want you to show love, compassion, and care to? Everyone.
The priest and the Levite were encumbered by their interpretation of the Law. In no way was God’s Law meant to be frustrating, burdensome, and an excuse to prevent someone from showing compassion, and yet they somehow managed to make it that way. Jesus wiped all that nonsensical interpretive garbage clean and forced the lawyer to admit the truth. The way to love God is not to nit-pick laws so you can find loopholes and excuses, but to love God by loving everyone as your neighbour.
Mary and Martha
But now we turn to the next story in the passage. Let’s read it, starting in verse 38,
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Do you see the echoes of the previous story? Jesus is teaching a group of people when someone stands up and asks Jesus a question that is very close to their heart. For the Lawyer, it was a question about the Law, but for Martha, it was a question about priorities. And both ended up the same way. What was the Lawyer trying to do when he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”? He was trying to justify himself. And what was Martha trying to do? To justify how busy and distracted she was.
But this story is much more subtle. In the first one, it’s a Lawyer – booo. He’s testing Jesus – booo. What’s Martha doing? She’s serving. And not just serving, she’s serving Jesus and the disciples! Martha welcomes Jesus, the famous Rabbi, and all of his disciples into her home. They would all need to have their feet washed, to be made comfortable, and to have a meal prepared for them. We don’t know how much help Martha had, but she clearly didn’t think it was enough. She was frazzled and distracted and anxious and getting angry.
But she wasn’t a bad guy like the Lawyer, was she? She was doing a good thing! Just like the Lawyer, she felt justified in her actions. He obeyed the law; she was a great and wonderful hostess, preparing extra special things for her guests. How could anyone look at Martha and criticize her? How could anyone compare her to the Lawyer? It’s easy to criticize the Lawyer, but super-servant, super-frazzled, Martha? Isn’t she just trying to do a good job for Jesus?
But what does Jesus say? Verse 41,
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’”
This whole section is telling the same story. How does one gain eternal life? Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. How do we show that? We love our neighbour. Who is our neighbour? Everyone. How did the Jewish people mess this up? By believing that the way to love God is to work so hard to obey His Law that they actually offend, hurt, and ignore loving God and their neighbours. They became more concerned with how many knots they could tie, and how ceremonially pure they were, or how far walked – that they forgot to worship and enjoy God or show love and compassion for their fellow man.
Martha makes the same mistake. She has prioritized hosting, serving, and working, over loving Jesus and Mary. Was she doing something wrong? No. Was she breaking laws? No. But where was her heart? She was working so hard to serve her guests that she was no longer able to find joy in it. She wasn’t fuelled by love. She was fueled by frustration, anger, pride, and jealousy. She forgot that Jesus Christ, the miracle-working Son of God, the source of light and life, was sitting in her living room. She didn’t care what he was saying. She didn’t care that Mary had the privilege of listening. She only cared about her own plans and priorities to the point where this wonderful, gracious, generous host, who was so excited to have Jesus over – actually comes into the room and yells at her sister in front of Jesus, accuses Jesus of not caring, and then tries to tell Jesus what to do! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” “C’mon Jesus. Chop chop! I clearly care more about these people than you do, Jesus. I clearly have a better grasp of what’s important. Tell my sister to stop listening to you.”
Her priorities were as messed up as the Lawyer’s. She wasn’t serving out of love. She wasn’t loving God – who was sitting in her living room – or loving her neighbour – who included her sister and Jesus. That’s why Jesus responds as he does. He says her name twice, probably to get her attention and to show dissatisfaction with her (He does this with Peter and Paul too (22:31, Acts 9:4)). And then He essentially says, “You think you’re priorities are right, but they’re not. You are so worked up, so upset, so troubled and anxious about all the serving you are doing that you have forgotten the most important things – to love God and your neighbour. All this serving is only driving you away from your guests, away from your sister, away from love, and away from Me.”
Martha was doing exactly what the Priest and the Levite did – using a good, legal excuse to be able to ignore loving someone. “I can’t love Mary right now, the sandwiches need to be made. I can’t listen to the teachings of Jesus right now, I have too much to do. I should walk in there and give Jesus and Mary a piece of my mind. I’m in the right here. Jesus is wrong.”
And not only were her priorities a mess, but she actually tried to suck Mary into her whirlwind. “Jesus, tell Mary to stop listening to you, stop learning from you, stop sitting in your presence, stop letting her sit in front of a Rabbi, doing something very few women were ever allowed to even do, and force her to be as distracted and upset as I am.”
Jesus says, “No Martha. You’re not right. Your heart isn’t right. Your priorities aren’t right. And you’re not going to cause Mary to stumble into your own sin.”
So what does that mean for us today? I think this is an appropriate message for the beginning of the year because the lesson here is something we all struggle with. Regardless of whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, we all are trying to figure out what’s wrong with us and how to improve our lives – whether that be our spiritual lives, our health, our relationships, or our careers. And as we try to come up with the game plans what will fix everything, it’s really easy to get our priorities out of whack.
The lesson in what we’ve read today teaches that a godly life doesn’t start with a list of rules and regulations, more knowledge and willpower, or trying to cut out all the toxic things in our life. Those aren’t bad things – just like Martha wanting to serve people and the Lawyer obeying the Law weren’t bad things – but they aren’t things that lead to eternal life, that lead to grace and hope and joy and peace.
What did we learn today? That in order to live a life of love, of service, sacrifice, obedience, and holiness, doesn’t come from a list of laws – it comes from a changed heart.
So before you do anything, before you decide on a diet, exercise routine, schedule, life plan, bible reading plan, spiritual retreat, marriage counselling, personal counselling, killing a habit, battling an addiction, or anything else, remember that it will be meaningless, even cause your love to grow cold and become callous to the things of God if you are not connecting with Jesus as your first priority. If you don’t, it won’t be long until you are either looking for loopholes like the Lawyer, or trying to drag other people into your personal tornado like Martha.
What does that look like? Well, consider that the Samaritan was a man living outside the Law of Moses but still had a heart for the things of God. So, it’s not about white-knuckling through the Bible-In-a-Year, or forcing yourself to wake up at 6am, or fasting so many days per week, or promising to be more generous and forgiving. It’s about connecting your heart to God, trusting that He will guide you, lead you, and help you.
Once you’ve settled in your heart that you need Jesus’ presence in your life more than anything else, things fall into place. When you come to a moment when you need self-control, you won’t trust your own rules and laws and willpower but will lean on Him and ask for help. As you trust His guidance, you’ll learn that sometimes your personal rules and outlook actually prevent you from doing his will – like the priest not helping the man who was attacked. You’ll learn how to be flexible, kind, and generous because you’re living by God’s priorities and not your own. And when you inevitably mess up, you won’t see yourself as a failure or a victim who should just give up, but as a sinner in need of a Saviour, a work in progress that God is ever forgiving and always willing to help.
My hope for you in 2019 is that you will begin by cultivating this attitude and mindset of faith. That you will know that life comes from loving God and others, but that love is not simply a list of rules and anxiety driven service driven by your own willpower and personal agenda – but a heart that has experienced the love of God and is allowing it to flow into the rest of your life. First to yourself, your family, and then to the world.
Every year around Christmas time people all over the world set up nativity scenes – and there’s a huge variety. There are old-timey ones that have great detail and classic poses, modern, new ones that are more simple, even impressionistic, and there are the weird and silly ones. We have a Little People set at home and new this year is a rubber duck set we found online. But my favourite weird nativity that I found online this year is the hipster nativity set where Mary is taking a duck-face selfie with baby Jesus, the cow is eating gluten-free feed and is 100% organic, and the wise men show up on Segways with gifts from Amazon.
Regardless of how traditional or weird the Nativity Set is, one thing always holds true – it’s never lonely around the manger. Jesus is surrounded by people, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.
The holidays are a time for getting together with all kinds of people. We plan dinners and events with people we work with, we take a little more time talking with people around us about the season, we find time to have friends in our homes and go to theirs to meet others, we make time to gather with family members that we don’t see very often. If you ask most people over 12 years old what their favourite Christmas memories are they will no doubt all give the same list – the big family dinner, the family around the tree, seeing family from far away that they haven’t seen in a long time. No matter how nice the decorations are, how great the turkey is, what presents you get, what music you sing, or what your favourite tradition is, the make-it-or-break-it part of Christmas is how close or far away you are from the people that mean the most to you.
Which is why Christmas can also be such a lonely, difficult time of year for a lot of people. As the lights multiply in the streets, store music changes to carols, the smells of baking fills the air, and the traditions multiply around you, they can trigger some pretty intense emotions that you’d rather not deal with. The decorations and the smells – though nice – are sometimes a reminder of what’s missing. And it’s one big reason that so many struggles with depression and addiction around Christmas time.
We did a lot of reading and singing tonight and there was a pretty resounding theme to all of it, right? One that is familiar to many. That the world looked pretty dark and lonely and scary – for Israel, the shepherds, and the world – but that all changed when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As Isaiah 9 said,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa 9:1,6)
That was written 700 years before Jesus was born. And when the Apostle John wrote his gospel about Jesus he started with words that sounded very similar. I want to look at the first 13 verses of the first chapter of John because I want you to notice something very important tonight. It’s a Christmas story but told in a different way. It begins by introducing Jesus as not only a baby in a manger, but backs up the story way before Mary and Joseph, even before Adam and Eve. It says that Jesus wasn’t merely a special man, but God incarnate – and speaks of His coming as a light piercing the darkness. It says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Next, John introduces fast forwards to the forerunner, the precursor, the prophet who was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus – the one known as John the Baptist. It says in verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
This is all building up to a summary of who Jesus is and why He came. John will tell the rest of the story in his book, but for now, here is the story of Jesus in a nutshell. Starting in verse 9,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
If you know the story of Jesus then you know that this is exactly what happened. Jesus came into the world, lived a perfect life, spread light and wisdom and goodness and truth, showed people who He was and demonstrated His divine power in healing and miracles, but even those closest to Him didn’t understand Him. He came to the world He had established, to the humanity He had created, to the nation He had chosen, and they did not receive Him. He was born in barn and laid in a feeding trough, because there was no room for Him and that reality would dominate His entire ministry. He would come to people, tell them the truth, but instead of receiving Him, they would try to use Him, misunderstand Him, lie about Him, neglect Him, and then reject, humiliate, abandon, and unjustly crucify Him.
Jesus said this in John 3:19-20,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light…”
God Created Family
But if we keep reading at the beginning of John we find out that there is more to the story. Jesus came as light in the darkness, but people loved the dark more than the light – but listen to verse 12,
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
What does it says Jesus provides for those who receive Him, who put their trust in Him, who believe in Him? Most often in church, we say that believers receive salvation, forgiveness, cleansing, hope, renewal, joy, etc. and all that is true, but notice what it says here: believers are given “the right to become children of God”.
One of the greatest gifts that we receive when we come to Jesus is the gift of family. It means never having to be alone. Consider the story of scripture, right? In the beginning, God creates the whole world and puts Adam in it. There is no sin, Adam can see God face to face, everything is perfect, but God says something is “not good”. What is it? “It’s is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). So God makes Eve and then tells Adam to go make a family.
When God saved Noah, He told him to bring his family. When God chose Abraham, God chose to bless an old, barren couple with a family and then worked through that family to create a great nation through which He would bless the world. And that pattern continued. Moses needed his family’s help. David and Solomon’s biggest problems came when they messed with God’s plan for their family. Over and over we see that God doesn’t just use special individuals, but families to carry forth His will and dispense His blessings.
When Jesus came to earth, He could have come like one of that lone-gunman we see in those old western movies. A man in a white hat with no past rides into town, dispenses justice, and then rides off into the sunset. He had the power to do that. He’s God, He doesn’t need anyone to help Him. But what was His perfect plan? It was to come as a member of a family. He had a mom, step-dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. That wasn’t an accident.
And then, to everyone in this dark world, He not only offered salvation through His death on the cross for all who believe but also offered them the opportunity to be part of His family. Not His human family, but His eternal family.
“…To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
The word “right” is a legal term. It means that not only is an invitation given, but also a contract is signed. If you believe in Jesus then you have the “right” to call God your Father. Listen to the words of Ephesians 1:3-5,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
When you are saved you are also adopted as a son or daughter of God, because He wants you in His family. He wants to be your Dad. When Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, how does He tell them to start the prayer? “Our Father”. What does Romans 8:15 say to all believers who are afraid?
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
You don’t need to be afraid because Dad is with you. What does Galatians 4:6 say about how close our Heavenly Father is?
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
Your Heavenly Father is as close to you as your own spirit.
Could God’s view of families be why He repeatedly tells His people that the way we love Him best is to show our love for widows and orphans? To be family to those who have none.
My message this evening is simple and twofold. The first is that I want you to remember to appreciate your family. For all the drama and excitement and struggles of being part of one, a family is one of God’s greatest gifts and I want you to remember that the best part of Christmas isn’t the food or fun, but your family. They are what you’re going to remember, so maybe stay off the electronics, put down the drink, and spend time with them. And remember, if you are a Christian, you are part of a bigger family too. God doesn’t just make Himself our Father, but also gives us a new family of brothers and sisters that we will be with forever. So if you need something, if you have something to share, call up one of your brothers and sisters in the faith.
And second, if you don’t know Jesus and feel alone tonight, if you are afraid of what is happening inside and around you, if you need freedom from your guilt and fear, or have never really known the deep love of a Father who accepts you for who you are and wants to be with you forever – Jesus stands ready to invite you into His family, if you are willing to receive Him. To receive Him means more than merely agreeing with some facts about Him, but welcoming Him into your life, submitting to Him as Lord, and building a personal relationship. It means believing what He says and trusting His way is better. To do this you need to admit your sins, admit your guilt, admit your need, and then accept that Jesus died for that sin. Receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. At that moment you become a child of God and will never be alone again, but will be adopted as a son or daughter of God.
And if you do that tonight or tomorrow, I encourage you to call someone and tell them right away. What a great gift to give and receive at Christmas.
Over the past while our church has been going through a study of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 400-year-old summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. When we paused for Christmas a couple weeks ago we were only on Day 8, but we’ve already covered a LOT of material. We covered the bad news like sin, Law, guilt, and wrath – and also the good news about who Jesus is and why He is the only One who can bring salvation to the world. We spent a lot of time really digging deep into what it means to be a sinner saved by the grace of God.
Then, after learning how we can get back into a relationship with God we transitioned into getting to know God better by learning more about who He presents Himself to be. Along the way we’ve covered some pretty deep and intense topics, using a lot of important, theological language and doctrinal concepts. We’ve done introductions to why theology matters and where creeds come from. We’ve spoken of God as triune, omnipotent, omniscient, holy and righteous. We’ve spoken of Jesus as saviour, sacrifice, mediator, and advocate.
Studying these subjects and using theological language sometimes gets mixed reviews and actually be a bit of a danger. While my hope is always that these sermons help us grown in our knowledge and love for God, these types of studies can sometimes bring the temptation to detach our hearts from our minds, our relationship with God from our understanding of Him; to cerebralize our faith instead of letting the concepts inform our worship and relationship with Him. There is a danger that instead of expanding our love for God, the study of theology can cause us to sterilize our love for Him. He becomes a subject to study rather than a person to know.
This kind of thing happens to us all the time. Let me give you a couple examples. Humans have this capacity to get used to things pretty quickly. If we are surrounded by a certain smell – whether it’s good or bad – it’s not too long until we experience something called olfactory fatigue where we no longer even smell it anymore. We can be baking cookies and pies or trying to choose a new perfume or lotion, or up to our eyeballs in sewage, and at some point, our nose just gives up and we don’t even notice the scent anymore. It’s not until we leave the environment for a while and then return that we even realize how strong it was.
Bank tellers can handle thousands and thousands of dollars per day, and where at one time holding a huge pile of cash in their hand was something amazing to them, it’s not long until it becomes so commonplace that they don’t even think about it as money anymore – just something to be counted and stuffed in a drawer. Or consider museums. People fly around the world at great expense to visit the world’s greatest museums, to stand before great art for just a short period of time, sometimes even moved to tears by its beauty and the intensity of being near it, but the security guards and cleaning staff are so used to seeing it that they don’t even care anymore. It’s just part of the background of their job. The first time you watch a movie it changes your life, you tell all your friends, you want to experience it again – you even buy it to bring home and watch again – but then, after 3 or 4 more viewings, the surprises wear off, the experience dulls, and now the DVD just sits on your shelf among the others. This happens to everyone. Surgeons get used to seeing blood and holding people’s guts in their hands, factory workers get used to the huge or complex and dangerous machines they see and use every day.
There’s an old phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt” and while it’s not always true – like in marriages or friendships or study – there is a nugget of truth in there. The more we get to know something the more in danger we are of taking it for granted. The teenager with the new driver’s licence merges onto the highway for the first time and as they get up to speed they feel like they’re about to break the sound barrier and fly off the road – so they grip the steering wheel tightly, open their eyes wide, and stare intensely at the road. But it’s not long until that same teen is in the fast lane and passing vehicles while holding food in one hand, changing the music on their iPod with the other, and driving with their knees.
That’s the danger of familiarity, and it can happen to us when we study theology too. It can be tempting to take the things we know about God for granted, try to put Him in a box, or get so used to using words like “awesome”, “almighty”, “saviour”, “glory” and “grace” that they lose their intensity. And when that happens, blasphemy and pride aren’t too far behind.
The season of Christmas and Advent offer a cure to that though. Even with all the complexity of the season, the packed schedule, the family issues, the emotional intensity, the commercialism and stress, there is a haven found in Sunday morning worship. Over the past month, many churches around the world have chosen to pause their services and light an advent candle. We do that here too. There is a short reading, some scripture, a moment of pause as the candle is lit, and a moment to reflect. It is a simple and beautiful way to cause us to stop for a moment and elevate our thoughts to the real meaning of what we’re doing here and why this season is so special. Each week a different candle is lit, a different special scripture is read, and a different aspect of the life and promises of Jesus Christ come into view. Each week we remember one more gift that Jesus gave us He came at Christmas. And it’s done in simple ways, with simple language, and with materials that have been in use for thousands of years.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours, we have five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of Advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the colour of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represents these weeks as concentrated times of prayer, repentance, and reflection in preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, but the third, pink candle interrupts that intensity with a week of rejoicing and celebration. Traditionally even the priests wore pink vestments on that week to set it apart. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty and now I want one!)
As I said, each of the candles has a different theme, but these themes aren’t communicated with big words, deep doctrinal study, or intense theological exposition. Instead, the words are very simple, and the concepts very meaningful – even intimate. The candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we will light on Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers everywhere that of our deepest longings – our desire for a hope that does not disappoint us, love that keeps us forever, joy in the midst of suffering, and a peace that passes understanding – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.
In Jesus There is Hope
The first candle represented Hope. Hope, one could say, is the thing that keeps most of us alive. We can live for a long time in many difficult circumstances, but if we lose hope, it is then that we are in true danger. Hope is something we cannot live without but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news and uncertainty, so many doom and gloom voices out there that sometimes it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved from scum, there is no such thing as eternity, nothing they do ultimately matters, any emotion they feel, even for their parents or loved ones, is just learned behaviour and biochemical trickery. As they move through life the best they are given is to be told to try to squeeze as many years of pleasure and distraction as they can out of this messed up world before death comes and they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that, is there? That’s a dim view of life, and we can see it in the rise of depression, addiction, abortion and suicide. The world doesn’t promise much. We put our hope in politicians or scientists or friends, but things never really change much and these supposed saviours fail us over and over. So the best we can come up with is to distract ourselves from thinking about the future, use chemicals to stop the scary thoughts in our head, and keep ourselves trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because when we stop for a moment all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker.
But then comes the first week of Advent that says, “When Jesus came, He brought with Him a great hope.” The scripture we read on that day was from Isaiah 9:2 and it describes the coming of Jesus this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The coming of Jesus at Christmas was the coming of a beam of light into a dark place. Suddenly, because of Him, because of His, His words, His message, His life, and His work on the cross we are no longer faced with meaninglessness and oblivion, but salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, a mission in this life, and then eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says it this way:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…”
Is that not what all humanity longs for? Isn’t that why you are here today? Because you’ve looked at the things of this world and realized that the hope it offers perishes, spoils and fades, but that in Jesus Christ hope never can. That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
What is this love rooted in? What foundation does it have? It is established in love. But not a worldly kind of love. Our hope doesn’t come from one who only loves those who love Him back. It’s not the kind of love that happens as an exchange of goods, or because someone did something for Him. He doesn’t just love people who achieve some kind of level of loveableness. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. And it’s the kind that we worry about, the kind that fades, the kind that we feel like we can mess up and lose. But God’s love isn’t like that. God offers a better kind of love – a deeper love.
When we lit the Love candle we read John 3:16-17 which talks about the depth of God’s love for us. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Romans 5:6-8 describes the love we find in Jesus this way:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. Jesus didn’t come for those who had earned the right to be saved or were special enough to be saved. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless” – other scriptures say that we weren’t just powerless but were “dead in our… sins” (Eph 2:1). It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness or goodness. He doesn’t just love those who are “good people” but for those who were “ungodly”. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends.
A couple of verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that Jesus died while “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and His opposites, to live among us and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, gained nothing so we could gain everything.
In Jesus there is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. We always feel like God is against us, like we are alone in an out of control world. Without the guidance of Jesus, the good shepherd, we never know what it means for God to give us such a love for our enemies that we are able to pity them, feel bad for them, even find peace while sitting at a table with them. It is only knowing that Jesus is in control that we are able to be at peace in a world filled with strife and turmoil. Without Jesus, we are always trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world so we can control it better – but they all fail us because it’s impossible to find true peace anywhere else but in the presence of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday we lit the peace candle we read the prophecy about Jesus that came 600 years before He was born in Isaiah 9:6-7 which said that when Jesus came His people would say,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
In Romans 5:1-2 we read it about our peace with God this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (knowing we have been forgiven so much). Peace in the knowledge we cannot lose our salvation and that we can trust God because He has everything under control. Peace knowing that we are loved so very much by a God who traded His Son for us.
In Jesus there is Joy
And, therefore, knowing all of this – when we are secure in the hope Jesus offers, understanding the love Jesus has for us and knowing we are at peace with God and others and within ourselves because of what Jesus has done for us – we have joy.
Without Jesus, a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can experience happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time, even smile and laugh for a moment. We can surround ourselves with lots of good things like family, friends, finances, food, and fun – but all of those things only bring temporary moments of happiness. Our family lets us down or passes away, our children grow up and leave, we fall out of friendships, the food runs out or makes us fat or sick, the money doesn’t keep its promises, and the fun only lasts so long. It’s not too long before we realize that the things we thought were supposed to bring us everlasting joy don’t last.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness but instead promises us more. He offers us Joy, and it is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – transcendent joy comes from our transcendent God. We already read a joy scripture today when we lit the candle, but I want to read another from when Jesus speaks about the mixing of Love and Joy in John 15:8–13,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’”
What brings a person joy? What makes a person full of joy even when their circumstances aren’t very happy? Jesus tells us here. We have joy when we know that we have a life that leads to more life. When we know we are in right standing with God. When we are mindful of God’s presence and the good things He provides every day. When we know we are bearing fruit in our lives because God is working through us. When we live a disciplined life, free from folly and stupid decisions because God’s Spirit is helping us moment by moment. When we feel the ever-abiding love of God, knowing the Creator is on our side and works all things for our good and His glory. When He brings us to a family of believers who surround us with His love, accept us for who we are, and care for us no matter what because they know Jesus too. What brings us joy us knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us, call us His friends, advocates for us, and will be with us every step of every day for the rest of eternity. That kind of joy is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that church and Christmas and theology and doctrine can get complicated. I know that when you look inside there are a lot of things you don’t even understand about yourself, let alone the world around you. But I know this for certain: that everyone here wants these four things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. And I know this: The message of Christmas, the message of the church, the message of the Bible is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.
So take time to consider that this week. To meditate upon Hope. To remember it and pray and journal about Love. To sing about Peace and share that Joy with others. All centred around the person and work of Jesus Christ.