Sermon

How the Devil Tricks People Into Sinning – Romans 6:22-23 (“Sunday Study” Ep. 2)

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This week we’re going to do something a little different. Yes, I’m aware that I’ve only done this once and that last week I told you that we’d be going through the gospel of John, but that was before I came across this amazing clip from a John Piper sermon that I really want to share. I came across it while listening to the “Ask Pastor John” podcast, but it’s originally from a sermon he preached on Dec 17, 2000, from Romans 6:22-23 called “The Free Gift of God is Eternal Life.” I’ll put a link on the website if you want to hear the whole thing.

But before we jump into that, I think I should do a bit of an introduction.

One of the troubles with preaching Romans is that you’re almost always jumping into the middle of something. The whole book is constructed as a bunch of well-built, systematic theological teachings, arguments, and connected thoughts that really do need each other to be fully understood. In other words, we need context.

And to make it worse, not only are we jumping into the middle of the Apostle Paul’s teaching – that started, like, all the way back in chapter one – but we’re also taking just a clip out of John Piper’s sermon. So that sort of makes things doubly ripe for trouble.

 But I’ll do my best.

In chapter 1 Paul presents the Gospel as the revelation of the Righteousness of God and compares it to the wickedness of man. That leads to chapter 2 and 3 which speaks of how God’s Righteousness leads to a necessary wrath against those sinners… and who are those sinners? Everyone. For All have sinned. That’s the problem. We’re sinners, we can’t save ourselves, we don’t even want to, and we are all destined to stand before a wrathful God who will condemn us to everlasting torment. That’s a real problem.

What’s the solution?

In Chapter 4 we learn about how the man Jesus Christ, the son of God, was perfectly righteous, and died in our place, and that the only way we can be saved is through faith in the risen Jesus Christ. But what about people in the Old Testament before Jesus? Paul answers that too. The answer is still faith.

Then, in chapter 5, we see that that faith naturally leads to a wonderful hope, because our faith in Jesus makes it so that we can stand before God as righteous, clean, holy, perfect in Jesus. Justified by faith, at peace with God through the amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just like Adam got us into this mess and condemned humanity to the curse, so Jesus got us out of the mess, and redeemed his people from the curse. And he offers this gift for free.

Then, in chapter 6, Paul hears his detractors cry out: “What do you mean it’s free? Free? That’s madness. Then everyone will just go sin all the time, ask forgiveness, and go to heaven. That’s ridiculous. How can you go to heaven without following the law, being religious, being good, doing good things? Free salvation, this amazing grace, will lead to spiritual anarchy!

Which leads us close to our passage today…

I’ll pick up the reading in Romans 6:15 and we’ll end at Romans 6:23. Remember, the clip from John Piper is only talking about the last couple verses, but now we’ve got some context.

“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15–23)

(Clip Starts at 58 seconds)

You’ve got to love John Piper’s passion – and his illustrations – and so many quotable quotes!

“Satan is a liar – he even lies about his lies. … Oh how we should hate him. Oh how free you should want to be right now from this slave-master’s clutches on your lives so that you’re not a dupe and a lacky day in and day out like most people seem to be.”

John Piper

As far as an application goes I can only share my own personal reflection and how this impacted me.

I think it’s easy to become friends with sin, to think it’s not that big of a deal, to keep a few favourite sins as pets. To make an agreement with the devil that you’ll keep on doing these things that kill your soul – if he’d just leave you alone.

I know that’s been my temptation. My last few years have been pretty brutal. I’ve felt pain and misery in every arena of my life, except my physical body. It’s almost like when God told Satan to do whatever he wanted to Job, but didn’t allow him to touch his body – except I didn’t remain upright and righteous like Job – but I did get miserable and start to complain like job.

And I could feel the compromise setting in where I’d start to think, “Ok, I know God doesn’t want me to do this, or I know God wants me to do this, but I’m exhausted, hurt, sad, afraid, wiped out – and, like Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness – he offered me an easier way. Just bow the knee a little, just compromise a little, just be a little more selfish, succumb to hopelessness, fear of man, the belief that the immediate comfort from sin is better than sitting patiently at God’s feet, that going through all this stress is a good excuse to avoid bible reading, avoid prayer, avoid worship, avoid thanksgiving, avoid other believers.

And, John Piper her reminds me that not only was I believing lies, but I was becoming Satan’s lacky – and I didn’t even know it. I was doing what Paul said in Romans 1:25 that unbelievers do. I was “exchanging the truth of God for a lie and serving the creature – Satan and myself – rather than the Creator who is blessed forever.”

Even today, as I sit here recording this, I’m still struggling with the motivation to do daily readings, study, journal, pray, listen to worship music. I was talking to a friend the other day and told him that I know for a fact that there’s a lot of stuff twisted up inside me, and it’s like I’m too afraid to sit down and let God unravel it – because in doing so, I’m afraid I’ll unravel completely.

But that too is a lie. It’s a lie to believe that coming to God will be worse than not. It’s a lie to believe that letting the Great Physician do some Soul Surgery will be worse than letting the cancer grow inside me. And those lies come straight from the devil himself.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt the same way – or if you do now. Are you believing lies about God, exchanging God’s truth for the lies of the devil, and becoming Satan’s willing slave, lackey, and dupe – instead of letting Jesus be Lord, friend, and saviour?

Ask yourself this – how would you know? Could it be that you are so deceived that you literally don’t know God’s truth from Satan’s lies? That all the excuses piled up in your brain, the ones that seem so good, and right, and reasonable to you – are actually just demonic traps for fools, keeping you from experiencing actual joy, actual freedom, actual peace, actual contentment, actual healing? Could it be that the food Satan keeps feeding you, the table you keep running to, that you think is so helpful and good – is actually poinsoning you and you don’t even know it?

Maybe it’s time to ask God to tell you the truth, to show you the truth, to invite him to shine light in places where you haven’t let him before, and to open your eyes to the spiritual reality in your life. That takes courage, sacrifice, trust – and it takes humility before God, and before other Christian leaders and friends to which God is going to have you confess your sins and get accountability from.

Do you feel that fear welling up inside? Do you feel that anxiety? Do you feel that anger that says that no one can tell you what to do, that you’re fine, and all the myriad excuses for why you shouldn’t be opening your heart, soul, and mind in that way….. that’s the devil trying to make sure you stay his. Don’t let him. And I won’t either.

New “Sunday Study” Podcast! – John 5:19-29 – “Jesus Declares Himself to be Equal with God”

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If you weren’t following along when these were being released as sermon podcasts – or with the YouTube videos of the services – or for that matter, have just completely forgotten since I haven’t been in the Gospel of John since the end of August – then maybe you might want to go back and listen to those, but be warned, even though we’re only in Chapter 5, I’ve been preaching in this book since last October and there are already 18 sermons in this series.

But for those who don’t want to listen to 13 and a half hours of sermons to catch up, let me give you a quick review of where we’re at – because we’re about to jump into the middle of a section that really does need context.

The first thing you need to remember is that the Apostle John’s intention when writing this gospel was to paint a portrait of who Jesus is by using stories, symbolism, contrasts, and reflections that are like a sort of appendix or supplement to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It was written 30+ years later and a lot of people had already read those three, but were still either confused about or misrepresenting what they said about Jesus – and so John wrote his gospel to make sure everyone knew exactly who Jesus is.

And he did it in a really intricate way. He uses a whole bunch of 7s – 7 titles for Jesus, seven miracles (or signs) that teach something about Jesus, seven “I am” statements where Jesus just flat out tells people something about Himself using the Divine Name that God gave to Moses – YHWH, or “I Am”.

Also, while using all these sevens, John uses stories where Jesus interacts with different groups of people, and different size groups. At first it’s just John the Baptist and a couple of his followers, but then we go a bit bigger to a Jewish wedding, then a bit bigger to Jewish people and the leaders at the Temple, then the picture shifts to a one-on-one with a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (the leaders of all the Jewish people), then John contrasts that interaction by making the next story Jesus’ one-on-one interaction with a socially rejected, sinful, superstitious, non-Jewish woman in a foreign land. Then Jesus comes back and interacts with yet another people group – the Romans.

John’s whole mission is to introduce Jesus by not only hearing what Jesus says about Himself, but through His interactions with all manner of people – seeing how they respond to Him and He responds to them.

But, by John 5, Jesus has had interactions with pretty much everyone, and it was time to shift the story again. The whole first part of the story John told was how popular Jesus was, how His ministry and influence grew, and how His infamy grew too – but in John 5:18, the verse before the one we’re studying today, — right after Jesus declares His equality with God – we see a shift. It says, “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

 And then, for the rest of the chapter Jesus explains, in no uncertain terms, exactly what he meant:

Let’s read John 5:19–29:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (ESV)

You see now why we needed some context. In verse 1 we see that this event is happening right in the city of Jerusalem, on the Temple grounds, during an important Jewish Feast. That means the place is absolutely packed. Jesus has just healed a man on the Sabbath, the Sanhedrin flipped out, and Jesus looks right at them, the rest of the Jewish people, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Temple guards, and anyone else within earshot – and says, “I am equal to God the Father. What God does, I do. What God knows, I know. The powers that God has, I have too. The authority that God has over death and life, I have too. The worship and honour due to the Father, is due to me too. And it is up to me, because I’m God, to declare the words that lead to eternal life. And if you believe me, and me alone, you will be saved from eternal death. In the end, when you die and you stand before the judgment seat of God, do you know who will be sitting there? Me. I will judge whether you are worthy for heaven or not. So stop fighting me, stop arguing with me, stop telling me I’m wrong – just shut up, listen, and obey. Because I AM GOD.

That’s what this section is saying. Jesus declares equality with God in person, power, authority, and glory. And He says in effect, with absolute clarity – no parables or metaphors – who He really is.

That phrase in verse 24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” is so key!

I talked a little bit on the Thursday podcast about Hell, and perhaps the most important question for a human to ask themselves or anyone else is, “How do I avoid going to hell?” Jesus gives the answer.

He begins, “Truly, truly”. Whenever you see something doubled in scripture, it’s time to perk your ears up. It’s a way to emphasize how suuuuuper important what He’s about to say is.

Then he says, “I say to you” – He makes it absolutely clear He’s not talking in platitudes or giving some kind of high-fallooting theological teaching. He’s not speaking theoretically, or giving an opinion. He’s looking at YOU… YOU YOU. Not some other YOU. YOU YOU. Not just the Jews, not just the Sanhedrin, not just the Apostles, not just old people, or religious people, or sick people, or lonely people, or weak people. He’s literally talking to YOU.

And He says, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” What are the qualifications there? You have to hear Jesus words, believe not only the words, but believe in God and what God says through Jesus – because remember the first line of John – Jesus is literally the Word of God. So you need to hear the words, personalize them and believe them in your head and heart, and attach them not just to a concept or religion, but to the very person of God, the real, actual, person of God that you can talk to and listen to and connect with and experience – and if you do that… you will escape hell and live.

That’s the qualifications for Eternal life. Hear the Word of God, the gospel, the story of salvation, the declaration that you are a sinner, condemned by a righteous God to eternal torment in hell, and have one hope – that Jesus Christ would take your sin upon himself, die in your place, take your punishment, go to the grave for you, and then defeat death, destroy the effects of sin — and that God would accept what Jesus did on your behalf as payment for your sins. That’s the word you need to hear.

And then you need to believe it. Believe you aren’t just a good person that occasionally messes up, but that you are a sinner who loves sin and can’t stop sinning. Believe that the sins you commit have brought death your soul, and death to everything in your life, and will eventually lead you eternal death in hell. Believe that you are doomed. And then believe that Jesus offers the only way, the one and only way of salvation – not one of many, not because you deserve it, not because you’re so great, not because Jesus saves everyone, not because you earned it, not because of any other reason than God decided to show you your sin and invite you to be saved… and let that knowledge drive you to despair, and then raise you up to worship and thanksgiving to the one, true God, and His Son Jesus Christ.

Not theoretically, not religiously, not culturally, not a God of your own design, not picking and choosing the parts of Jesus you like and forgetting the parts you don’t, not chopping his word up into bits you prefer and others you want to forget, not thinking that Jesus doesn’t care what you do and just saves everyone because he’s so nice – but actually believing, speaking to, and connecting with the real, actual, historical, biblically revealed Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – and giving your whole heart, soul, mind and strength to Him – because He has shown you favour and saved you from eternal torment by his grace.

So what’s the application here today? Basically – to make sure you know who Jesus really is, are believing the right things about Him, and are actually saved. To check your heart to see if you are a religious hypocrite, a Christian pretender and play actor. To ask yourself if you have really, actually contended – really wrested with whether you believe that Jesus is God, that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and that Jesus is your one and only Lord and has the right to command you to do anything – and that you will respond “yes”, not only because He’s your Creator and the God of the universe, but because you want to say yes because he’s also your friend, your brother, your father, and lives not only with you but within you.

To ask yourself – Am I going to heaven and why?

To ask yourself – Am I living as someone who really believes what I say I believe? Or do I pretend my faith, and then put Jesus on the shelf most of the time, until I need him for something.

To ask yourself – Am I treating Jesus and His word like a trivia game, just amassing a bunch of knowledge for interests sake, but never letting the truth of it actually break your hard heart, utterly destroy your warped self-perception, and allow Him to completely rebuild who you are from his perspective?

You see, despite what the world might say, there are not “many ways to God.” There are not “many roads to heaven”. Not “all religions are equally valid”. Not “all truths are equally truthful.” Not “all opinions deserve to be heard.”

There is One God, Lord, one Saviour, one path, one truth, one mediator between God and man – and that’s Jesus Christ. And if you’re not on His page, believing what He says, and living with Him as a current reality, daily reality, moment-by-moment reality that affects every single part of your existence – then you need to change.

 As verse 25 says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

If you hear me today, if you hear the voice of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, today – please listen, believe, and make that belief real – so you can hear and live.

My Last Sermon, Ever?!

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We had a phone call last Sunday afternoon that informed us that this could be my last week as pastor of Beckwith Baptist Church. As I said in the announcements, there’s a vote on Wednesday that will determine whether I’ll be around for six more months – or that this will be my last sermon – maybe ever. Many of you know the situation, so I’m not going to go over it here.

But, it’s a sobering thought. What if this really is my last sermon, ever? What if, after today, I go home, get told on Wednesday that I’m done, and then never stand in a pulpit again? Spending the week trying to figure out what that might look like has been strange and difficult – as all of life’s major transitions are.

I’m sure many of you have been through something similar. The death of a loved one, moving to another place far away, divorce, changing churches, some environmental disaster… all have a seismic impact on our lives. And it’s not always bad things that rock our little boats. Sometimes it’s good things – a new opportunity, a missions opportunity, meeting someone special, getting married, coming into some money, moving on to university, or starting a new career, are all events that cause stress and make us totter a bit, forcing us to find solid ground, get our bearings, and evaluate our lives.

For me, this week, the thought, “If this is my last sermon ever, what should it be?” has stuck in my mind. And as I chewed on it, one passage kept coming to mind – the Sermon on the Mount. It’s probably the best place I can think of to turn to find solid ground, true north, and a proper assessment of what our priorities should be.

Turn with me to Matthew 5-7 – the greatest sermon ever preached, given by the Lord Jesus while He sat on a hillside facing a magnificent view of the Sea of Galilee, to a huge crowd of people who had seen His miracles and wanted to know what He was all about. Jesus sat down to teach the small group that were committed to following Him – but the picture is of literally thousands of people all leaning over their shoulders listening in.

The Sermon on the Mount

If you’ve read this passage, then you’ll know there’s a lot going on here, and it’s very impactful – and there are a lot of perspectives on it. Some see Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a list of instructions, the marching orders of their life, and check-list of ways to try to earn their way into heaven. Others see it as hyperbole, an over exaggeration of some unachievable ideal we should be shooting for, but can never achieve. Some see this as an instruction manual on how to be a super-Christian, better than everyone else, or think that it was only meant for the apostles, so it doesn’t apply to them. Some say we should be living these words out every day, while others teach that it only applies during the end times.

But what the Sermon on the Mount really is, is an inaugural address, a manifesto, a constitution, a sort of throne speech / state of the union address, where Jesus outlines what life in His Kingdom is all about. He, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, is looking at those who chose to follow Him – and those who were thinking about following Him – the nation He had founded when He chose Abram and Jacob and Moses so long ago – and told them what life in His Kingdom was supposed to look like, what He as King expected, what God as Creator expected, what the governing laws and judgments and priorities of His kingdom would be. The crowds had been schooled in the Pharisees version of what God’s ways were (which we’ve covered a lot of times so I won’t repeat it now) and here, Jesus gives a huge list of corrections.

If you’ve read it, you’ve probably noticed that Jesus goes through a lot of the Old Testament. He’s basically trying to rewire all the mess the Pharisees had created and give the proper interpretation and application of the Law and the Prophets. Why? So He could create a list of rules to live by? No…that’s what the Pharisees did. What Jesus was doing was giving people the recipe for an abundant, Godly life, full of peace, hope, joy, freedom, and forgiveness.

All they had heard before was about God’s anger and wrath, and how the only way to appease Him was through obeying depressing lists of joyless rules that made life miserable. They had been taught that anyone who was sick, oppressed, persecuted, poor, or miserable was clearly under God’s judgment. And that religion was a path to worldly health and wealth. Jesus corrects all of that.

At first, the Sermon on the Mount looks like a list of rules, but if you look closer, it’s actually a list of freedoms! It’s the words of a gracious and loving God showing His people how to live free of sin, vice, error, darkness, and fear of man. It’s teaching us how to really love people, and really connect with God – not just how to do religious stuff. It paints a picture of a God who knows us, loves us, even likes us as individuals, so much so that He wants us to have all the things our hearts desire – and is more than willing to give it. It’s a sermon full of unfiltered, unadulterated, clear, clean truth. No couching, no hemming and hawing, no giving two sides of the argument, no differing opinions, just the way of truth that leads to life – from the One who is “The Way, the Truth and the Life”.

Matthew 5

Jesus kicks off the sermon with a bang, completely upending humanity’s entire understanding of how life works. He gives what we call “the Beatitudes”. Beatitude comes from the Latin word BEATUS which means “blessed” or “happy”, because that’s how they all start.

He begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:3)

In other words, the citizens of the Kingdom He is about to describe, those who will be King Jesus’ workers and soldiers and priests, His adopted brothers and sisters who will be the co-heirs to the throne – will be people who realize they are spiritually bankrupt, unable to give anything of value to God, and who know they must absolutely depend on His mercy and grace for everything.

In one sentence Jesus blows their entire, corrupt, works based, honour based, hypocritical, religious system out of the water. He says, “My people, God’s true followers, aren’t the self-sufficient, arrogant, pious, holier-than-thou, popular, powerful, whitewashed-tombs you think are God’s favourites. God’s favourites, the blessed ones, the ones who have God’s ear, are those who know they have no good thing in them, no reason for God to love them, nothing to offer, and know they are wretched, sinful, and broken –but who know that every day they must depend on God for anything good, completely hoping in Him.”

And the rest of the Beatitudes, and really the rest of the Sermon on the Mount are about taking that first sentence apart. What does a humble, dependant, follower of God look like? Look at the rest of the beatitudes:

A citizen of God’s Kingdom mourns their sins, and the effects of sin in this world, and comes to God for their ultimate comfort. They don’t run to drink, drugs, sex, money, power, entertainment. They know their only real protection from sin is in the arms of God.

They are meek, or gentle, not lording power over others, but instead, serving them.

They are hungry for righteousness, thirsty for a clean, unpolluted soul.

They are merciful, showing undeserved kindness and forgiveness and patience to difficult people, treating them as they would want to be treated.

They are pure in heart. They don’t merely put efforts into looking good on the outside, but spend a lot more energy on asking God to purify their inner thoughts, motives, and desires.

They are peacemakers, overlooking the wrongs people do to them, and even putting themselves in places where there is strife and conflict, so they can infuse it with the love and forgiveness and the justice they’ve been shown by God.

They are the ones willing to face persecution, hate, reviling, gossip, slander, and all kinds of evil – doing battle for their King, entering the fray, taking the slings and arrows of the devil and the people that work for him –because their eye is on a greater prize, standing in the throne room of heaven and hearing, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

And you can see all these Beatitudes echoed throughout the rest of the sermon. Look at the next part about how the citizens of heaven are salt and light in the world. Salt isn’t seen when it’s at work, it’s humble in its influence. Light is always doing battle with the darkness, it’s brave in its influence.

Look further down to verse 21 about anger. Of course Jesus’ disciples get angry, just like God gets angry, but they know that what they do with that anger is what’s important. It’s not just about not hurting people, but about using that anger as fuel for righteousness.

Lust is similar. Just like getting angry isn’t something we can control, being attracted to someone isn’t either. It just happens. But godliness isn’t just about avoiding sleeping with them, it goes deeper. Lust isn’t about sex – it’s about controlling our appetites. Like our hunger for food, our sexuality isn’t something we can avoid – it can only be fed in a healthy, godly way. And the follower of Jesus hates sin so much, hungers for righteousness so much, longs for a pure heart so much, that they are willing to do anything, go to extremes, to avoid letting sin take residence in their heart.

And Jesus continues in verse 33when He talks about oaths. Godly people shouldn’t need external forces like contracts and oaths and promises and rules to make us keep our word. A Kingdom follower doesn’t need to lie, manipulate, or pretend. We know that words matter, that God is our provider, that we have inherent value, and that God is watching everything we do –knowing even our thoughts and motives – and so we simply live honestly.

The same with revenge or our enemies in verse 38. Think back to the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes. Before you stands your enemy. They’ve hurt you or someone you love, have lied to you or about you, have created a lose-lose scenario for you, and are standing there laughing. Now, if you are the king of your own universe, then you get to be judge and jury and executioner too. If your identity is in your pride, then you’re going to want to restore it at all costs. And so your anger will cause you to retaliate, seek revenge, dole out punishment. But, if you are poor in spirit, meek, merciful, a peacemaker who is willing to be treated badly for righteousness’ sake, then you’re going to have a completely different response. You’ll pity them, trust God to deal with them properly, forgive as you have been forgiven, let it go as Jesus let you go, give grace and love to this undeserving person, just as Jesus gave grace and love to an undeserving you.

Matthew 5 isn’t about rules – it’s about finding freedom in doing things God’s way. Religion, pride, out of control anger, lust, revenge, hatred – those are terrible burdens that ruin your life. Here, Jesus teaches us how to live free of those burdens through a life of love and grace.

Matthew 6

Not turn to Matthew 6. I think Matthew 6 is probably my favourite part of the Sermon on the Mount – and not just because I wrote a book on it. It’s why I wrote a book on it!

A lot of Matthew 5 was action based. Do good deeds. Here’s what to do if you get angry. Here’s what to do if you lust. Here’s what to do if you have marriage problems. Here’s what to do at work and with social agreements. Here’s how to deal with difficult people.

But now the emphasis changes from things “to do” to “don’t do this”. I want to read this section a bit closer because, for me, it’s really applicable for today. Should this be my final sermon, I think the most helpful thing I could leave you with are the Lord’s words in Matthew 6. So let’s read them together:

          Jesus begins,

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (6:1–4)

Again, this is obviously an indictment of the Pharisees, but also of everyone who thinks that God wants an external show of how religious you are. It’s a message to everyone who comes to church (or the Temple in their case) with anger, lust, fear, judgementalism, worry, pride, corruption in their heart, habitual sins that have taken over their lives – but have no intention of dealing with it. They walk into service with a heart crusted over with sin, and so everything in the service – the songs, the message, the scriptures, the people serving them, the opportunity to give generously, the chance to serve others, the needy people around them, the helpful people around them, the reminder in the Lord’s Supper and the preacher’s petition to repent – everything that is designed to help them to meet Jesus, to connect with God, to be renewed by the Holy Spirit – all bounce off and have no effect. Sure, they sing, and bow their heads, and chat afterward, ask how you’re doing, even bring a box of cookies to share, but none of the spiritual stuff affects their heart, lives, decisions, or souls. They always leave the same way they came in, unchanged, unrepentant, unaffected – ironically, usually thinking themselves better than everyone in the room who actually wept over their sin, shared their weaknesses, asked for help, sang with gusto even though they don’t have a good voice, who showed they didn’t know something by asking a question – they mock those people as weak and stupid – and leave church with an even harder heart.

Jesus says here, and really all over scripture in the Old Testament and New, that He couldn’t care less about you attending church, singing songs, or doing any other religious actions if you are not intimately connected to Him.

God hates hypocrites: people who pretend to be something they are not – religious hypocrites most of all. Which is why Matthew 7 – and so many of New Testament letters – spend so much time warning His followers to watch out for wolves that pretend to be sheep, thorn bushes that pretend to be grapevines, clouds without water, wandering stars that steer ships to the rocks, shipwrecking reefs hidden under the water. People who look like prophets, teachers, and miracle workers, but are actually liars and workers of lawlessness, sent by Satan to destroy the faithful and corrupt the church.

Perhaps the ultimate religious hypocrite is the one who is a hypocrite in prayer. Look at verse 5,

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

How can we know who these hypocrites are? Because they love to be seen as pious people. Their whole identity is wrapped up in people thinking how good they are. These are people who attend church, teach classes, serve on committees, play in the worship band, go on mission’s trips, and do all the Christian stuff – buy they’re not actually Christians. They’re not “poor in spirit”, they’re prideful and unrepentant. They don’t “mourn” their sin, they hide it. They’re not “meek”, they actually try to make sure they have the positions of highest influence. And they’re certainly not “merciful”, their critical, judgmental, and wrathful against anyone who opposes them. If you ever wonder if you’re dealing with a religious hypocrite, just imply that perhaps there might be some sin in their heart, that they might have the wrong motives, or that they’re not spiritually qualified for a position. This type of person will absolutely flip out.

I can’t tell you how many of these people I’ve served with, or watched serve, on various committees and boards over the past 20 years of ministry – and I’m sure you have too. They’re like a cancer on the church, and I’ve watched them ruin a lot of ministries, churches, pastors, and turn a lot of faithful, young Christians away from the church.

Worrying About Money Ruins the Church

The final part I want to go through, I think, is especially poignant for this church. I’ll leave Matthew 7 for you to study yourself, but I think verses 19-34 address something that I’ve heard talked about almost endlessly for the last 20 years: worrying about money. It really has been a non-stop topic for as long as I’ve been a pastor. It seems as though Christians believe that God will provide for them at home, at work, for missionaries, for their friends, their family, and every other ministry – but when it comes God miraculously providing for their church, suddenly all that faith goes out the window. It’s all impossible. There’s no money, no hope, no faith, no possibility of God providing.

They look at the budget and the money is a little down, and the response is always the same. For 16 years I’ve been attending church board meetings, and the response is always the same. Panic, argue, tighten the fist, and stop ministering to people.

If someone came to you as an individual and said, “I’m really worried about my finances. I’m losing my job, I’ve got bills to pay, and I don’t know what to do.” Or they said, “I believe God is calling me to go to the mission field, but I need to raise a bunch of money, and I have no idea what to do…” What would you say?

Pray about it. Trust God. Share your needs with friends. Keep tithing and be extra generous with your money, because God loves a cheerful giver and honours those who trust Him. Right?

Do you know what I hear from church boards, trustees, and church meetings? It’s the same thing every time: “What if we need to replace the roof? What if the furnace quits?” and the next thing is always the same: “We’d better cut all our funding to missionaries, stop doing outreach, kill our community programs, stop benevolent giving, stop buying Sunday school material for the kids…” Suddenly the physical building is far more important than any believer, ministry, or needy person in the community. Essentially, the church stops trusting God, stops being generous, stops doing ministry, tighten their fists and panics. Then they find a scapegoat and sacrifice them, because that’s easier than talking about the systemic sins within the whole church. Every single time.

You’d think that, as a group of believers, that when a financial crisis hits there would be more prayer meetings, more serving others, more generosity, right? That they’d unite together as a church family and bang on the doors of heaven, begging for mercy and provision. Nope. Suddenly, every meeting is about money. In fact, prayer meetings are cancelled in favour of meetings to talk about money. The elders, pastors, deacons, and ministry leaders are told to step aside, while the treasurer and trustees take up the time to talk about how dire things are, how desperate things are, and how hopeless things are. I’ve watched it happen so many times.

Then the younger Christians start to get confused and upset. Why are we talking so much about money? Why did we stop doing things for the community? Why did we stop helping missionaries? Why are there so many budget meetings, and why is everyone so upset all the time? So they leave the church.

Then the generous Christians, the faithful tithers, start to see that a bunch of people int eh church, the ones in leadership, don’t actually care as much about worship, evangelism, missions, and discipleship as they thought. It turns out that when the rubber meets the road, it’s really the building, the roof, the furnace, and the bills that matter. So they leave the church.

Then even the faithful Christians start to get frustrated. They want to do ministry. They want to pray. They want to talk about Jesus and trust God for help. They don’t want to argue about money and bewail how hopeless everything is, turning on each other to toss accusations and place blame. But they are told to be quiet, to not be so naïve. And, eventually, they leave the church too. Again, I’ve seen time and again.

And all that’s left are a group of people who talk about money, blame others for their problems, talk about the good old days, and spend their meetings talking about what they really reassure: the roof, the furnace, the floors, the carpets, the parking lot… and occasionally someone says what they really need is to “get some young people” into the church. I’ve seen it over, and over, and over…

But, let’s read Matthew 6:19-34 and see what Jesus has to say about this:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Conclusion

The secret sauce for a joyful, abundant, growing Christian – and a joyful, abundant, and growing church – is there in verse 33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Instead of worrying and arguing and blaming and panicking – the simple questions are these: “What does God tell us to do? What does Jesus want from us? How should a kingdom citizen react to this situation? Is our King, our God, trustworthy, and kind, and generous, and helpful? If so, what does He want from us? What is the most righteous thing to do right now?” Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s counter intuitive. Even if it’s costly.

If we want “all these things to be added to us”, whether in our individual life, our family life, or our church life, we must ask, “What is the most righteous, godly, biblical, Christian thing that I can do, right now?” Is it to sell our possessions and give generously? Is it to seek or grant forgiveness from someone you’ve been avoiding? Is it removing an obstacle or temptation from your home because it’s corrupting your heart? Is it changing your schedule and priorities so you can pray and read and serve more? Is it to get on your knees and repent for the sins you’ve been keeping secret? Is it confessing your sins to another believer in hopes of getting healing and help? I don’t’ know what it is for you, but whatever it is, whatever the Spirit has been telling you for so long, that you’ve been ignoring and refusing – choose today to seek it first, as a Kingdom follower, a disciple of Jesus, and pursue that righteousness with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and trust that God will meet your needs “far more abundantly than all you might ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20) because that’s exactly what He promises.

The Lord Jesus, The Pharisees, and The Sabbath

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**Sorry, no audio this week due to technical issues (of me not changing the batteries in the mic…🙄)**

Let’s turn back to our passage from last week, John 5:1–18.

“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

Last week, I began with the reminder to try to put ourselves into the passages we are reading, especially with those who Jesus interacts with, because if we are careful and willing, we will see ourselves reflected there. But the scriptures aren’t about us… they’re about Jesus. So in the forefront of our mind must always be not just “What is this saying about me?” But more importantly, “What is this saying about Jesus?”

Quick Review of the Structure of John

Remember, that’s John’s intention when writing this gospel – to paint a portrait of who Jesus is through story, symbolism, contrast, and reflection.

 If we go back that that first graphic we looked at when starting this series, you’ll remember that John uses a lot of 7s in his book. In chapter 1, the introduction to the book, as Jesus gathers His first followers we see seven different titles for Him: “Lamb of God”, “Son of God”, “Rabbi”, etc. Then, in the first half of the gospel we see seven miracles, or “signs”, that point to important revelations of who Jesus is and designate the author’s divisions of thought: water into wine, healing the centurion’s son, healing a paralyzed man, feeding the 5000, healing a man blind from birth, and raising Lazarus from the dead. And peppered throughout the whole book are two sets of seven “I am” statements from Jesus, where He either make a claim about Himself, or simply uses the divine name that God gave to Moses, YHWH, as His own name. As I said before, there’s a lot of intricate story weaving in this book.

In the first four chapters (our chapters, not John’s), which we’ve already covered, we see Jesus interacting with five different types of people: a small gathering of Jewish people at a wedding, a larger gathering of people and Jewish leaders at the Temple, a one-on-one talk with a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a one-on-one talk with a Samaritan woman at a well, and then Jesus talks to all of them while talking to a gentile, Roman centurion, about healings and signs.

In each of these interactions, Jesus shows something important about Himself. At the wedding, Jesus is inaugurating His Kingdom, kicking off His earthly ministry with a celebration, generosity, and all the symbolism that comes along with wine (which we talked about already). At the temple Jesus reveals that He is the true “temple of God” where heaven and earth meet, and declares Himself to be the Son of God, Messiah, and King. When meeting with the Rabbi in the middle of the night, He declares that He is the One sent by God to be a sacrifice for sin, and anyone who believes in Him must give up their religious hypocrisy and be born again with a new heart, through faith in Him alone. And then, all of those revelations come crashing together as he tells the most unlikely person, a sinful, socially rejected, Samaritan woman, that He is the Living Water, the Source of Eternal Life, the Perfect Rabbi, the Messiah and Christ – and she runs into town sharing Jesus claims with the other Samaritans and many are saved.

Last week, we moved into another sort of division where John shows us another sign, with more subdivisions. The sign, the miracle that designates the change in the story is the healing of the lame man at the Sheep Gate pool, but the subdivisions this time aren’t about connecting with people groups, but interacting with the important Jewish celebrations and religious feasts. And now, instead of Jesus going from place to place being accepted and followed – like the first four interactions were all about – now we see a whole bunch of rejection. The same groups that accepted him during the first section of the book all start to turn away until everyone is arguing about Jesus, the Jewish leaders do everything in their power to arrest, stone, and kill Jesus, and the only people left following Him are the twelve disciples. In fact, the opposition gets so fierce that right before the final miracle of the seven, the raising of Lazarus, as Jesus is about to walk back into Judea, the Apostle Thomas is so convinced their walking into an antagonistic hornet’s nest, says to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11:16) And the story of Lazarus leads directly into the second half of the book, all about Passion Week, the last seven days before Jesus was crucified.

Jesus, the Sabbath, and the Pharisees

So, as we turn back to the story we are looking at today, the healing of the man at the Sheep Gate Pool, we have to ask ourselves, “What does this say – what are we meant to see – what is the sign pointing to – about Jesus?” and “What is this saying to us?”

Last week we covered the miracle. Jesus walks into the Sheep Gate, sees a superstitious, hopeless, old man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years, heals Him, and says in verse 8, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (5:8) That’s critically important. Verse 9 says, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”

The next line reveals what this story is all about. Not only is the miracle a chapter division, but John here reveals that his subdivision theme is changing too. We’ve already been introduced to “the Jews” (which in John always means the “Jewish Ruling Class”), but now we see an other critical piece of information that leaps off the page. “Now that day was the Sabbath.”

That would be an “oooooohhhh…” moment for anyone reading. The Sabbath was a pretty famous Jewish peculiarity. No other people in the world took a whole day off – including their servants and slaves – to stop working, selling, cooking, farming… just to worship and rest. Everyone else had a 7 day work week. But for the Jews, everything stopped on Friday night and didn’t start again until the appearance of at least three stars in the sky on Saturday night.[1]

If you recall the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, you’ll remember in Chapter 13, after the walls and gates had been rebuilt, when the Sabbath came around, Nehemiah commanded that all the gates of the city be shut and locked until after the Sabbath. All the merchants and sellers from all over the land came up to the doors, and for the first time in decades, couldn’t get through. Let me read that portion to you, because it’s great:

“As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy.” (Nehemiah 13:19–22)

If you think that’s serious, then fast-forward a few hundred years to the birth of an extremist group called the “Pharisees”, or “the separatists”, the “separated ones”. Essentially the “we’re better than everyone else and God love sus more” group.

By the time of Jesus there were three different groups that were in charge of the Jewish people. John summarizes them by just calling them “the Jews”, but he’s referring to the Jewish Ruling class: the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. Essentially these groups were the lawmakers, police, and lawyers of the time, and therefore pretty much everything in Jewish society – except for what their Roman government dictated – ran through them.

And this group took it upon themselves to decide not only that everyone had to keep the Sabbath or get in trouble – but exactly how the Sabbath was to be kept. So they made and enforced a whole bunch of extra laws that make sure no one would ever break the Sabbath again. No planting, or plowing, or reaping, or sorting, or chopping vegetables, or mixing anything together, or cooking, or laundry, or tying knots, or untying knots, or hunting, or smoothing, or chopping, or writing, or erasing, or making things, no starting a fire, or putting out a fire even if your house is going to burn down, and definitely no carrying things outside – or “transferring anything between domains”, and especially not “transferring anything through a public thoroughfare”. Well, technically, if you absolutely had to move something, you were allowed to move it 4 cubits (or 6 feet).[2]

Remember, none of this was in the Old Testament Law, it was all invented by the Pharisees as a way to make sure everyone “kept the Sabbath”. God had created a day for His people where they could rest, worship, enjoy each other… where they weren’t expected to produce anything, but just had to remember that God was their provider, God had everything under control, and the whole point of existence wasn’t to do work, make money, produce things… but to connect with God and be with the people you care about.

But the Pharisees had taken the God-given gift of the Sabbath and turned it into a huge burden. Now people dreaded the Sabbath because they couldn’t do anything. It wasn’t enjoyable. Now, around every corner was a Pharisee watching to see if you’d pick anything up, make yourself a snack, write a note, smooth out a wrinkle, or – you know – prevent your house from burning down. It was awful. But the Pharisees had a huge amount of power. If you broke their laws, you could be kicked out of the synagogue, shunned by your community, arrested, beaten, even threatened with death.

That’s what makes verses 8-9 such a critical part of the story. Jesus commands the man to break the Pharisees Sabbath rules, and then sends him to walk through a public thoroughfare with his bed under his arm. You can imagine how that would be received.

Well, as per usual, there’s a Pharisee lurking around somewhere nearby and the man takes, probably, like 20 steps, and some Jewish Officials jump out and say, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” (5:10)

The man, quickly dodges the accusation and deflects the blame, “Hey, it wasn’t my idea, someone came up to me after being a hopeless invalid for thirty-eight years and healed me. Then he said, ‘take up your bed, and walk’. I wasn’t about to argue with a guy that powerful!”

The Jewish Official’s eyes get all squinty and aggressive, ready to come down like a sack of hammers on that guy, ask – “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”

Pause there for a second and notice that question. Do you see anything missing? The miracle, right? It wasn’t, “Show us the one who had the power to heal you from decades of hopeless pain and misery… we’re very interested in a person like that…”. No, all they could think about was “Someone told you to break our rules!? How dare they! We need to get this guy! Arrest Him! Make an example out of Him! He’s a lawbreaker, sinner, and he’s spreading His evil among these poor, unfortunate, sick people! He’s making them break the Sabbath!” How crazy is it that a guy who had been lying around for almost 40 years, finally gets up and walks, and is told to lie right back down by the most religious, supposedly godly people in town?

Now, Jesus hadn’t told the man who He was and had already left, so there was nothing for these guys to go on, but then Jesus does something really interesting. He finds the man he healed to introduce Himself properly. “Hi, I’m Jesus, the guy who healed you. I have already demonstrated that I have divine power, and you have already demonstrated faith and obedience toward me. Look at yourself! You are well! I healed you. But I have a further message for you. I didn’t simply heal you so you can go back to a sinful life. I, your new master, the source of your new hope and new life, want more for you. I not only want you free from worldly misery, but from the misery of sin. So ‘sin nor more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” The implication there is that the man’s condition may have been a result of his own foolishness and sin getting him into trouble.

To modernize it, imagine a semi-religious man, goes to church Christmas and Easter, is a kind of ok guy. One day he drives drunk, gets into an accident, and wrecks himself. Snaps his spine and ends up in a wheelchair. He’s in that chair for almost 40 years. Over that time everyone in his life has abandoned him, he’s tried every kind of remedy, spent all his money on treatments and pills, and now spends all day watching tv, and decides to put his hope into one of those health-and-wealth, false gospel, televangelists. He sends his last few dollars, gets kicked out of his apartment, and ends up in some kind of hostel. Jesus comes in, asks if He wants to be well, heals him, and then tells him, “Ok, I’ve healed your body, but that’s not your real problem is it? Your real problem is guilt, shame, fear, anger, betrayal, and selfishness that led you into sin, that caused this to happen, and has driven you into more and more misery, right? Your problem is sin. Now, I’ve healed you. But, I didn’t heal you so you can go back to drinking and foolishness – go live rightly, godly, as a follower of mine. Change your heart, repent of sin, put your hope in me, and live my way – or the misery that will come to you will make these last forty years look like a picnic – because you will end up in Hell. Now, go, live as a Christian.”

What is this man’s response? Well, as soon as He obeys Jesus, by picking up his mat and walking, He immediately gets into trouble. Now, I figure one of two things is happening here. Either he’s obeying Jesus by making sure He submits to the Jewish Ruling Authorities and does what he’s told – or he’s slipped back into his former pattern of self-centredness, blaming others for his problems (like he did at the pool), and immediately throwing Jesus under the bus.

We don’t know. But the application is the same here. People’s response to Jesus’ grace is often surprising. Some people are thankful, others aren’t. Some respond with obedience, others don’t. Some meet Jesus and follow Him, others just go back to their old lives. It’s amazing that Jesus’ grace doesn’t come with strings – instead it comes with an invitation.

That’s the man, but let’s get back to the Jewish Rulers. Look at what’s going on here, because it’s really ironic. A man who has been unable to move, or work, or mix, or tie or untie anything, who has probably been technically keeping the Sabbath perfectly for 40 years because He was unable to move, meets Jesus, the rightful King of the Jews, the one who gave the law to Moses, the perfect Rabbi, the Messiah, the true temple of God, the source of Eternal life – and completely heals this guy and sends him out on a mission. Did Jesus do anything wrong? No. Did He have the right to tell that man to “take up his bed and walk”? Absolutely! Did Jesus know how the Sabbath works? Yes, it was His idea in the first place.

But Jesus sets up this confrontation on purpose so that He can reveal something about Himself to all these people, especially the Pharisees. Look at the titles of the next sections and you’ll see what. In the ESV they are, “Jesus is Equal with God” and “The Authority of the Son”.

He took that man from invalid to missionary in an instant. Then He offered to save the man’s soul. And then, after demonstrating His power, and declaring His authority, He confronts the Jewish leaders with a huge speech about who He really is: Look down to verse 39-40, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Jesus set up a confrontation where He said, in no uncertain terms, that He is the Lawgiver, the Perfect interpreter, the Son of God, and equal to God Himself. That He alone has the right to pass judgment and decide who lives and dies – not them! He is the perfect interpreter of God’s will – not them! That He is the real Jewish Ruler – not them. And they should be bowing down and obeying Him, not everyone bowing down and obeying them.

He says, “You guys think you know so much about the Bible – but God Himself is standing in front of you and you can’t even see it. Instead you reject and persecute me.” And he gives them, in much more detail, the same message He gave the man he healed, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”

Again, Jesus gives grace. He doesn’t judge and condemn them immediately but gives them the truth and then some time to accept it. And again, that grace is presented with an invitation – this time to the Pharisees. “Repent, submit, be healed, or be damned.” Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well.

Application

Let’s leave it there this week, but draw out a couple applications.

The first application is that Jesus is gracious and kind, giving favour to everyone on earth. Matthew 5:45 says, “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” But that miracle, that grace, comes with an invitation and a warning: Deal with your sin before the worst possible thing happens to you. The first application is a reminder that Hell is real and Jesus’ invitation is urgent. If you aren’t a Christian today, then you must realize that you are living on borrowed time, that every moment you’ve been alive has been an act of undeserved grace, and that it can end at any time. You are alive today because Jesus keeps you alive and is giving you time to repent, deal with your sin, and turn to Him as your Lord. You don’t know when that grace will end, so you must take your spiritual reality, the condition and destination of your soul, seriously.

The second application is that many of us make the same mistake as the Pharisees do. Some of us, because we’re stuck in our own ways, rules, religion, mindset, tradition, or whatever, look at someone who is obeying Jesus, and because they’re not doing things our way, not following our path, not doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, we judge, condemn, and persecute that person.

Some of you here have looked at God’s perfect will, His design and plan for someone else’s life, and you have judged it as wrong. You condemned that person, and therefore condemned God. When confronted with your reasoning for why you disliked, judged, attacked and reviled that person, you talked about your feelings and then twisted God’s word to fit your conclusion – and in doing so, condemned God’s will, harmed a follower of God, and did Satan’s work for him. And just like the Pharisees, you need to repent and ask forgiveness of God and the person you wrongly judged.

And the third application, which leads from the previous, is that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God, and Jesus is the one who gets to interpret scripture – not us. In other words, you cannot expect to come away from a Bible study, class, or personal bible-reading time, with the right interpretation and application of scripture without having first repented of sin, humbled yourself before Jesus, invited the Holy Spirit to show you the truth, and then submitting your interpretation to the counsel of godly Christian elders, teachers and mentors.

Reading the bible alone, in a vacuum, prayerlessly and/or without asking a diversity of more mature, trained believers to help you, is spiritually foolish and dangerous. You will be led astray by your feelings, and turn into either a judgmental, hyper-religious Pharisee, or into a false teacher who accepts sin and error, leading others – and encouraging others – towards sin, idolatry, and licentiousness.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shabbat

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/39_Melachot

What Does The Healing of the Man at the Pool Tell Us About Jesus? (Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 5:1-18 and let’s read it together:

“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath.

So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

A Desperate Situation

A while back I said that as you read through John, to put yourself in the place of the people that Jesus interacts with. I want you to do the same with this passage – we are the invalid and we are the Jews.

Let’s start with the first part of the story. Sometime after Jesus had healed the Centurion’s son, Jesus was headed up to Jerusalem for one of the three feasts that all Jewish males were required to attend. We don’t know which one.

While Jesus was at this feast He chose to head to the Sheep Gate. Jerusalem had all kinds of gates. The Old Testament mentions 17 different gates for the first temple, and eight for the temple that was rebuilt by Nehemiah and added to by Herod. And each gate had a different name and theme. There was a Fish Gate where the fisherman brought their catches through to be sold, the Valley Gate that opened up to the Valley of Hinnom, the Dung (or Garbage) Gate where Jerusalem had their burning waste dump. This gate was called the Sheep Gate and was historically where the sheep and lambs were brought through for the ritual temple sacrifices.

One day, Jesus, the One John the Baptist recently called “The Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World” (1:36), decides to come up through the Sheep Gate. Don’t miss that, because there’s a lot going on. The Lamb of God entering through the Sheep Gate where the sacrifices come through, which was about 200 meters from where Pilate would condemn Him to death, only a hundred or so more meters to the Via Dolorosa, which was the road Jesus would take to Calvary.

Near the Sheep Gate there was a pool called Bethesda meaning “House of Mercy” or “House of Outpouring” and verses 2-3 gives us a picture of what this place looked like. There was a pool there – (actually by the time of Herod there were 2 pools, one above the other) – with a series of columns holding up a roof that would provide some protection from weather. Instead of being fed by a spring, this pool system was designed to be filled up when it rained[1]. A long time before, this pool was likely used to wash the sheep that were coming into the temple area after being herded from whatever place they had come from, but now it had become a place where sick, desperate people would congregate in hopes of getting some kind of mercy, charity, and maybe even a miracle.

If you have an ESV Bible you’ll notice something interesting in verse 4 – it’s interesting in that there is no verse 4. In other translations you’ll see a verse 4 which give an explanation that the reason sick people congregated there was that there was a superstition that sometimes an angel would come, stir the pool, and the first person to get in would be immediately healed. The reason the ESV doesn’t include this verse is because the oldest, most trusted manuscripts, actually don’t have that line. It was inserted sometime after by a scribe who felt it necessary to add an explanation. But since it’s not in the best manuscripts, a lot of modern translations leave it out. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong – in fact, verse 7 tells us that the stirring of the waters is exactly what the man was hoping for.

But the picture here is one of blind, sick, lame, paralyzed people who were living in a time when they were considered cursed, unclean, and didn’t have a way to take care of themselves. And, if they didn’t have family to take care of them, these people would often become street beggars. And as society condemned them, forgot them, and pushed them aside, they would become more and more desperate.

And desperate people tend to be more easily manipulated, more willing to believe lies and superstitions, more self-centred, selfish, and protective. Jesus walks into an area filled with hurting, forgotten, broken people who – because of their suffering and how they’d been treated – had basically given up on their neighbours, families, friends, religion, priests, and God. They were now a group of superstitious people whose whole lives revolved around waiting for some kind of supernatural stirring of some magic water, which would then lead to a mad dash competition to beat each other to the pool in hopes of some kind of miracle.

We are often no different than these people. Fear, sickness, betrayal, disrespect, being forgotten, living in pain, financial struggles – especially when it carries on for a long while – often leads to a myriad of temptations. When the trouble first starts – the pain begins, the sickness sets in, the emergency happens, the betrayal occurs – we handle it ok. We talk to friends, read the Bible, pray to God – but then it doesn’t go away, the situation doesn’t get better, and sometimes it gets worse.

So, sometimes we press in harder. We call our friends for help, tell our church to pray, spend more time in the Word and in Prayer. But it still doesn’t get better. The pain is worse and more complicated, the doctors can’t find a cause. The betrayals start to stack up as more people believe lies. The bills keep coming but the income doesn’t get better. The emergency keeps affecting you, the stress being drawn out for days, weeks, and months. The sickness doesn’t go away, and you find out its chronic and untreatable.

Then, as friends and family and the church stops calling, stops asking how you’re doing, stops giving you support, and the trips to the doctor all end with the same bad news, and people seem to move on to the next thing – you’re still stuck with the same pain – it’s easy to start to become discouraged and even desperate.

And we are tempted to do what this man did. Go away from people, start skipping church and eventually just leave altogether. Stop praying because it doesn’t work. Leave the Bible on the shelf because it doesn’t help. Start to gather with other sick, pained, miserable people… not because they encourage you, but because they feed your misery and affirm your bad decisions.

And then, as you distance yourself from God, His word, and His people, Satan starts to present you with more and more dangerous ideas on how to feel better. He dangles bait in front of you, leading you toward destruction. He offers you drink and drugs, pornography and entertainment, gambling and garbage food. He offers you loans, and new credit cards, and opportunities to steal. He helps you find people who want to commit adultery with you, hurt others with you, do illegal things with you.

And he shows you stories of people who got the miracle they wanted… through televangelists, superstitions, cults, pagan practices, witchcraft, the occult, moral compromise. Things that would have been unthinkable, ridiculous, and laughable before – start to become more reasonable. The more desperate you get, the more reasonable they become. After all – Christianity didn’t work. God didn’t fix your life when you asked. The Church left you behind. The doctors can’t help, friends can’t help… why not try… crystals, horoscopes, healing services, bank loans, divorce, chemicals, abuse, or maybe even sending money to the guy on TV who promises to send you magic spring water from Russia that will force God to fix your body and fill up your bank account. And if you don’t believe me – then you’ve probably never heard of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, or Peter Popoff.

Now, you might be thinking, “That’s too extreme, Pastor Al. I don’t do that. I would never do that.” Well, maybe today – but that’s at least one direction the road of spiritual compromise goes. So ask yourself – what ungodly, unbiblical, unfaithful things are you doing right now because stress, fear, lack, sadness, worry, has been pressing in on you.

Are you drinking a little more? Are you distancing yourself from certain godly people because they make you feel guilty? Are you reading and watching videos about how to get miracles and give yourself special spiritual powers? Is your debt creeping up as you use money you don’t have to try to solve your problems? Do you find yourself doing little, superstitious things – wearing a cross for luck, carrying a little pocket angel, repeating special “words of power” that have worked for other people, or adding other spiritual things to your life in hopes of twisting God’s (or the universe’s) arm to make things go your way?

Those are the path to danger. You don’t start as the kind of person who believes God puts sick people in competition with one another to see who can get in the magic angel rain pool… that happens gradually as hopelessness, fear, worry, and sadness take over you faith, trust, and obedience to God and His word.

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

 In verse 5 we see that this man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years – longer than many people’s lifespan back then. To everyone, even to himself, he was a hopeless case. His faith was gone, his friends were gone, his family was gone, and to him, God was gone, grace was gone, hope was gone, and he was too weak to even try to work within his own superstition.

 Jesus asks a peculiar question: “Do you want to be made well?” It almost sounds sarcastic, doesn’t it? He’s standing in a place full of misery and suffering, surrounded by the most desperate cases imaginable. They were sitting beside what they thought was a magic healing pool. Why else would they be there other than to be made well?

But this man’s understanding of God and spirituality was completely warped. Remember, there stands Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the Creator of the Universe. He is God. His question forces the man to declare what His faith is in.

We read elsewhere of Jesus asking people questions before healing, and many declare their faith in Him for a miracle. The leper comes and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean!” (Mark 1:40) The woman with the years of bleeding said, “If I but touch His clothes, I will be made well.” The leader of the synagogue came and said, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matt 9:18)

But how does this man answer? With nothing but negativity and hopelessness and blaming others: “It’s impossible. God’s abandoned me. People have abandoned me. The only hope I have is the magic rain water and I’m too weak to get there. For decades now, people have pushed me aside and ran before me to get the miracle. No one cares. Nothing can help me.” Bad attitude, bad faith, bad logic, bad spirituality, and bad theology.

What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t argue. There’s no lecture, no teaching, no correction, no sermon. Just the command, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” In fact, as we read, Jesus doesn’t even introduce Himself! At first, after the miracle, the man didn’t even know it was Jesus who healed him!

The man’s greatest expectation was that, perhaps, this stranger might stick around long enough to, maybe get him to the pool. When he answered, there was zero faith in Jesus, zero faith in God, and the thought that He was about to walk out of that place perfectly healed hadn’t even crossed his mind. He’s lying there before God Himself – and didn’t even know it.

What Does This Tell Us About Jesus?

I want to pause the story there this week, even though a lot happens after the man is healed, and I want to ask the question: What does this tell us about Jesus?

First, that Jesus is compassionate. Matthew 12:18-21 quotes Isaiah 42:1–3, which is a description of Jesus’ attitude towards hurting, abused, forgotten, hopeless people: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” He weeps with those who weep, and understands the suffering of hurting, abused, forgotten, slandered, weak people better than anyone. He has empathy, compassion, and kindness. Jesus hates pain, suffering, and sickness because Jesus hates sin – and they are all a result of sin. That’s why He came to die on the cross – to reverse the curse, to destroy the effects of sin, and to make a path for anyone who would believe in Him to be free of those effects forever. The first thing we must see here is that Jesus is kind and compassionate to people who are suffering.

The second thing we ought to see is that Jesus gives grace to whom He decides to give grace. Grace, by definition, is undeserved merit, undeserved favour. Did this man deserve to be healed? No. Did He deserve a conversation with Jesus? No. What did He deserve? As a faithless, hopeless, superstitious, sinner, He deserved nothing more than being condemned to everlasting torment in hell. That’s what he deserved.

I’ve had a few people text me lately that some of the things that have happened to me were “undeserved”. “You don’t deserve this.”, they say. My response is always, “What I deserve is Hell – anything above that is grace.” And I mean it.

This man did nothing to deserve a miracle. I think of Romans 9 which talks about what theologians call “divine election” or “God deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”

Turn to Romans 9:13–24 and let’s read it together. We’re jumping into the middle of an argument here, but the first line is a good summary, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Think of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Esau was older and should have gotten the blessing, but instead God worked it out so Jacob did. Neither was a particularly good person – Esau arrogant, Jacob a liar – but God overturned tradition and expectation and chose the young liar to be His chosen servant. So Paul asks in verse 14,

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

What is the biblical answer to “Who gets chosen for heaven and who goes to hell?” Simply, “Whoever God decides.” No one deserves heaven. No one deserves grace. We’re all vessels of wrath prepared for destruction – and some of us get plucked out of the flames and given a place of honour. Why? Because God decided to show us love and grace. That’s it.

The second thing we need to learn about Jesus is that He shows grace to whom He shows grace. He walked into a place full of sick, desperate, superstitious, and selfish people – and decided to save one of them. That’s His prerogative. He’s God, we’re not. Anyone one of us who is plucked from the flames, healed, and adopted – should spend our whole lives praising Him for His undeserved grace!

Third, Jesus has His own schedule. Thirty-eight years that man waited. Until he was utterly hopeless, forgotten, and bitter. God is not obligated to any of us. And He’s not obligated to hurry up and do things on our timeline. God allowed this many to be sick, allowed him to be hopeless, and placed him in that spot – specifically so Jesus could use Him for His glory and purposes on that day. And, as we read, that purpose was to show that Jesus claimed to be God, that Jesus had the power of God, that Jesus had the divine authority to properly interpret and apply all of the laws of scripture – which presented the option to the Jewish leaders to either turn their lives over to Jesus – or to hate Jesus so much that they wanted to kill Him all the more. God isn’t obligated to give us grace – and He always does things on His own timeline for His own perfect purposes. The only question we are asked is if we will trust His timing and His purposes?

And fourth, Jesus’ invitation is always to faith, repentance, and obedience. Jesus did everything. He came through the Sheep Gate, walked to the pool, came up to the man, and offered him healing. When the man answered Jesus’ question with bitterness and hopelessness, Jesus still healed Him. Jesus had the power and did all the work. All the man had to do was get up, grab his bed, and walk.

Every miracle Jesus did required a faithful action – sometimes before, sometimes after – but always contained the invitation to trust Jesus and obey Him. This man went from hopeless to faith in Jesus in a split second – and demonstrated that change by standing up and walking away. He didn’t even know who Jesus was! Jesus didn’t require that – yet – but in His divine plan, Jesus knew that the man would know eventually. All Jesus required at that time was for the man to stand up, grab the bed, and walk away.

That’s the Christian faith in a nutshell. As I said, we are all this man. Lost, hopeless, superstitious, bitter, forgotten, doomed, and unable to save ourselves. Then, the Lamb of God walks into our lives, unbidden, uninvited, and says, “Do you want to be made well?”. Our theology is usually messed up, our expectations confused, our testimony unimpressive, our hearts still torn by selfishness, temptations, and the effects of sin – but Jesus comes anyway, and offers to completely change our lives. But that invitation always comes with an order to believe, repent, and obey Him.

Look at John 5:14–15 again,

“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.”

It’s always the same story. Jesus comes and gives undeserved grace to a doomed and broken sinner. He offers healing and demands obedience. The person obeys and is told, “Ok, you’re mine now. Walk with me, trust me, repent from sin, and obey me.” And then we are used to tell the world who Jesus is and what Jesus does – often in ways we could never have planned or expected.


[1] https://www.hopechannel.com/au/read/the-pools-of-bethesda-and-siloam

Jesus & The Centurion: Humility & Trust (Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 4:46–54:

“[46] So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. [47] When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. [48] So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” [49] The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” [50] Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. [51] As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. [52] So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” [53] The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. [54] This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.”

The Centurion

The story opens with Jesus coming back around to where this whole section had began. If you recall the outline, you’ll remember that John writes using the miracles as chapter dividers (I’m not talking about the chapter divisions that came later in the 16th century.)

This whole section opened with the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, the inauguration of King Jesus and the start of His earthly ministry. Then we read how his mission expands geographically and by population as He meets bigger and bigger groups from more diverse places – towns to cities to crowds, Jews to Samaritans, and now we see him with a gentile. They all meet Jesus, hear the gospel, and are forced to either accept or deny Him.

Now, we see this section coming full circle, back to where it began, Galilee. John mentions the first miracle right before he closes this chapter with an encounter with the final people group – a Roman Centurion, likely serving in the honour guard of the very wicked King Herod Antipas.[1]

The miracle of the water to wine had happened at a private wedding, but the story had apparently spread like wildfire, not only among the Jews, and not only in Cana, but throughout Galilee – even all the way in Capernaum, a day’s walk away.

I don’t need to tell you that Jews and Romans didn’t get along. The Romans had conquered the Jewish people, taxed them into oblivion, and oppressed them in myriad ways. Any Jewish person who had any partnership with Rome would be kicked out of his synagogue and treated as a pariah.

So, you can imagine the scene when Jesus, His disciples, and anyone else who was tagging along, saw this Roman Centurion, leader of a hundred Roman soldiers, clad in armour and robes, sticking out like a sore thumb among the crowd.

But this man wasn’t coming to Jesus as a representative of the King, a man of influence and power, one to whom many bowed their knee – he was coming as a desperate father with a very sick child.

Our pomp and self-importance sure does melt quickly in the face of illness, death and tragedy, doesn’t it? Most days we walk around thinking we are pretty well off, pretty in control, pretty pleased with ourselves, thinking that the problems of the world are affecting everyone else, and that our choices are why our lives are better than theirs. We look at the old, sick, tired, poor, weary, anxious, fearful, desperate – and we think, “Oh, those people. If they’d only live like me, they wouldn’t feel like that! If they’d just do what I do, they’d be so much better off.” We start to think that we’re untouchable, above the mess of the world, specially blessed, untouched by the curse of sin that weighs so heavily on others.

And then we get sick. Or someone we loves gets sick. Or an accident happens. Or a tragedy strikes – we get laid off out of nowhere, a natural disaster wipes us out financially, we wake up one day and the whole world has changed.

I remember having that experience a few years back when I woke up one day and one whole side of my face was completely paralyzed. It had sunk down like you see when people have a stroke and I couldn’t move it at all. I went to bed feeling absolutely fine – and when I woke up, I couldn’t talk, eat, or even blink. I went to the doctor and got some medication – and then the pain set in. It was excruciating. I remember reading somewhere that because the nerves in the face are so sensitive, so close to the brain, so many nerves bundled up there – that facial nerve pain is some of the worst pain a person can experience. And I can attest that it is absolutely awful. Medication wouldn’t even touch it. The only relief I got was heating up a magic bag in the microwave and, basically, cooking that side of my face. That was a miserable time. And it happened absolutely out of nowhere.

And it scared me. I looked really weird now and couldn’t talk properly. And I basically talk for a living. In a moment, my face was even scarier than usual – and my calling as a preacher was over. It was really hard.

I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. You’re fine – and then you are humbled by sudden tragedy. It takes you down a peg or two, doesn’t it?

But that’s not a bad thing. It shows us our limitations, reminds us of our humanity, forces us to contend with death, reminds us that we aren’t God, and brings us face to face with just how powerless we really are.

That’s what this Centurion had experienced. You can hear the desperation in his voice in verse 49: “Sir, come down before my child dies.” It’s not an order from on high. It’s not a command from a military leader. It’s a desperate plea from a man who cannot do anything – to the only person he’s ever met that can. That’s the blessing of pain, struggle, sickness, tragedy, and death. It forces us to contend with ourselves, and gives us the motivation to come to God.

Jesus Tests Him

 Look at Jesus’ response. Is it an immediate yes? Does He take the 20 mile walk with him? Does he even respond with anything positive? No. Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

This wasn’t spoken merely to the Centurion – it was spoken to everyone. The disciples, the Pharisees, the followers, the looky-loos. Why? Because this was their heart. They didn’t want to believe, or follow, or humble themselves, or make Jesus their Lord and Saviour, unless He was willing to perform for them, do what He was told, meet their worldly needs.

The apostle Nathaniel needed a miracle before he believed (1:46-51). Mary wanted a miracle from Jesus when it wasn’t His time (2:4). The Pharisees demanded a miracle when Jesus cleansed the temple (2:18). Those who believed His message kept demanding signs over and over (2:23-25). We learn later, that even John the Baptist doubted who Jesus was until He heard about the miracles (Luke 7:19).

We’ve talked about this lots before, so I won’t belabour the point, but motives are super-critical to God. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason often gets filed under “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 5:8). Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, regardless of how benevolent or costly or positive the effects, is actually credited as sin.

  • Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.”
  • James 4:1 says, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”
  • Ecclesiastes 12:14 says, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
  • Jesus in Matthew 6:1, during the Sermon on the Mount says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Later, in verse 5, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.” And in verse 16, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.”
  • Hebrews 4:12–13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Motives are critical to God. And that’s exactly what Jesus is testing here. What are the Centurions motives? Is He coming to have Jesus perform another miracle for show? Is this a test of Jesus’ claims to godhood? Is this some kind of power play to make Jesus do what he wanted? Or was this man really coming to Jesus in desperation and faith, knowing that Jesus was His only hope?

  • James 4:6, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
  • 1 Peter 5:5, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  • Proverbs 3:34, “Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.” – which is another way of saying, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

When Jesus said, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” He knew what was in the Centurion’s heart – and He knew was about to use him as an example to His followers and detractors. Sure, it was a test of the Centurions motivations – but just as much it was a teaching moment for everyone else.

The Centurions response, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”, was a way of saying, “I don’t care about all that. I’m coming to you for help, for a miracle, because I need some grace and you’re the only one in the whole world who can do this. I believe in you. I believe you are touched by God. Please, just help.”

Trust And Obey

Jesus’ response is extremely interesting and very important. What was the request? “Come down and heal my son.” The walk from Capernaum to Cana was a day’s walk uphill, so to go from Cana to Capernaum was all downhill. “Come down and heal my son.”

What does Jesus say, “Go; your son will live.” (v 50) The Centurion says “Come”, Jesus says the opposite; “Go”. What do you think of that? His child is dying, he has just walked or ridden for hours, trying to track down Jesus. He finally finds Him, humbles Himself before Him, makes an urgent, maybe tearful request, and Jesus says, “No, I’m not coming. Just go. It’s done.”

What a moment of crisis for the Centurion, right? Every doctor, every rabbi, every healer, every miracle worker he’s ever experienced or heard of had to be there for it to work.

It reminds me of the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-14. Turn there. Let’s read it together (Keep your thumb in John):

“Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.”

Ok, so super important, high up, guy. Famous, powerful, a friend of the King of the mightiest kingdom in the world. But, he’s got a problem. (Sound familiar?) He got leprosy. Like I said – sickness is sometimes the only way God can break through our pride and get our attention.

Keep reading in verse 2,

“Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord, ‘Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.’ And the king of Syria said, ‘Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.’

So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.’”

Why did the King of Israel freak out? There was an uneasy truce between the nations, but Israel couldn’t hope to defeat Syria in any kind of military engagement. And here, on his doorstep, is the commander of the Syrian army with a letter in his hand from the King that says, “Here’s a huge amount of money. I want you to cure my guy from leprosy.” A seemingly impossible task, but one that if ignored could lead to war and the destruction of Israel. The King of Israel knew he couldn’t do it, but He also didn’t ask God to do it, and didn’t even think of Elisha… he had no faith, no trust, no humility – only fear.

Keep reading in verse 8,

“But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’”

Look at the similarity between Jesus and the prophet Elijah – because we’re supposed to see that connection. Elisha says, “Where is your faith, king? Why so upset?” Which is very similar to Jesus saying, “Where is your faith, Israel? Why do you need so much proof?”

Consider things from Elishas perspective. There’s Naaman coming down the road; this great, foreign leader parading to his house. He’s a friend of the king, a dangerous and powerful man. Just like the Roman Centurion. What does Elijah do? He doesn’t even come out to meet him. He sends a messenger saying, “Go.” Just like Jesus. “Go and wash… and your flesh shall be restored.”

Same deal, same test. What is Naaman’s motivation? Where is Naaman’s faith? Remember why Elisha got involved? So that the leader of Syria’s armies would know, without a doubt, that God was with Israel, and that there was a real prophet among them – so they’d better be careful how they treated the Israelites. But Naaman needed to see it. Naaman needed the miracle. He wouldn’t believe without the miracle.

But here’s where the stories part ways. Jesus says “Go”. Elisha says, “Go”. The Centurion obeys, leaves in faith, trusts Jesus, and meets a messenger that says “Your son is better.” What does Naaman do?

Verse 11:

“But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.”

Faith. Trust. Motives. Humility. He has none. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The Centurion was humble. Naaman – not so much. “Why didn’t Elisha didn’t greet me personally! Doesn’t He know who I am? I’m insulted! Why doesn’t he wave his hand and make it better? That’s what the really good prophets do. That’s how it works! What’s with this wash in this dirty, foreign river stuff? And 7 times?! C’mon if all I needed to do was take a bath, I’ve got even better rivers back home! This is stupid! I’m leaving!”

I want to tell you something important here, and I need you to see it. God doesn’t do things our way and has no problem hurting our feelings if it’s what’s best for us. I’m going to say that again: God doesn’t do things our way and has no problem hurting our feelings if that’s what’s best for us. He’s a good parent, a good friend, a good shepherd, a good leader, a good doctor, a good king. He doesn’t do things our way and will hurt us if that’s what will heal us. God will use tragedy to bring about humiliation, so we might have right motives, so we will trust and obey Him.

God wants obedience, humility, worship, deference, respect, submission. He demands it of all of us. The Bible reminds us multiple times that every knee will bow to God. (Isa 45:23; Phil 2:10-11; Rom 14:11) There is no forgiveness without repentance, there is no repentance without obedience and submission to God’s Word and will, and there is no obedience and submission without humiliation. To save you, God must humble you. If God left you proud and full of self-esteem, you would be damned. The God that modernity and liberal churches have created, and some here have created – the God that puffs up your self-esteem, only tells you how great you are, how special you are, how lovely you are, how unique you are, only dice nice, comforting, easy, soft things –is super concerned about your feelings, and would never do anything to make you upset – is a false god. 

God cares more about your soul than you do. He cares more about you than you do. He cares more about your spouse, your kids, your parents, your friends, and your church than you do – and He wants them saved and holy and with Him (2 Peter 3:9) more than you do. And so, He’s willing to do more than you will do, to do the hard things you don’t want to do, to say the hard things you don’t want to say, so that they might see their true selves, their true nature, their real problem, and humble themselves before God while they are still alive on earth – so they don’t have to do it later before they are condemned to hell for all eternity.

That’s why the Bible tells us to do hard things – things that sometimes hurt people’s feelings.

  • Things like Titus 3:10 where you warn a divisive person twice and then have nothing more to do with them.
  • Things like 1 Corinthians 5:5 or 11 where we turn our friend and church mate “over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved” and to refuse to associate with anyone who calls themselves a Christian, but is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or idolatry, or abusive in speech, or addicted, or a liar. To “not even eat with such a one.” 
  • Things like Jesus says in Matthew 18:17 where if someone refuses to repent from their sin, even after being confronted by their friends and the church, to treat them like they are an unsaved person.
  • Or 2nd Thessalonians 3:13-15 which says, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
  • Or Romans 16:17-18, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”

But that’s not nice! Aren’t Christians supposed to be nice? What if we hurt their feelings? How are we supposed to grow the church and gain followers and fill the offering plate if we do all this and hurt people’s feelings? Won’t that affect our reputation? Won’t that hurt the church?

That doesn’t matter. The glory of God, our obedience to His word, and our humility before Him, is what matters. The purity of the gospel, seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness is what matters. Confronting sin, being truthful, and doing battle against the devil in the name of Jesus Christ, is what matters. God grows and defends the church, and has given us the Word telling us how to do it. Even if someone gets offended, even if their feelings get hurt, even if they get mad, leave, and seek revenge.

1 Peter 2:9-10, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

We proclaim God’s excellencies and live as His people by doing things His way even when it’s hard any unpopular.

Turn with me to 2 Peter 2 (but keep your thumb in 2 Kings, and your other thumb in John) and I want to read the whole chapter, because I want you to see how serious God is, how serious the apostle is, about standing on God’s truth, protecting the purity of the church, and confronting sin with some pretty serious language that will definitely hurt people’s feelings.

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.’”  

Sin within the church, among church members, is no small thing, and God has given us some very specific commands on how to deal with it – even though it’s hard, even though it’ll make us unpopular, even though it will hurt someone’s feelings.

Verse 10, “Bold and willful, they do not tremble…” Why? Pride. And God opposes them. And if we don’t deal with them as God has commanded, God will oppose us too. So what is the kind thing? For God to take away their boldness, break their will, and make them tremble.

Let’s finish the story in 2 Kings 5:13:

“But his servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?’”

Can you imagine how hard that would have been? There’s the greatest military leader in the world, best buddy of the king, and he’s hopping mad – literally raging. And the servant says, “Just do it. Humble yourself. Obey. Oh, great one who commands the greatest army in the world and could have me killed with a word – please humble yourself. God’s prophet told you to do something. Just do it, man. Humiliate yourself and be clean.”

In verse 14 we see the story converge again with Jesus and the Centurion:

“So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

He humbled himself and obeyed. Elisha and Jesus weren’t doing things the way they wanted, weren’t meeting their expectations, were treating them with a sort of insensitivity, and required them to humiliate themselves and obey before they would see the miracle. For the Centurion, it was a long walk back home. For Naaman, it was washing himself over and over and over and over and over in a place he didn’t want to be.

And their humility, obedience, and faith that God’s way was right and better, led to the miracle – and it lead to even more people hearing and seeing and fearing the power of God. Obedience leads to blessing. Pride and fear of man leads to losing God’s blessing.

Conclusion

Let me close with this. God is asking you to do something hard right now. I know this. You have come to Him asking for a miracle because you need something. You see a bad situation and you need God to step in. You are afraid, in need, desperate, anxious, worried, sick – or someone you love is – and you need a miracle. Our church is being asked to do some hard things right now; to confront sin, division, pride, rebellion… and God is asking us to do some difficult things that are going to hurt some people’s feelings.

My question to you is: Are you willing to humble yourself before God, before God’s word, before God’s spirit, and do things His way – even if it means you’ll become unpopular, make someone mad, make someone sad, make someone lonely, hurt someone’s feelings? Are you willing to confront sin and obey Jesus, doing the hard things scripture asks you to do, even if people are going to call you mean, rude, angry, selfish, arrogant, and unfriendly? Will you take that persecution for the sake of Jesus’ name, His glory, His church? Are you willing to say, “Your way God, not mine. Your plan God, not mine. Your will God, not mine. And for your glory, in your name, for love’s sake, I’ll do whatever you ask, no matter what the consequence – because I want your blessing and to see your hand work more than anything else in the world.”

You are being tested right now. In your private life, and in your church. I hope that, like Naaman, like the Centurion, you humble yourself and pass the test.


[1] The Gospel and Episles of John FF Bruce – Pg 117

We are ALL the Woman at the Well (Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, and let’s read it together:

“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’

Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you seek?’ or, ‘Why are you talking with her?’ So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the town and were coming to him.” (John 4:1-30)

We Are the Samaritan Woman

I’ve already done a big intro to the story last week, so I won’t repeat it here, but what I want you to remember is that we are all the Samaritan Woman. Consider the outline of this story, and how much it parallels our own lives and the testimonies of those who meet Jesus.

We are Sinners

In verses 1-9 we meet the Samaritan woman. A sinner, despised, rejected, humiliated, ashamed, afraid. And when we’re honest with ourselves, that’s us. But Jesus approaches her anyway. We talked about that last week, so I won’t go over that point again.

We are Ignorant

In verses 10-14 the Samaritan woman shows how ignorant she is about who Jesus is, confused about what He offers her, and totally unaware of a reality beyond her comprehension — and yet, even though she’s ignorant and confused and guilty, she’s also somehow argumentative with Jesus! That’s us. And yet, Jesus, instead of becoming impatient and angry, and walking away, He offers her life and truth. That’s grace and mercy. He offers, for anyone humble enough to admit they don’t know it all, admit their ignorance, and trust what He is saying, access to a brand new existence, a total reframing of your reality, and a never ending spring of eternal life. She came down for water – Jesus was there to change her life.

Look what He says: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” But, here’s the thing – and we’ve talked about this lots before – she didn’t know, we don’t know, and we can’t know until Jesus tells us and shines light into our souls.

But, if sitting there today, you were able to see, able to understand, able to climb out of your darkness and into the light, see reality from God’s perspective, know what God expects, know who Jesus really is, and who you are to Him, you would be begging Jesus right now for wisdom, truth, and salvation. But, so often, we don’t see. In fact, in our ignorance and stubbornness and darkness – we argue with the Creator of the Universe.

How many of you understand this? How many of you have been, or are being, the Samaritan woman? Looking back at your life, those of you who are saved and have been down the road a little bit, how many times do you look back and see that God was telling you something, showing you something, preparing you for something, the Holy Spirit was speaking to you, warning you, teaching you – but, for too long, you refused to listen, refused to obey, stayed ignorant, thick, and too stubborn for God’s voice to penetrate?

Looking back, once Jesus opens your eyes, you realize that so many of your prayers, and plans, and conversations with believers were just you trying to stay in your sin, and arguing with Jesus about things you don’t even come close to understanding. And now, in retrospect, you wished you would have seen, trusted, and obeyed, far sooner. You wish you would have just shut up and trusted what God’s Word said, just obeyed immediately. Instead of “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14) and putting yourself through more misery until your life blew up or God forced you into humiliation – you wish you would have just believed what Jesus was trying to tell you in the first place and trust what He was doing.

I can hear Jesus saying to each of us: “If you only knew the gift of God standing before you, the reality of your situation, what’s actually going on… you would be acting and speaking and praying and living  and spending and working so much differently right now.”

How I wish and pray for each person here to have the discernment to see what’s really going on in your life, in your church, and among those you love. I pray for that every day: For me, for my family and for all of you, to see what’s really going on; to have God’s eyes. And to finally be humble enough, wise enough, godly enough, to see the truths, the sins, the gifts, the stagnant water in our lives that is poisoning us, to see the reality of Jesus standing before you, hear the truths He’s telling you – and beg Him to give you living water instead.

We are Short-Sighted

In verses 15-26 we see how short-sighted the Samaritan Woman is. “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” We see how she grasps a little bit of what Jesus is saying, gets a peek of light, has a little revelation of who is really standing in front of her, who Jesus really is – at least that He knows something she doesn’t —  but then she does exactly what we all do when we get a taste of the reality of God’s existence.

We get a peek of Jesus’ power – in church, in a sermon, by seeing Him work in a friend, by reading a biography, or watching a movie – and it touches something in us. Jesus might be what we’re looking for. So, we come to Jesus and do what she did – ask Him to solve our immediate problems, to deal with our felt needs.

“Ok, Jesus. I need more money, a better family, a more fulfilling job, a really good girlfriend (or boyfriend or spouse), an inspirational mission, a roadmap of my future, and answers to some really complicated questions so I can look smart in front of people, ok?” 

All the while we’re evading, denying and making excuses for our real, actual problem: the curse of, and our love of sin that has destroyed our souls, taints our every action, and has caused us to be separated from God, to be under His wrath, and condemned to hell! How many of us would trade our souls, trade a real walk with Jesus with all the risks, dangers, and sufferings that come with it – for a bit more comfort, more respect, more health, less troubles? And yet we do that all the time when we come to God and we ask for superficial solutions to our far deeper, spiritual problems.

But, how does Jesus respond? By confronting the real problem, by making her see her sin. Jesus responds to the superficiality, the short-sightedness of our requests by confronting us with reality. That’s why a lot of us avoid the Bible, avoid prayer, avoid Christian counselling, avoid talking to mature believers, and why so many Christians avoid submitting to elders and committing to a church – it’s because when they look at the Bible, close their eyes to pray, talk to other Christians, listen to sermons, and serve a body of believers – the superficiality starts to show, their real sins start to come up, and they feel fear, guilt, shame, anger… so they run from it – and their spiritual lives remain superficial and powerless.

But that’s not what Jesus wants. Jesus wants us to see ourselves how we really are, how God sees us, how serious our sins are, and to realize that we don’t need more comfort and less troubles – we need a spiritual resurrection, a complete renewal, a total overhaul of our entire being. He wants us to break, to fall on our knees, to see our desperate situation – because He loves us and that’s the only time we will call out for Him to save us. It would be terribly unloving to give you more money and health, but leave you damned and a slave to the Devil. 

Then, when we finally realize our real problem, really see ourselves for the first time, and feel the weight of the curse of sin and our powerlessness against it, our heart cries out with the words of the Samaritan Woman, “Give me that… show me where I can find that kind of solution. I wish someone would just fix this deep problem. I wish someone greater than me, someone stronger than me, someone more loving than me – someone who sees what a mess I really am, but loves me anyway – would come and save me. I want someone who will see how much trouble I’m in, and not run from me, but run towards me. I wish there was someone who doesn’t want anything from me, who isn’t trying to manipulate me, who has no ulterior motive, but just wants to help me because they are good and kind and merciful. Where is the Christ, the Messiah, the only one who can somehow, miraculously save me from this guilt, shame, and fear of the wrath of an almighty God who I keep offending over and over and over. I wish that person would just come. I need them so much.” And Jesus says to her and to you, “I who speak to you am he.” “That’s me!”, He says. “I’m right here. I’ll do that. I offer salvation freely to all who ask, to all who trust, to all who will turn from their sin and follow me. I will show you true worship, give you a new spirit, access to perfect truth, and a direct connection to God. But you have to give up your sin and do things my way. My way is better.” He speaks the words of Matthew 11:27–30, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

We are Affected 

In verses 27-28 we see the kind of reaction that people are going to have when they see you with Jesus. Once you give your life to Jesus, the people you know – your family, friends, workmates, community, even enemies – are going to marvel at how strange, incredible, weird, counter-cultural, you are now that you’ve met Jesus. The disciples didn’t confront her or Jesus – but only because it was Jesus. Anyone else would have been called out, the woman told to get lost, and the rabbi reported to the Sanhedrin and publicly shamed.

Here’s the thing: If you walk with Jesus – and I mean really walk with Jesus – people are going to react. Some people will react to you like a good smell, like your presence makes things better, and want to know what it is that makes you different. Some are going to see a change in you and wonder why, and then you can share your testimony – and maybe even introduce them to Jesus.

But others are going to get upset. They’ll question Jesus’ motives, argue about how foolish and naive you are, condemn you for being part of a bunch of duped, stupid weirdos, for submitting yourself to an ancient book and unpopular religion. You’ll change for the better, the light of Jesus taking over your decisions, your home, your habits – but they’ll start to get mad about what your life looks like now, complain about how much you’ve changed, worry about your priorities, and become offended by the effect Jesus has had on you.

And it doesn’t change the longer you follow Jesus. The more you follow Him, the more opposition you will face. That’s why so many refuse to change, refuse to obey, refuse to let Jesus transform them into a new creature – because it gets them in trouble. So they try to live with one foot in Christianity, and one in the world – but that’s impossible and their religion, spirit, and life gets corrupted. And, what’s strange, is that they will often champion how much better it is to compromise, and invite people to do the same.

But if you follow Jesus, listen to what He says, and submit to Him as the Way, Truth and Life – you will change. And it will affect every relationship you have.

You know this, and you’ve experienced it, right? You’ve experienced how just using Jesus’ name in conversation – just dropping the J-word as anything other than profanity – immediately changes the air in the room, doesn’t it? How much more will a life completely changed by Jesus affect those around them?

We are Empowered

In verses 28-29 we see that the Samaritan Woman immediately used by Jesus to spread the gospel to the people around her.

Turn to Ephesians 2:8–10 (keep your thumb in John),

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

We are not saved by our good works, but we are saved unto good works. Jesus is planting a vineyard, God is a vinedresser, and His goal is to make fruit. That’s why the love of God, the salvation of your soul, is not merely a gift for you alone – it’s meant to be shared.

You love people because you are loved by Jesus. You forgive people because you are forgiven. You serve people because Jesus serves you. You are honest with people because Jesus is honest with you. You confront sin because Jesus hates sin and it cost Him His life. You join a church, love your church, commit to your church, because Jesus has made you part of His family, and given you a gift to serve His people. You give tithes and offerings generously, joyfully, sacrificially, obediently, and regularly, because Jesus has given you so much, Jesus is your provider, and you want to obey and trust Jesus in all areas of your life.

Whether you accept it or not, the moment you are saved, you are on a mission: To show and tell the people closest to you what Jesus has done in your life, is doing in your life, and about how amazing, different, unique, and powerful He is – by speaking His words and living His way. And I don’t mean a mission somewhere in the world, I don’t just mean people who are called as missionaries, or just pastors, or just teachers, but every single believer has been given the mission to share the love of Jesus with everyone around them through words and actions.

Consider for a moment who this woman really was. She was a social reject, ostracized, mocked, derided, infamous in town for her lifestyle and sin. Whether her husbands had all divorced her or died, she would have been considered a woman under a curse. Her current lifestyle, of living with a man she’s not married to, was sinful and shameful. No one should have listened to her raving and ranting and pleading about coming out to the well in the middle of a hot afternoon to see some Jewish stranger who she thinks is a prophet, and maybe the Christ. Especially, if you remember last week, a group of Samaritans. But God had prepared their hearts to listen, had given her the words to say, and the courage to speak.

If you look down to verses 35-38 (which we’ll study next week) you will see that the fields were “white for harvest” and all she needed to do was to start reaping things she did not sow. In other word, all she had to do was open her mouth, have the courage to speak, and she would see that God had already done all the work of tilling, sowing, watering, and preparing the hearts of the people in her home town to come to Jesus. And we see in verse 39 that the harvest was huge.

Why? Because she was such a good speaker? Because she knew all the answers? Because she was so good at apologetics? Because she had such a good reputation? Because she was wealthy and successful? Because she had so much experience? Because people trusted her?

None of that. The only thing that had changed was that she had met Jesus and was willing to tell people what He had done for her. And that’s all we’re responsible for too. All we are responsible to do is to talk about what Jesus has done for us. Not to answer a million science and history and philosophy questions – but simply to tell our story, our testimony, our perspective on what Jesus has done. And we’ll see that is more than enough for God to use to save souls.

Conclusion

Let me conclude with this: As you read the Bible, and read the Gospel of John, look for see how Jesus treats people, and see yourself in those He is interacting with. Humble yourself and see you are the Samaritan Woman. You are the Pharisee. You are the Lame, the sick, the hungry. You are the grumbling. You are the amazed and perplexed, the obedient and desperate disciples. You are the adulterous woman, and the man born blind.

See yourself – and then see the amazingly deep, personal, genuine love Jesus had for those people – and has for you. And then, as you see and feel that, respond accordingly with thanksgiving, worship, humility, and obedience.

Who Should Christians Love? (Jesus & The Samaritan Woman – Gospel of John Series)

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**Sorry, no video or audio this week!**

Please open up to John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. We start where we left off last week:

Jews and Samaritans

“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)”

Pause there for a second so we can see the stage set for this interaction.

As we learned last week, the Pharisees were out there causing trouble for Jesus and John the Baptist, stirring people up and starting arguments, so Jesus leaves. The plan is to head from His baptism spot on the edge of the Judean border to Cana in Galilee, a walk of about 60 miles or 100km, that took three days. If people walk about 5km/hr, then that means Jesus had walked for about 7 hours by the time he got to Sychar. So, obviously he was going to be tired. He sits down near Jacob’s Well, a pretty famous spot in the region going back 1800 years, all the way to Genesis 49. One cool thing about wells is that, because they’re 100 foot holes in the ground, they don’t move, so it’s pretty easy for archeologists to find them. The location is actually inside a Greek Orthodox church now.

Jesus Had to Pass Through Samaria

There’s actually a bunch of interesting things happening in this introduction to the story. First was the fact that Jesus went through Samaria at all. It was the most direct route, but the most devout Jews, in order to avoid defiling themselves by even touching Samaritan soil, would actually go a longer way around. There was a deep and abiding racism against Samaritans and Jews. They couldn’t agree on anything and didn’t like each other at all.

It went back to about 700 years before, in 2 Kings 17, when the king of Assyria brought a bunch of foreign people to settle among the Jewish people living in Samaria. Over time they intermarried and started to fuse together their Jewish and pagan beliefs. This, of course, offended the faithful Jews and that offence turned into hatred. By the time of Christ, the Samaritans had so strongly assimilated into gentile, non-jewish culture, that there weren’t many similarities left.

Except that a lot of the Samaritan’s religion had kept concepts from their Jewish roots. The Samaritans, in response to being rejected and ostracized, developed their own version of the Pentateuch, their own competing version of the Temple on Mount Gerizim, and their own interpretations of Israelite history.

For a modern understanding, think of Catholics or Jehovah Witnesses or Mormons. They have done something similar. God gave us an inerrant Bible, a clear gospel, and a very clear outline on how to be a church. But Catholics, Mormons, and JW’s, while keeping a lot of the same language, wrote their own version of the Bible, added a bunch to it, changed the gospel to be no gospel at all, and use their church structures to control and abuse people. It’s offensive and wrong – and terribly confusing that people lump Christian Churches in with Catholics, JW’s and Mormons, because we are very, very different.

Add to that an unhealthy amount of anger and racism, and you can start to see how Jews felt about Samaritans. It’s why the story of the Good Samaritan would have had such an impact. It would be like telling the story of the Good Baby Eating Satan Worshipper.

But Jesus chooses to go through Samaria. He doesn’t go around. In fact, verse 4 says that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria”. Some take this as “because it was the most direct route”, but based on the rest of the Gospel of John we can see that it wasn’t a practical decision, it was a gospel decision. Jesus had to pass through there, because it was the next mission field.

Remember the outline. Jesus’s mission goes ever outward. He goes from a little wedding in Cana in Galilee, to preaching in more Jewish towns, to the capital city of Jerusalem, to preaching throughout all of Judea, and then, and then into Samaria. The next story, if you look down, is Jesus healing the gentile’s son. From Jews, to half-Jews half-gentiles, to full gentiles. Jesus’ message is preached to everyone. That’s why he “had to pass through Samaria”.

A Samaritan Woman?!

The next interesting thing we see is who Jesus talks to. It said Jesus got there at the sixth hour, so it was about noon. Jesus had been walking for a long while, and it was the hottest part of the day. He sat down, exhausted, and here comes a Samaritan woman.

Jesus starts the conversation. He says, “Give me a drink.” And that’s a really important point. This would have been a huge crisis moment for a traditional Jew – especially a Jewish Rabbi. Jewish men didn’t treat women very well, and rabbis were even worse. Women were supposed to say ‘in their place’. A traditional Jew wouldn’t talk to a woman in public – they wouldn’t even talk to their own wife in public. A rabbi wouldn’t be caught dead discussing anything theological with a woman, because women and tradesman – like fisherman and carpenters – were considered too stupid to be able to understand anything about religion.[1]

That’s one reason that the Sanhedrin was so amazed by Peter and John’s speech in Acts 4:13. They never would have thought a couple of tradesman could ever speak so well and understand so much. And do you know who was considered even lower than a woman, lower than a tradesman? A tradesman’s wife. They were basically nothing in society. And lower than that? A Samaritan Woman. Lower than that? A divorced Samaritan Woman. Lower than that? A divorced Samaritan woman who was living in sin with someone. That’s her.

And this woman, she was coming to fetch water during the middle of the afternoon. Everyone else, all the other women, would have come in the morning when it was cooler and easier. Why did she come in the afternoon? We learn later that it’s because she’s had a pretty rough life, and she has lived as an outsider in her own town. A ostracized person, among ostracized people.

So, for Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, to strike up a conversation with a half-breed, theologically messed up, socially rejected, Samaritan, woman was an incredibly strange thing to do.

And his request is even stranger. He asks her for a drink. We’ve talked a lot before about how important eating and drinking was to Jewish culture. It was considered a very intimate act. And we talked even last week about how important ritual purity was to Jewish culture. While the disciples were off trying to find some kosher food in Samaria, Jesus was sitting at a well, chatting up a woman, and asking her to draw Him some water, touch the cup, and give Him the water to drink.

 That’s why it blows her mind. I think in our modern context, with this pandemic, we can wrap our heads around this, right? We don’t touch each other, shake hands, or hug people. We cover ourselves with a mask and refuse to breathe the same air as our neighbour. The moment we walk into a store, we sanitize our hands – and then when we walk out we sanitize again. Paranoia about getting COVID has made people obsessed with paying attention to what they touch, who they are near – every cough, every sniffle, every trip – analyzed and careful and ripe with stress and fear.

That’s what it was like to be a Jew in Jesus time living under Pharisaic rules – but times a hundred.

You’ve probably already had the experience where you’ve needed to hand something to someone, or you wanted to give something to someone, and what did you do – give them a bunch of caveats, right? “Ok, here it is. Don’t worry, I washed it, dried it with a clean cloth, sealed it in a new bag, let it sit out for 10 hours, and I’ll leave it on your front step so we don’t have to even go near one another.”

Put it this way: Imagine if tomorrow you were walking down the street in downtown Ottawa. It feels like 45 degrees, and even more with the pavement reflecting all the heat. You’re tired, hot, and super thirsty. You round a corner and see a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. His eyes are downcast, he’s dirty, and an old surgical mask is pulled down under his chin. You see him reach beside himself and grab a can of coke. He takes a big drink and sputters out a cough.

Imagine saying to this stranger, “Hey man, can I have a sip of your coke?”

That’s what’s going down here. Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” so that He could have this interaction, to share the gospel with someone, and use her to save a lot of people.

What About Us?

What do you suppose we’re supposed to see in this interaction here? What are Christians supposed to be emulating? What lesson is there for us in these first few verses?

I think there are some other scriptures we can look to in order to help us understand:

Let’s start in Philippians 2:1–9,

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross….”

Jesus, of all beings, could have elevated Himself above this woman. There were a dozen reasons for Jesus to have nothing to do with her. But what did Jesus do? He humbled Himself, humiliated Himself, condescended to her, and loved her. Jesus has the right to be prejudiced. He really is higher and better than we are. He is sinless, we are sinners. He is perfect, we are spiritual dead. He is light, we are children of darkness. He is from heaven, we are captives to hell.

But Jesus didn’t see it that way. Instead, he had “affection and sympathy” for us. He humbled Himself, emptied Himself, didn’t hold onto the glory of God, but instead became the servant of all – Jews, gentiles, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers, enemy soldiers, wicked Pharissees – He loved and serve them all – even to the point of dying on the cross in their place – in our place.

Or how about James 2:1–9,

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

In Philippians we see that it’s a sin for us to think ourselves better than someone else – and here we see it’s a sin for us to think someone else is better than another. Who is God closest to? What does the Bible say? The poor, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the outcast, the meek, the lowly, the broken, the lost, the sick. Why? Jesus says in Luke 7:41–42, “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

 God gets more glory and more love from the people that know they need Him most. And therefore, our preference, if any, should be for the lowly, the reject, the outcast, the broken, the lost. Preferring one person over another, thinking them better than another, because of their wealth or position or some other external reason, is a sin.

          How about Romans 12:9–21, entitled “Marks of the True Christian”.

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is the heart of God for people within the church. Philippians 2 said that we shouldn’t think ourselves better than others. James 2 said we should think one person is better than another. And here in Romans 12 we see how we should treat those who treat us badly.

The command in verse 9 is for love to be “genuine” – the love that Jesus has is a “genuine” love. Sincere, real, not hypocritical, not a show – but genuine feelings of love.

For who? Look at the list. In verse 9, we see love for what is good. Verse 10, to have a familial love for our fellow Christians. In verses 11-13, to love Jesus by serving Him patienty, faithfully, hopefully, and serving his people generously.

But the list goes on. Who else are we to show genuine love to? Those who persecute us. Those who weep. Those who are lowly. Other words for “lowly” are stooped, helpless, sullen, downcast, depressed. Who else? Love those who try to make life difficult by trying to make peace with them. Love your enemy.

That’s what Jesus is demonstrating here, and that’s what Christians are supposed to be doing – first to each other and their families, then for their neighbourhoods and community, and then to the world.

Pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Does my life reflect the love that Jesus has for people?”

Do you think of others more than you think of yourself, putting other’s interests before your own? Or do your preferences and desires come first? When given the choice to serve or be served, do you chose to serve? How do you treat those who serve you, like waiters, cashiers, custodians, delivery people? With humility and respect, or as though you are better than them? When given the choice to be first, do you step aside and let someone else be first?

Consider your associations. Who do you prefer to be around? Do you seek out the company of the wealthy, privileged, comfortable, safe, easy, good-for-business, enjoyable, positive, people who you know won’t ask much of you, and you can expect reciprocal treatment from? Do you avoid difficult, needy, lowly, depressed, weeping, troubled people, people who cause you discomfort, or grief, because they’re just too much work, not worth your time, not worth your energy? If so, then you would have been one of the Jews who walked around Samaria and would never have taken the cup from the woman at the well.

 Or what about Colossians 3:5–17:

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

This is a mega-theme of the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is kind and compassionate – and so we are kind and compassionate. Jesus is accepting and patient. We are accepting and patient. Jesus is humble and forgiving, we are humble and forgiving. Jesus is a peacemaker who brought peace to our hearts, we are peacemakers who bring peace to other’s hearts. Jesus teaches us, shares wisdom with us, sings to us, meets us in our spirit and encourages us – and we respond by teaching, sharing, singing, meeting, and encouraging others.

To be a Christian literally means to be a “little Christ”.

My daughter has a job at Subway now and it’s my job to pick her up after she’s done a shift. The moment she sits down next to me, the whole car smells like fresh baked bread. She’s saturated with it – and it immediately makes me want to have a sandwich. It was the same when my wife worked at Tim Hortons and a Bagel shop. She’d come home and I’d immediately crave bagels.

It was the opposite with my dad – sometimes. He was a pipefitter at a stinky, old pulp-mill and would sometimes have to work with something called “black liquor”. Black liquor is essentially concentrated tree gunk that is left over from the pulp making process. It’s super gross, super smelly, super sticky, and super toxic. If one little drop of that stuff gets on your clothes or boots, then you’ll smell awful – and all your clothes have to come off in the garage before you’re allowed in the house.

How do you know someone is a Christian? How do you know someone has met Jesus, experienced forgiveness, loves Jesus, and is walking with Jesus? Their lives look more and more like Jesus’ life. Their words sound more and more like Jesus’ words. Their hearts care more and more about the things that Jesus cares about. Anger, wrath, malice, slander, lies, obscene talk, prejudice all disappear – and when those sins are pointed out, they are quickly repented of. In other words, they walk with Jesus so much that they start to smell like Him – and they make people hungry for what they know, where they’ve been, what they’ve experienced, the Saviour they’ve been walking with.

And the same is true of the opposite. How do you know someone is a hypocrite, a Christian pretender, a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Because they don’t sound like Jesus, serve like Jesus, love like Jesus… and they carry that smell with them in all of their interactions, decisions, ideas, and motives.

How do we get the kind of love that Jesus has? Where does it come from? Is it white-knuckle, guilt trip, self-generated, love that we have to pretend we have so that Jesus will be happy? No. “Love must be genuine.”

Where does that genuine love come from? The answer is in 1 John 4:7–12:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”

Love comes into our hearts as a gift of God, and is perpetuated, motivated, filled-up, by the knowledge that God loved us so much He was willing to pour out the full weight of His wrath against sin – onto His Son instead of us. Verse 11, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Knowing God’s love as demonstrated in Jesus’ sacrifice, is the foundation and model for how we love others. Knowing God’s forgiveness, given because of Jesus’ sacrifice, is the foundation and motivation for our ability to forgive others. Knowing that God wanted to be united with us so much that He sacrificed His own Son, put His Hon through Hell for us, is the foundation, the driving force, for why we work so hard to tell people about reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ, and, as a church, why we work so hard towards unity. Those that do not know God’s love, do not do this.

Let’s read one more scripture, a little back from what we just read, in 1 John 3:7–10. Listen,

“Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”

Pause there – How do we know who has that seed in them? How do we know the devils from the righteous?

Verse 10,

“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”

Conclusion: From Love to Love

Let me conclude. We’ll get back into the story again next week.

When we say that Christianity is all about love, we sometimes get a little too pie-in-the-sky, ethereal, high-concept. The Bible is much more practical, must clearer about how that works. Those who love Jesus, who are saved by Jesus, demonstrate that love through humility, grace, patience, and a deep love for people who need it most.

Jesus “had to pass through Samaria”, to meet this woman, and had to ask for a drink from her, to show us something very, very important: How to love like He loves… how to love who He loves… how to love the way He loves.

And further, to demonstrate to us that no matter who we are, how messed up we are, how despised and rejected we have made ourselves, how much we have disappointed ourselves and God and others, no matter how bad our theology is, how corrupt our family or our culture, how sinful and lost we are – it doesn’t keep Jesus away. He loves you. He loved you before you were born. He has loved you for your whole life. And He continues to love you no matter what you’ve done. That’s why He went to the cross for you, to save you! Before you ever deserve it, He has already decided you’re worth it.

And if you know that love, have experienced that love, and have participated in that love – then you will, and you must, show that love to others. How do you know a Christian from a non-Christian, a devil from a believer? You will know by how much love, grace, forgiveness, and humility they demonstrate towards those who need it most, and who make it most difficult.

How can you know that you are a believer, that you have been saved? Because your heart starts to fill up with love for people you’ve never loved before, with forgiveness for people you never would have forgiven, with acceptance of those you never would have accepted. Because you start to feel genuine love, real love, unhypocritical love, for Jesus, His word, His church, and for everyone around you, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.

Just like Jesus feels for you.


[1] Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 202). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

He Must Increase, I Must Decrease (Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 3:22-36. We’re back into the Gospel of John series we started a while back. Life is ever-so-slowly starting to look a little bit more normal – and I think it’s good to get back into the regular exposition of God’s Word as we were doing before.

Review

I think, since we haven’t been here since February, it behooves us to do a bit of a review of the Gospel of John up to this point.

I remember a while back when I was contemplating what series to do next – after coming back from that big stress leave I took – that I wanted to do something simple, straightforward, with lots of stories that wouldn’t be super complicated to study. And so, I figured I’d pick the Gospel of John. After all, a lot of people are told that’s the very first book of the Bible they should read, right?

Wow, was I ever wrong. When I sat down to work on the outline and overview of the book, I had no idea that just introducing the structure of the book was going to take 4 weeks. The Gospel of John is like an onion – every time you peel off a layer, there’s another one underneath. The book is, for lack of a better term, “intricate”.

The first line, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) kicks off a prologue that outlines and summarizes the whole rest of the book. It introduces Jesus as the condescended God, incarnated light of the world, John the Baptist as His forerunner, and the message of salvation through the “grace and truth” of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and Him alone.

It sets up the book as one full of rich imagery meant to expand the reader’s understanding of who Jesus is. It speaks of concepts like light and darkness, the Tabernacle and Moses, Law and Grace, our adoption as children of God, Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Son of God, and seven other important titles. The concepts in the prologue are then expanded on throughout the rest of the book – and the structure of the book is woven together like a tapestry.

In the first four chapters we see Jesus interacting with individuals, then from chapters five to eleven we see Him interacting with large groups – and always expanding geographically outward, with more people following Him. All throughout, we see the themes from the prologue keep coming back as John introduces Jesus using seven different miracles, or as he calls them “signs”, that point to who Jesus is.

We see Jesus as the source of Life when he turns water to wine, as the Master of Space and Distance as He heals a Nobleman’s son. We see Jesus as Master of Time as He heals a Lame man on the Sabbath. We see him as the Bread of Life as He feeds the 5000, and the Master of Nature as He walks on water and calms the storm. But, with the multitudes we don’t see growth, but instead we see more and more groups rejecting Him.

All throughout, Jesus is becoming more and more controversial. We see little breaks in the story as people are confronted with who Jesus really is and are forced to reckon with that reality. And along with more controversy comes more enemies, who get angrier, more jealous, and more violent.

Until we get to the sixth sign where Jesus heals a man born blind – something completely unheard of, and absolutely miraculous. His enemies argue and complain, but they can’t deny Jesus’ power. In this miracle Jesus shows He is the “light of the world”, able to bring light into the darkest of places, just like the prologue said. And His enemies respond by showing they “love the darkness” and hate the light, just like the prologues said.

Then, in the seventh miracle – seven being a very symbolic number in the Bible – Jesus does something completely otherworldly, something only God could do – He looks at Martha and says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:9). Martha says “yes” – and then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.

You’d think this would solidify Jesus as Christ, Saviour, and God, right? How can you argue with someone who can raise the dead? Well, no. Instead, Jesus enemies loved the darkness so much that their response to seeing the lame walk, the blind see, the hungry fed, and the dead raised – was… let me read 11:53, “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”

At that point, the story of Jesus slows down to a crawl. The first half of the book, 11 chapters, covers about 3 years of Jesus’ life – the second half of the book, 10 chapters, takes place over the course of one week: Passion Week.

The Gospel of John is a truly incredible book. I haven’t even gone over all the ways that John divided and organized it. It’s incredibly interwoven and beautifully designed.

My hope is that this series we’re doing will inspire you to not only read the Gospel of John, but to appreciate it, to meditate on it, and most of all, to see Jesus in new and fascinating ways because of how He’s revealed here.

John the Baptist Exalts Christ

But let’s get into our passage today. I hope you’ve kept your thumb in John 3:22-36. This part occurs right after Jesus spends the night talking with the Pharisee Nicodemus about why he had come into the world, what His mission was, how it would all go, and how people would react.

Then, the next day, hopefully after Jesus got a couple of hours sleep, it says,

“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”

Pause there a second. This whole section is about argument and interpretations of what’s going on. See the picture here, because a lot is going on. Remember, a lot of what the Gospel of John is doing is simply answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” and to do this he uses a lot of imagery and illustration – which we’ve already discussed a bit. Another thing it uses is contrast.

 I take a lot of pictures these days. I set up a lightbox in my office to take pictures of the various little projects I do. A lightbox is simply a big, white, cloth box that you shine a bunch of lights in. If you’ve ever seen anything sold by Apple, you’ll know they love lightboxes. They take their phone or whatever, and stick it on a completely white background. That’s what I try to do.

When I’m editing the pictures, there’s a bunch of settings I can use, but , to me, the one that makes the biggest difference is the “contrast” setting. The more contrast there is, the bigger the difference between the white and the object. The colours get richer, the blacks get darker, and whatever I’m taking a picture of pops off the screen.

Many times in the Gospel of John you’ll see the author boost the contrast so that we can see something about Jesus – when compared to someone else. In this case, Jesus is being contrasted with John the Baptist.

We’ve already seen that John the Baptist is called the “witness”, while Jesus is called “the light” (1:7-8). John the Baptist is a “voice”, Jesus is “the Word” (1:14,23). John baptizes with water, Jesus with the Spirit (1:33).[1]

Here we see both Jesus and John are having baptisms, but Jesus is in the Judean countryside, and John the Baptist is in Samaria. John is called “rabbi” (or teacher) – and this is the only place in scripture anyone other than Jesus is called “rabbi”, so you know something’s going on.

Ritual Washing

So, what’s happening there? The stage is set in verse 22-24, but the situation comes about in verse 25, “Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification.” This was a major point of argument between the followers of John and Jesus, and the rest of the Jewish leadership. The Jews, meaning the Pharisees and members of the ruling counsel, would often, it seems, come to John and confront him about why he thought he had authority to baptize people. He wasn’t an official in the temple, he wasn’t an authorized teacher, and he wasn’t even in Jerusalem. So it rankled them that people kept coming to John to be ritually washed – or baptized. For the Pharisees, as most of you know, ritual washing was a HUGE deal. They were all about rules and regulations and religion and ceremony. They were always upset with Jesus – not because He broke the Mosaic Laws – but because He kept breaking all the extra laws they had put on top of them.

For example – you know how we’re all about sanitization and washing hands right now? – well, we have nothing on the Pharisees. Consider this: at one point (in Matthew 15), a bunch of high-ranking Pharisees and scribes travelled all the way from Jerusalem to Gennesaret (which is, like, 130 kilometers) to ask him one, super huge important question that had been bothering them so much they just couldn’t wait. That question:

“Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” (Matt 15:2).

For them, washing hands wasn’t about personal hygiene, it was about being ceremonially, religiously clean. Before a Pharisee would eat they had a special ceremony for washing. For them, the condition of your hands was the condition of your soul. Some taught that if you didn’t wash your hands, you could get a demon. Others, that it showed how much sin was in your life. Others said that if you ate with unwashed hands, you could forfeit eternal life.

Their ceremony was interesting. Every home had to have a certain amount of ceremonial water available. They were told to use the amount of water that would fill one and a half eggshells. They were to hold their hands upwards, have water pored over their fingers while the water ran off their wrists. Then they were to turn their hands with fingers pointed downwards and do it again. Then, they were to rub the fist of one hand in the palm of the other, and then do it with the other hand. If you were really devout, you would do this in between every course of the one meal![2]

You can see the heart of the one that came to John’s followers with questions about “purification”. Which is why, every now and again, one of the officials would take the trip to wherever John was and basically say, “What are you doing and why?” And start an argument.

John’s baptism wasn’t about an external show of religious devotion, or some kind of superstition. His baptism was one of repentance. It was an external symbol of what was going on in the heart of the person being baptized. They were saying, “I’m a sinner. I need God. I want to change my life and priorities. I want my heart to be ready and clean for when the Messiah comes.” And they would show that by publicly immersing themselves in water.

Everyone’s Upset

Which is why we see in verse 26,

“And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’”

Apparently the argument with the Jewish official got pretty heated. Not only was he upset at what John the Baptist was doing – but he had brought a report that there was another person, named Jesus, who was nearby, just on the other side of the Samaritan border, who was baptizing people too.

This was all too much! The Jewish official was upset because now two people were breaking their ceremonial laws… and now the followers of John were upset too because Jesus was starting to gather more followers and baptize them. In fact, some of the people who had been baptized by John were headed over to Jesus to be baptized again. So, they ask, “What’s that all about?”

The Jewish official was mad because traditions were broke and his culture and authority were being insulted. The followers of John were jealous on behalf of their master, because Jesus was getting more popular. Everyone is upset because this ceremony, this ordinance, these ritual washings, were all being done by different people for different reasons.

John the Baptist’s Answer

So what does John the Baptist say? Remember, they have just called him Rabbi. John the Gospel writer makes a point of that. In other words, this Jewish Official and the followers of John, and everyone else gathered around them, look to John the Baptist, the teacher, for an explanation.

  And in essence, in his answer, John contrasts himself and everyone else – including the Jewish officials – with Jesus. He looks at them and

“John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’ He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

What does John say here? “I might be a rabbi, a teacher, who talks about God – but Jesus literally is God and the source of all knowledge. I didn’t come up with any of this, it was given to me by God… and He’s right over there. I am the forerunner, He is the Christ. I am the best man, He’s the groom. I might be at the party, but the party is all for Him. I’m from earth, He’s from heaven. I’m a witness to the truth, but He’s the truth incarnate. I talk about repentance and wash people with water – Jesus utterly changes people and gives them the Holy “Spirit without measure”. I was chosen for a mission, but Jesus has been “given all things

“Therefore – now look at me everyone – look at me Jewish official – look at me disciples – look at me people who are here to get baptized… I am hereby announcing my retirement. I refuse to be a distraction to what Jesus is doing. I will not compete with Him. He must increase, but I must decrease. My job was to tell you the problem. I’ve warned you about the wrath of God, the death of your soul, the corruption of your religion, the poison of the Pharisees, and the need for repentance, and you’ve listened to me – but now instead of talking about the problem, I’m pointing you to the solution. He’s right over there… His name is Jesus, He’s the Son of God, and “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Conclusion

And that’s the point of this whole narrative – and where we can find something to apply to our lives. Just like the Jewish Officials, Christians and religious people argue about all kinds of things too. Just like John the Baptist’s disciples, the way we practice our faith, religion, Christianity can become competitive, and we can get jealous and upset as we argue about which teacher is best, which translation of the Bible is best, which music is best, which tradition is best, which church is best…

Individually, we can be like the Jewish Officials by being argumentative, stubborn, superstitious, overzealous for trivial issues. Or, we can be like John the Baptist’s disciples and start to worry more about our positions, traditions, focusing on numbers and finances and growth, rather than on Jesus or serving people. Both of these two groups had it wrong because they were worried more about the external things: teachers, washing, popularity, respect — and not worried enough about the internal things: Am I right with God? Is my heart full of sin? Where is my faith? Do I “believe in the son” and “obey the Son”?

John the Baptist’s words here, and John the Gospel writer’s intent here, is for us to stop comparing ourselves to others, stop comparing our ministries or church to others, stop comparing our families to others, stop trying to impress God and others through external things – and to realize that in order to be a Christian, it is our internal priorities that need to change. “Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.”

Over and over we see John the Baptist say what he’s not. “I’m not the Christ.” “I am not Elijah” (1:21), “I am not worthy to untie” Jesus sandals (1:27). Those are the words of a man that is more concerned about what God thinks than what anyone else thinks.

He’s courageous enough, and bold enough to stand up and declare what God wants to say – even if it gets him in trouble, even if it gets him arrested, even if it gets him beheaded. But every word he speaks, everything he does, points away from himself and toward Jesus. And when one of his own people try to elevate John – he reacts by debasing himself and declaring the praises of Jesus as God, Lord, Saviour and Christ, and in no uncertain terms, stepped away from the spotlight, humbled himself, humiliated himself, so Jesus could be seen all the more clearly.

And so, I want to ask you this morning: Do you see yourself in this narrative? Are you like the Jewish Official, more worried about external things than what’s going on inside you? Are you like John’s disciples, competitive with others, comparing yourself, your life, your church, your ministry, you marriage, your kids, your job, with others – always worried about success, and numbers, and finances, and what people think?

Or, are you willing, if that means Jesus gets more glory, to “decrease”. Are you willing to decrease your influence, decrease your expectations, decrease your finances, decrease your comfort, decrease the authority you think you have over any part of your life – and turn it all over to Jesus so He can “increase”?

You’ll often hear the gospel framed as a pitch for all the wonderful things that you can get from Jesus – and there are many wonderful gifts that come from Him – but there’s another part, a deeper aspect of faith. It’s that the closer you get to Jesus, the more you are with Him, the more you study about Him, and worship Him, the brighter He will shine – and the duller you will look. Are you ok with that? Are you ok if God uses you in a mighty way, changes people’s lives, speaks through you in a special way – but no one will ever know? Are you ok with never getting rewarded, praised, or thanked for doing the right thing? Or maybe, in your obedience, in doing the right thing, a whole lot of people misunderstand and it actually costs you. Are you ok with that?

I think of the story of David in 2 Samuel 6. Do you remember that one? The Ark of the Covenant, the very Throne of God, was coming back into Jerusalem for the first time in a long time. It had been taken by the Philistines, recovered and then profaned by Saul (which cost him is throne), and, because it was so powerful and dangerous, had been kept at someone’s home. But when David became king and heard that the one who had the ark was being blessed, he decided it was time to bring it to Jerusalem so the whole nation could be blessed.

And David, being a passionate, musical, worshipful guy who loved God, made it into a huge deal. It was like a parade with music and dancing and instruments and party food and sacrifices to the Lord. And it says in 2 Samuel 6:14, “And David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod.” A “linin ephod” was a simple version of the type of garment that priests used. So there’s the king of Israel, not walking all dignified in a fancy royal robe, but dancing with all his might, in a simple outfit, right in front of everyone.[3]

David’s wife Michal sees him and is super upset. Her dad, Saul, would never have done that. It says she “despised him in her heart” (2 Sam 6:16). Once the party was over and the Ark was set in its place, David returned home and his wife tore a strip off him. (2 Samuel 6:20)

“How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (2 Sam 6:20)

And what was David’s response:

“It was before the Lord [I was dancing]… and I will celebrate before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible (other translations say “undignified”) than this, and I will be abased in your eyes.” (2 Sam 6:21-22)

In other words – I don’t care what people think. I was worshipping God, dancing before Him, and if it means more worship and glory goes to God – then I will become even more undignified. In other, other words: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

I think of Jesus words in Matthew 5:11–12,

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So I ask you: Are you willing to decrease, to be undignified, contemptible, abased, unpopular, reviled, persecuted, uttered against, falsely accused – if it means obeying Jesus and that Jesus gets more glory? Or does your self-image come before your obedience and worship of God?


[1] Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, p. 189). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[2] You Are the Christ, David Whitcomb, Ambassador International, Pg. ??

[3] https://scribalishess.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/was-david-dancing-in-his-tighty-whities-2-samuel-6/

Same Gospel, Different Responses (The Parable of the Sower)

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Please open up to Luke 8:4-15, the Parable of the Sower. I figure that this is the last of the “Building Faith during Difficult Times Series” that I started at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown and it’s time to get back into the expositional study of the Gospel of John that we were doing before that.

You can probably tell, by now, that my devotions of late have been from the Gospel of Luke. It’s been such an encouragement to work my way through Luke, section by section, doing a little study – but mostly just reflecting on it and asking God to speak through it.

Which leads naturally into today’s message, which I think is a very fitting end to the series – and which I believe speaks directly to where we are at today.

Let’s read together, starting in verse 1:

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable…”

So there’s the context. Jesus, His disciples, and some women who were supporting (literally deaconing) His ministry, were going through “cities and villages” proclaiming the “good news of the kingdom of God”.

There’s a lot going on in this introduction. Notice a few things. First, that lots and lots of people are hearing the gospel from Jesus. Cities and villages all over the place.

Second, notice the diversity of the people following Jesus. The 12 were already a pretty diverse group including scholars and tradesman, a tax collector, a religious zealot, some singles, some married, some brothers, young and older, faithful people and sceptical ones… but also there was a diverse group of women there. Mary Magdalene had suffered greatly with mental and physical anguish brought on by demon possession. She was probably quite the social outcast. Contrast her with Joanna, who was a wealthy and powerful, Roman woman whose husband served as a sort of business manager to King Herod. That’s a huge variety of people – and it shows that Jesus’ message wasn’t just for a certain group – but for everyone. The good news of the Kingdom of God wasn’t for a select few, or a certain kind of person – not just for the poor and outcast, or the very religious or scholarly, or just the men, or just people who had their act together… it was for everyone!

Here we see Jesus as the coming King announcing His Kingdom. As the Messiah, come to heal the sick and cast out Demons with the power of God. As the gracious one who didn’t discriminate against anyone. As the missionary who needed financial support for his food and travel. Jesus Christ, the son of God, proclaiming the Gospel and gathering a huge diversity of followers.

Why Parables?

Remember that context for the parable we’re about to read. Starting at verse 4 again:

“And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, ‘A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.’ As he said these things, he called out, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’”

Jesus often spoke in parables, little stories, that were meant to convey big truths to common people. They weren’t merely “sermon illustrations”, but were actually the very message themselves. Most often, the parables were used to convey one, big truth, but interpreters over the years have often seen much more – sometimes too much as they way over analyze every detail. Suffice to say, parables are more than “simple stories”. One commentator “describe them as both ‘works of art’ and ‘weapons of warfare’.”[1]

In verses 9-10 we see that Jesus was asked why he spoke in parables and what the parable meant.

“And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”

What does Jesus mean? Essentially, that people can only know the truth if God reveals it to them. We’ve studied this many times before. People love sin and want to stay in the darkness. It requires a miracle from God to shed light into a dark soul, to expose them to the truth, and for them to see their sin and feel the weight of guilt and shame. Unless God shines the light on them, unless God calls them, unless God anoints them (1 John 2:20, 27) unless God explains it to them, reveals it to them (1 Cor 2:10)… they just can’t see it, and they don’t want to.

That part in quotations in verse 10, is taken from Isaiah 6:9-10, where God commissions the prophet Isaiah to go and preach to the people of Israel – but to realize that every word he says is going to have absolutely no positive effect. His messages would be absolute truth, the very voice of God, but instead of softening the hearts of the rebellious, they would only harden them further. Instead of opening their eyes, they’ll shut them tighter. Instead of opening their ears, they will stuff more cotton in. Instead of repenting and giving their hearts to God, they will sin all the more and their heart will become calloused.

That’s what Jesus is saying here about why He uses parables. For those who want to know God better, who the Spirit is working in them, who are asking, seeking, and knocking… they will receive, and find and will have the door open to them. But those who don’t want to hear it, who love their own sin, their self, who feel justified in their actions, who don’t want to be lorded over by anyone else – the parables will only harden their hearts further.

Why? Because, as 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,

“…the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The story of the gospel, the message that Jesus was spreading far and wide, to cities and villages, to a diversity of people everywhere – is a divisive message.

Consider the parable. What is the common factor? The seed, right? What’s the difference? The soils. As verse 11 says, “The seed is the word of God.”

Every soil gets the same seed. The message isn’t changed based on the audience. Jesus didn’t tell the rich people one thing and the poor people another. He didn’t tell the Romans one thing and the Jews another. He didn’t alter His message to be more palatable to the audience He was facing. He preached the same message, the same truth, to everyone.

What was that message? “Repent, believe, and follow Me as your only Lord and Saviour.” Remember last week’s message on Luke 6? How did it end? With the parable of the two house builders. One built on the Rock, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and obeys. The other built on sand, which was the one who comes to Jesus, hears the Word of God, and rejects it. Both hear the same message – to one it becomes the very foundation of their lives – to the other, it’s optional, foolish, offensive, and they reject it.

This is how it’s always been – from the very beginning of time, through every verse of the Old Testament, in every nation, through the ministry of Jesus, and into the days of the Christian church, there has been one message: Acknowledge you are a sinner, doomed to judgment by a righteous God. Repent of that sin by acknowledging that you cannot save yourself, but your only hope of salvation is to give up everything, take yourself off the throne of your life, cast yourself upon the grace and mercy of God, and trust Him alone in every part of your life. In short, simply to believe that what God says is the highest authority and good that you can know or experience — and then live like it.

That’s been the message since the beginning of time. And that message has either enlightened hearts unto repentance and humility and salvation – or hardened hearts unto hell.

You’ve experienced this in your own life, your own heart, and when you’ve shared the word of God with others.

In your own life, there have been times when you’ve had to choose between believing the Word of God and obeying, or doing things according to your own ideas, traditions, or feelings. This pandemic, and all the craziness it’s brought, has been a refining and revealing fire that has given us so many opportunities to trust God or not to trust Him.

Maybe you’ve faced financial struggles. The Word of God says,

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31–33)

Jesus says that an unbeliever will worry, get anxious, start to prioritize money and security over seeking God and living rightly before Him. Their worry will drive them to do selfish or sinful things. That’s an opportunity to either trust God or not.

Some people have had to face some serious difficulties in their close relationships. The stress of the lock-down and all that came with it has revealed things about their friends and family and church that they may not have known was there. Some news places are reporting that there is surge of divorce filings, domestic violence, and substance and alcohol abuse, right now[2]. The US and Canada are facing race riots and hyper politicizing of the epidemic. Small cracks that were present before have been blown wide open.

The Word of God says,

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27–29)  

It says, stay married and do the hard work of reconciliation. (Matthew 19:9; Eph 4:32)

The Word says, “Do not get drunk…” (Eph 5:18) and “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.” (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus says, “If your eye or your hand causes you to sin, get rid of it.” (Matt 5:27-30)

 And you’re presented with a choice. Humility before God, getting rid of the alcohol or whatever, getting rid of the computer… doing the hard work to love and forgive the people who hurt you…… or ignore God and keep turning to substances and anger and bitterness and rage.

You see, the “good news” of the gospel of Jesus Christ, isn’t just, “Yay, everyone gets saved.” It’s, “I have good news for you. The absolute corruption of your souls, the curse that makes it so you can do no good thing, that has driven you into slavery to sin and Satan… can be broken. But… you are not going to go from slavery to freedom… you are going to go from slavery to slavery.

Romans 6:20,22, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness….  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

That’s the good news! The opportunity to change gods, change lords, changes bosses, change allegiances, change slave masters, is placed before you. You didn’t have a choice before – you didn’t even know you had a slave master – but Jesus comes and tells you how bad off you are. He shines light into your dark heart, and that light illuminates a whole lot of your sin, guilt, shame, fear, prejudice, and greed…

It’s like you’re sitting alone, in a pitch-black room, eating something. It’s all you’ve ever known. And suddenly, Jesus breaks open a door you didn’t even know was there, and light floods in all around you. And you see that what you’ve been eating is muck, garbage, poison… and He says, “You don’t know it, but you’re living in a prison. You’re sentenced to death. I’m offering you a way out.” And then He presents an option to you. Follow Him through His door, take His path, go His way, live under His rules, with Him as your ultimate authority. He’ll cure your poison, but you must take His medicine. He’ll pump your stomach, but it’s going to be uncomfortable and you’re going to have to let Him. He’ll take your punishment for you, take your death sentence for you, but you must give up the muck, leave the prison, and call Him alone your God.

Or… you can tell Jesus to get lost, say He’s crazy for saying you’re in prison, that you’re offended that He would call you condemned, kick the door closed, embrace the darkness, and stay in the room pretending that you were never shown the truth.

Jesus offers that choice to everyone who hears Him.

The Four Soils

Now, take a look at Jesus’ explanation of the Parable in verse 11,

“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”

I think this parable has special, devotional significance for believers here today. In light of everything happening in our world, our homes, our church, right now. Because of late we have faced a lot of these sorts of situations and have been given the opportunity to trust God’s word or not. We can see ourselves in the various soils.

And remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples. The unspoken question is perhaps, “Why doesn’t everyone accept this Gospel? Why doesn’t everyone do what God says? Jesus is awesome, powerful, gracious, kind, and offers salvation from death and hell. His way is always better! Why wouldn’t everyone take Him up on this? Wherein lays the difficulty? Why would people we know, we love, who are reasonable, and are more than willing to trust us about so many other things – have a completely different reaction when we start talking about Jesus or the Bible?”

In other words, there’s nothing wrong with the seed, and the sower is doing their best to spread it all over the place, so why won’t it take root and grow?

Hard Ground

Some people who hear the Word of God are those whose heart is like a hard path – the words just bounce right off. They “heard” the words, but their hearts are like pavement. They are like the religious leaders who followed Jesus around, but only criticized, scoffed, and argued. It’s not a “passive unbelief”[3], it’s an active refusal to humble themselves and obey.

 There’s an element of spiritual warfare here to because it says the “devil” comes and “steals away the word, so that they may not believe and be saved.” In other words, these are people who not only refuse to believe Jesus, but have so completely rejected Him that it’s like Satan has locked their minds and hearts and thrown away the key. They are worldly people, believing their own ideas, and only have derision for God, Jesus, and believers.

How can one get through to this person? Well, how would you turn a hard packed road into fertile farm land? It’s going to require something to break through that ground – and that often comes in the form of suffering, fear, and facing death. God has to send a big, hard tiller – before the healing rains can penetrate that ground. All we can do is pray.

For us Christians, devotionally, can you see yourself in the hard-packed ground? Are there parts of the Word of God that you simply won’t believe, won’t obey, no matter what? Are there parts of your life that don’t line up to what God wants, but no matter how many people point it out, how many times God brings it up in study and prayer, how many messages you hear about it, how many spiritual authorities tell you to submit – there’s just no penetrating that part of your life? You are doing yourself and your soul damage if there is. And you’re giving your spiritual enemy a foothold in your life and family.

Rocky Ground

Then there are those whose hearts are like stony ground. They hear the word, receive it with joy, but don’t take root. They believe for a while, and then fall away. What causes them to fall away? Testing. These are people who seem like they are Christians, love worship music, small groups, potlucks, and hanging around with believers. It gives them comfort and hope and peace. They feel loved and accepted.

But there are two problems: They have no roots and there are some huge rocks in their field. The roots represent spiritual maturity. Think of Psalm 1,

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” (Ps 1:1-4)

Blessed is the person who takes counsel from the godly, has left the way of sinners, and has given up his pride, his scoffing at God and God’s people, and replaced it with humility. They love God’s word, meditate on it, study it, pray about it, lets it penetrate their soul and change their character. And their roots grow deep as they drink from the stream of God’s Word.

But, there are people who look and sound like believers, but have no roots. The rocks in their field are false ideas they refuse to give up, sins they refuse to repent from, and a sense of arrogance that they keep, believing that they are better than everyone else. They hear messages about repentance and humility – but they assume it’s for other people. They don’t have study habits in private, and very little prayer life, except when they’re around other Christians. They don’t submit to Godly authority or God’s Word. The only interpretation they want is their own.

And then testing comes, trials, suffering, difficulty comes – and they have no framework built for it. Jesus is supposed to be the answer to all their questions, the fixer of all their problems, the great gift-giver in the sky that makes their life better. But then God ordains a time of difficulty, a time of spiritual training, of discipline, of maturing – and they say, “Forget this! Christianity is too hard, too strict, too constrictive. I’m going my own way, coming up with my own ideas, and create my own version that I like better.” And they fall away. I’ve seen this many times, and I’m sure you have too.

Can you see yourself in this one? Has this time of testing and trial that we’ve been going through revealed any weaknesses in you, any big rocks you need to deal with? Has it shown you the true depth of your roots? That’s a gift from God! That’s an invitation to spiritual maturity. Don’t reject it, don’t give up, don’t quit. Instead, humble yourself, accept correction, accept discipline, find some spiritual authorities to get under, and allow God to deepen your roots so you can face adversity with grace and courage.

Thorny Ground

Then there’s the “thorny ground” people. This is similar, but opposite to the rocky ground people. This person also lacks maturity. They might grow a little more than the rocky people, but in the end they end not much better – they are immature and fruitless. What is the cause of their immaturity? “cares, riches, and pleasures”. In other words, “life”.

They see their sin, want to be saved, and come to Jesus. The seed penetrates the ground, and it grows. But God isn’t planting just to have a seed sprout – He wants fruit! He wants to take this believer and train them in righteousness, use them for His Kingdom, show His glory and bring His love to the world through them.

But that requires maturity, and they don’t like that. Instead, their heart is full of cares, worries, anxieties. They are worried about comfort, security, pleasures, and money. Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Go into the world and make disciples of all nations.” “I have given you a gift, a talent, and a place in my body of believers. I’ve set aside good deeds designed just for you, now go!”

And this person responds, “But Lord, that’s not comfortable. What about my retirement? What about my stuff? Won’t that cost me some money? That seems kind of risky, Lord. I’m not so sure. I really like being healthy, comfortable, warm, and well rested. Plus, every time someone sticks their necks out around here, someone smacks them down like a game of whack-a-mole. So, I’m just going to keep my head down. Stop asking me to serve in areas where it’s not…. easy… . Stop convicting my heart to do difficult things. Stop telling me to use my gifts in ways that might get me in trouble. Thanks for saving me… but that’s all I want from you. Other than that, please leave me alone.”

Do you see yourself in this? During this time, have your fears, concerns, and worries, caused you to tell God that you don’t want to obey Him because it’s too risky? Has God told you to share something and you said, “No, I’m might need it.” and then kept it? Has God told you to serve somewhere and you said, “No, that might put me at risk or get me in trouble.”? As the stress and anxiety grew, did you start clinging a little harder to your worldly pleasures, worldly riches, worldly comforts, because you were afraid you might lose them?

Maybe you’ve lost out on a real blessing, real spiritual fruit, missed out on being used by God in a special way, because your concern for yourself overwhelmed your trust and obedience to God – and the thorns choked out your fruit.

Good Soil – Conclusion

The final soil is the good soil. People who hear “the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” What a rich description. They hear it, grip it, bind it to their life, glue it to their souls, in their “honest (or “noble” or “beautiful”) and good heart”. Their heart is “honest”, they’re not lying to themselves or anyone else. It’s beautiful, unmarred by the blackness of sin because Jesus has washed it clean. And it’s good, meaning it’s actively positive. No rocks, no thorns, because they’ve fully repented, totally turned their lives over to Jesus, and keep repenting and tossing out rocks and weeds every time the Holy Spirit shows them one.

Here’s the thing: It’s not that these people are special.

I recently watched a movie about Mr. Rogers (a wonderful, Christian man I greatly admire and respect) and at one point a reporter who is doing a piece on Mr Rogers turns to his wife, Joanne, and says, “He must be a saint.” Her reply was profound,

“I don’t like that word. If you make him out to be a saint, then nobody can get there. They’ll think he’s some otherworldly creature. If you make him out to be a saint, people might not know how hard he worked.”[4]

In other words, it’s not that Mr. Rogers was special… or “otherworldly”. It’s just that he was obedient to Jesus. Jesus did a mighty work in his life, changed his heart, cleansed his sins, broke the curse, and Mr Rogers thanked Jesus by obeying. He took God’s Word seriously and applied it to His life as a servant of God. He said what he believed Jesus wanted said, did what He believed Jesus wanted done, reacted the way He believed Jesus wanted Him to react, and forgave as he believed Jesus wanted him to forgive. His soil took the seed of the gospel, and God was able to produce much fruit through him.

Jesus doesn’t want special people. The motley crew following Him proves that. And the motley crew that makes up most Christian churches proves that too. Jesus doesn’t have a “type” or a “favourite kind of person”. All that He requires is a person that hears His Word, believes it, and humbly obeys – even when it’s hard, risky, inconvenient, or they don’t feel like it.

The question is: How receptive is your heart to trusting Jesus?


[1] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Parable. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[2] https://globalnews.ca/news/6941844/bc-coronavirus-divorces/

https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/advocates-scramble-to-help-domestic-abuse-victims-as-calls-skyrocket-during-covid-19-1.4923109

[3] Life Application Bible Commentary – Luke – Pg 202

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/19/magazine/mr-rogers.html

Would You Consider Supporting My Work Through Patreon?

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Hi everyone,

This is going to be a little bit different of a post, so thank you for taking the time to read.

As you know, I’ve been a full-time pastor since 2005 and have been putting my sermon texts and podcasts and books on ArtoftheChristianNinja.com for about 7 years ago. My greatest passion is helping people find tools and inspiration to pursue a deeper, consistent, and more meaningful relationship with God. If you’ve listened to my podcast, you heard that line so many times. It’s absolutely true and has driven my preaching, teaching, writing, counseling, discipleship ministries for years — which I’ve coupled with my love of technology to create podcasts and blogs and a bunch of free resources. 

I’ve written a few books (which I give away free), have a weekly sermon blog and podcast, and have created a couple of other podcasts that have tackled current events, religion, life, and everything else. Carnivore Theology was by far the most successful and ran for over 100 episodes. I’m on the verge of kicking off another one I think I’m going to call “Of Interest” where I go through some interesting articles and do a bit of a study — but to do so effectively I need some support. 

Over the years of having this blog a lot of people have asked how they can support my work — and have been incredibly generous in helping me with one-time gifts for the various associated fees. Those gifts have been humbling and encouraging. 

What I’m doing today is announcing that I’ve set up a Patreon account. Patreon, for those who don’t know, is basically a subscription service where “patrons” from around the world can sign up to give a monthly amount of their choice to creators (like writers, podcasters, youtubers, musicians, and artists) so they can have consistent financial support from the people that appreciate their content.

I’m sure you’re wondering: Why do you need a Patreon, Pastor Al?

Many of you know my story of late. I’ve faced a lot of trials over the past few years, and some months ago, my church (Beckwith Baptist Church) was forced to take me from full-time to part-time pay. They’ve generously continued my medical benefits, but my income has taken a hit and the pandemic hasn’t helped. Plus, there are some pretty weird things going on in the denomination I’m with, and that’s going to have financial impact too. Over these months I’ve continued to serve pretty much full-time anyway (and moreso during the COVID-19 crisis – as I’m sure you noticed with all the new service videos I’ve put out) but I’m at the point now where I have to find other sources of income. 

The thing is, that I would LOVE to continue to write, preach, teach, podcast, serve my church and community, and keep Art of the Christian Ninja going and improving… but to do that I need regular financial support — hence this Patreon

What I’m asking is that you would prayerfully consider supporting me with a regular, monthly gift “subscription” at Patreon.com/ArtoftheChristianNinja (there’s also a link on the top corner of my website). Not only will you be supporting my preaching and writing ministry, but you will be allowing me to keep the blog and podcast going, create more content, and take care of my family. 

As an expression of gratitude, I’m going to try to give some exclusive content to the Patreon supporters but I have no idea what that is at this point. Everything I do is available free on the AOTCN website – and I always want it to be! Maybe I can send people a printed copy of one of my books – or make a mug – or 3D print a fridge magnet. I’m open to ideas!

My intention is that ArtoftheChristianNinja.com and all the content on it will always be free. Right now, I’m thinking about putting together another book or two, some study guides, a few sermon collections, and I’ve got a few other ideas percolating, but to dedicate the time to them, I need some help.

Thank you so much for your consideration!

Have a great day, and God bless.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road (The Sermon on the Plain)

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Please turn to Luke 6:17 where we read about Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain”. We’re used to hearing about the “Sermon on the Mount”, but Jesus obviously preached the same message more than once to different audiences. So, this is the “Sermon on the Plain” and you’re going to see lots of parallels to the “Sermon on the Mount”.

This section begins this way:

“And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all. And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:…”

(Luke 6:17–20)

So, that’s the context. Jesus is standing before a “great multitude”. He has just spent time showing His divine power, His divine grace, doing things that only God can do, and the crowd is pressing in on Him seeking to get closer to this incredible power.

This is how it works for all that come to the Lord. They witness His power, see His grace, feel His love, hear His invitation to come and be healed – and it’s attractive. Maybe it’s through seeing the life of a believer, a Christian friend, or through a message they hear from a preacher or teacher, something causes them to see that their world, their whole life, could be different if they meet Jesus. Some are driven by curiosity, wondering at these teachings that go against so much of what the world says. Some are driven by spectacle, hoping to see and experience things that they can’t get anywhere else. But many, if not most, who come to Jesus, are driven by a need for healing.

This is why so many Christians are accused of their faith being a “crutch” to get through life. Unbelievers use the term derisively, implying that if a person would just try harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, self-actualize, discover their inner potential, they would be able to accomplish whatever they wanted without the need for outside help – especially help from a “pretend friend in the sky”.

But those who come to Jesus come to Him because they know they’re not strong enough, that the world is too big, the problems too complicated, their resources too few, their bodies and minds insufficient for the task. In fact, Christians don’t just need God as their “crutch”, it’s so much worse. We believe that without God, without the work of Jesus in our lives, the presence of the Holy Spirit, we aren’t just limping and need a crutch – we’re dead and need a resurrection.

It is our need that drives us to God’s power in Jesus, just as it was for the crowds that day. Our relationships are a mess and we need them fixed. Our bodies are falling apart and we need them healed. Our minds are awash with negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and we need some kind of reboot. Our emotions are out of whack and we’re hurting ourselves and others out of desperation and fear. We try a whole lot of things, but in the end realize nothing works, and that we are not enough, and so we turn to Jesus for help. Like the crowds, we seek to “touch him”, for “power” is coming out of Him. Power we don’t have, but need.

What Jesus Wants

In the Bible, miracles are always pointing to something else. Miracles don’t just happen in a vacuum, just to be nice, they are guideposts, signs, that point us to something that we are supposed to see.

Jesus’ miracles, just like the Apostles’ and missionaries that would come after Him, were meant to show the crowd, “God is with this person. This person has power and authority unlike anyone else, so listen to Him.” And then the gospel presentation and teaching would follow.

And so it is here. For Jesus, having crowds gather around Him and press in was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good in that He was able to show His grace to needy people, and that they were a sort of “captive audience” that would stick around and listen to what He had to say. But it was bad, because throughout His ministry these same people, the crowds He was gathering, kept misunderstanding His message, mission, and intentions, and started only coming for the miracles and not the message.

What did the crowds want? Access to Jesus’ power and healing of their problems. So, how did they see Jesus? For many of them, Jesus became a means to an end. Come to Jesus, have Him touch you or someone you care about, get that miracle and then go home happy. “Yay, praise God, I can walk, I can see, I’m free of the unclean spirits. Now, back to my normal life just like it was before. I hope Jesus sticks around in case something else bad happens.”

Right? What did Jesus want? He wanted them to look past the miracles and see the One who was performing them. To get their minds off of their bodily needs and see their much deeper spiritual needs. To completely reorient their understanding of who God is, what God expects, and how God intends to save them.

The crowds, after experiencing Jesus’ power, would try to force Him to be their king, lead their armies, conquer their Roman enemies, and be the one who gave them all the food and comfort they ever needed (John 6:15).

That’s not why Jesus came. That’s not what Jesus offers. He doesn’t offer worldly comfort, earthly success, a problem free life. Jesus offers something greater – the salvation of our souls from Hell, the restoration of our relationship with our Creator, a lifetime of fruitful discipleship with Him by our side, and an eternity with Him after we die.

But the crowds didn’t see that. In fact, if you asked them if they would choose healthy bodies and a peaceful life right now – or to follow Jesus as their Lord and Saviour – 99.9% of them would have said, “I’ll take the health and wealth now, please.”

Where Rubber Meets the Road

Today is Father’s Day and, while I don’t want to be overly stereotypical, generally speaking it’s the Father who gives the tough truths and encourages the risky behaviour. When the kid is learning to ride a bike, Mom will make sure the kid has a helmet and pads – while Dad is telling them to wipe their tears, get up off the ground, and then showing them how to ride with no hands. When the kid falls flat at the playground, the mom’s instinct is to run over and see if they’re ok – a father’s instinct is to wait to see how the kid reacts. Will they cry? Will they dust themselves off and try again? Will they pout and want to leave the park? Dad wants the kid to know that really good stuff, the best stuff life has, requires risk, and sometimes that risk ends up causing us pain – but we’ll never be able to get to the really good stuff unless we’re willing to endure the pain. Maybe your dad was different, but in my experience, the dad’s I know are the ones who are more than willing to love their child by dropping a truth bomb and helping them learn how to deal with the tougher side of life. It’s all well and good to say you want to be a firefighter, cowboy, superhero, or famous artist – but it’s another thing to realize what you’re saying and what happens where the rubber meets the road.

I like that phrase, “where the rubber meets the road”. It’s descriptive. It’s about that moment when all the theories and plans and ideas are tested by reality.

 When you consider what Jesus says to the crowds with the “Sermon on the Plain”, you’ll see that it’s a very “rubber meets the road” message.

 Picture the crowd. This great healer has come to town and they’re out to find him. They bring their sick and needy, carrying them on their backs, just so they can be touched by Jesus. And they witness miracles. The lame are dancing, the blind are seeing their families, the possessed are free and worshipping, the terminally sick are up and excited and hugging their families. What an electric atmosphere that must have been.

And they look at Jesus and think, “This guy is it. He’s the One. He’s going to solve all our problems! He can feed the poor, heal the sick, and has immense power to do whatever He wants. Surely he won’t stop at what we see today. Surely he’s headed to Jerusalem to take back the city, to set up a new kingdom. I’ll follow this guy! He has the power to give me everything my heart desires!”

The Sermon on the Plain

And what does Jesus say? He looks at His disciples, who are surrounded by celebration, who themselves are drooling over the prospect of their Master setting them all up as governors of the reclaimed Israel, with wealth, nice houses, servants, and comfort.

 And Jesus says,

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

The term “blessed” there means more than just “happy”. It has more to do with than mere feelings. It speaks of a status and situation where a person is favoured by God, gets extra attention from God, is special to God.

This is exactly the opposite of what everyone was thinking. Everyone thought, “You know when someone is blessed by God, special to God, because they have health, wealth, power, and privilege.” Jesus says the exact opposite. In fact, the word “poor” there had far more implications than just someone who doesn’t have much money. It speaks of someone who is “poor in spirit”, who have so little, who are so needy, that they have nothing but God. Every meal, every step, every decision, everything requires that God gives it to them – because they can’t do it themselves. These are people who have nothing to fall back on, no earthly security, no savings, no insurance, no safety net. They are always on the edge of ruin. Their whole life is a tightrope walk without a net.

“Blessed”, “favoured”, “special to God” are those people. I can’t imagine the crowd’s reaction at this upside down reality that Jesus is talking about. Look at verse 24,

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

This type of “rich” wasn’t talking about mere economic status. These are people who believe themselves to be better than others, are haughty (Prov 28:11), who use their status and power and wealth to oppress the poor. The one who gives no consideration to the condition of their soul, or their standing before God, or their place in Eternity, but is content to simply have some worldly consolation through their stuff, or make themselves feel better by treating others badly.

Again, this seems so opposite! In their world, and in our world today, we think that the blessed ones are those who have lots of stuff, have power to do whatever they want, don’t ever need anyone else, who can command respect and attention wherever they go. People who others get nervous around, who can demand things and have it happen for them simply because of who they are. That’s who people look up to. That’s who people want to be – rich, successful, powerful, feared. Why? Because their life is better. They we see as blessed. Who do people not want to be? Poor, desperate, insecure, powerless, hand-to-mouth. They we see as cursed.

Jesus flips all that upside-down.

This is why I say this is a very “where the rubber meets the road” message, because Jesus is outlining what life in His Kingdom looks like. Everyone around is thinking, “Let’s make this guy King! Let’s listen to this guy! Let’s do what this guy says! He’ll lead us to great things! He’s really blessed by God, and we’d like to get in on that action.”

And Jesus says, “Yes, I’m here to set up a kingdom. I’m here to inaugurate a new age. I’m here to gather a people for myself, who will follow me. People who will see the world the way I see the world and treat people how they should be treated.”

And Jesus turns to His disciples, the ones who have chosen to follow Him, and says, “Are you ready to hear what life in my Kingdom, with me as King, looks like? Do you want to know the type of people that I’m going to attract, and save, and empower, and use to spread my kingdom and my gospel? Do you want to hear what my Kingdom is all about?”

Look back at verse 20:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”

And you can hear the disciples say, “Sure, sure Jesus, I get it. You want to use the humble, the hungry, the outcasts because that way you get to show your power and demonstrate what a miracle you can make in someone’s life. For sure. I guess I can get behind that. But then, once you’ve got your army of outcasts ready, then we go conquer our enemies, right? You’re going to destroy the bad people, overthrow the corrupt government, take away the tax collectors who steal our money, punish the rich people who take advantage of us and make us their slaves, the racists who think they’re so great and treat others like garbage… you’re going to wipe them out, right?”

Look at verse 27,

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

“Wow, that’s tough, Jesus. Love our abusers? Give away things and don’t expect them back? That’s not what I expected… But ok. I’ll do that. I’ll treat my enemies kindly. I’ll be content knowing I’m a better person than they are, that they’re condemned to judgement, and even though I’ll treat them nice to their face – I’ll never forgive what these terrible people have done to me and those I love.”

Verse 37,

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

“Ok, Jesus, but that’s just your opinion. You’re a good teacher, and you’ve done some good things, but you’ve got some pretty extreme ideas. I’ll take what you’re teaching into consideration, but I’m going to talk to some other people, find some other teachers, read some other books, learn about some other ways of thinking, and then mash that together and come up with something that works for me.”

Verse 39,

“He also told them a parable: ‘Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”

“Oh Jesus, I’m smart enough to know what’s right and wrong, who to trust and who not to? In fact, I see clearly than most. Sure, some of these dummies need you to teach them right and wrong, but I don’t. When I look around I see a whole lot of people that know way less than me, who are way worse than me. I’m really smart, and they need me more than I need them.”

Verse 42,

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”

“Ok, if my eye is full of logs and I can’t see straight because of my own sins and biases, then, how can I tell who to listen to? How can I know who is telling me the truth? How can I know which people are your followers with your priorities, and which ones are false ones who are trying to mess me up? How can I tell the shepherds from the wolves?”

Verse 43,

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

You see, Jesus’ kingdom, His way, His word, are so often the opposite of what we feel is right. Feelings are dangerous. Coming up with our own mashed up version of God or religion or right and wrong is dangerous. We’re not capable.

That’s why Jesus started with, “Blessed are the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled.” Because if you live a Christian life, if Jesus is your Lord, if you follow the word of God in every aspect of your life, if you pick up your cross daily and follow Jesus – you’re going to end up where Jesus ended up. Jesus was poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled, and those who follow Him should expect nothing less.

 Loving your enemies is going to make you more enemies, because people are going to misunderstand you. Even your side will turn on you because you’re not hating who you are supposed to hate.

Knowing you are poor, foolish, sinful, easily led astray, changing how you think about yourself, and wholly trusting that God will lead you and provide for you, is going to confuse a lot of people. Every time you say, “I’m waiting for God. I will not move unless God moves with me. I will not reach for what He hasn’t given me.”, they’re going to get mad at you, argue with you, call you foolish, stupid, lazy, and an extremist. Your faith in God will make faithless people very upset.

Loving the unlovable, the thief, the abuser, is going to hurt. Going back over and over, opening yourself up over and over, giving your heart away over and over, only to have it mangled by the one you are trying to love, will make you spend a lot of time weeping. But that’s how Jesus is. His arms are always open. That’s how God the Father is. He welcomes the prodigal son home with celebration. But it’s hard, and you will weep.

Following God’s word, standing on His promises, doing things His way is going to cause people to revile you. The world, and a lot of people in the church, have real hatred for those who plant their feet firmly on the Word of God and refuse to move unless they are convinced from scripture. They’re going to argue with you, beg you to compromise, and tempt you towards an easier rout – just like Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness. But we respond the way Jesus did – with more scripture. But taking that stand will cause many people inside and outside the church to hate your guts.

Conclusion

Christianity isn’t the easy road. During times like we are going through now, as individuals, as a church, as a province and country, our convictions face real tests. We are forced to decide whether we believe that Jesus is Lord and we have to do things His way despite how we feel – or whether we think we know better because His way doesn’t feel right.

Everyday, especially over the past couple weeks, there have been dozens of really important options laid out before us – ones that are clear in scripture – and we’ve been given the opportunity to either follow Jesus or not. This pandemic, and this season in our church, if it has done anything, it has shown you how strong your convictions really are, how firm your faith really is, how pure your mind really is, and where your weaknesses really are. It’s shown us whether we are ruled by fear or by Jesus, by greed or by Jesus, by our feelings or by Jesus, by popular opinions or by Jesus, by our appetites or by Jesus. I hope you’ve been paying attention, because God has been giving us a crash course on the cost of discipleship lately.

Let me close with how Jesus closes His “Sermon on the Plain” with another, “where the rubber meets the road” statement.

Verse 46,

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

(Luke 6:46–49)

I’m going to give you some time of silence to talk to God, and then I’ll play a final song, and then close in prayer.

Bridging the Great Divide: The Gospel and the “isms” of Our Day

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A lot of things sort-of collided this week. First, of course, we’ve got this pandemic looming over us with all that entails – including the enforced social distancing rules that are making daily life increasingly stressful and depressing. Next, I had a few people texting me and asking about how we can have the Lord’s Supper, communion, as a church. Could we prepare it ourselves at home and then all watch the video and do it. Would that be ok? I also came across a bunch of people and posts – from people inside and outside Christianity – that kept saying that we don’t need to gather together as a church in order to be Christian. The general gist of the argument was that a person’s connection to God, their relationship with Jesus, was only an individual one and a Christian doesn’t need anyone else to have a full and healthy relationship with God. And then, mixed into all of this, came the explosion of riots and protests in the US and Canada, as a result of systemic racism.

As I processed all of these huge issues – social distancing, communion, the church, the riots – it occurred to me that there is an underlying, common theme. Essentially, at the heart of it all, is the problem of “division”. Humanity is divided. Social Distancing because of the pandemic has divided our communities and families. Don’t visit grandma, don’t go within 6 feet of any human being, don’t shake hands, don’t sing together, don’t give gifts, don’t share meals, don’t worship together. That alone is catastrophic for the human soul.

But, of course, human divisions have existed long before COVID-19 came along. The bigotry of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, nationalism has divided us since Cain and Abel. In our modern context, another “ism” has grown: “Individualism”. The idea that a single person is more important than the group, that people should work for their own advantage, and that their thoughts and actions are valid simply because they are their own – and no one has the right to judge them. This individualism has infected Christianity, which is where the people who say, “I don’t need any other believers, I don’t need the church, I don’t need accountability, or elders, or theology books, or a church family – it’s just me and God and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Right now, as I speak to you, humanity might be the most divided it’s ever been. It’s one thing to be sexist and think one gender is worse, another to be nationalist and think every other country is evil, another to be ageist and think every other generation is stupid, another to be racist and think that people with different coloured skin are somehow inferior – but when it comes to individualism – the belief that every other person on earth is worse, evil, stupid, and inferior, to you ­– I don’t think you can get a society more divided than that.

As I said, this moment in time might be the most divided humanity has ever been.

Origins of Division

Where did all this division come from?

God’s plan, which we see in Genesis 1 and 2, was a united humanity. God created Adam and Eve – who were probably brown people, by the way[1] – and placed them in the Garden of Eden. Already, at the very beginning, there was the potential for problems. God is Creator, Adam and Eve are creation. Adam was male, Eve female. Adam was first, Eve was second. But instead of division, there was perfect community, perfect unity, between God, Adam and Eve.

It didn’t last long. In Genesis 3 we see Adam and Eve rebel against God when they start to think that God is being prejudiced against them! So, in ignorance and jealousy, they fall for the devil’s lies and bring sin into the world. From that moment we were divided.

With sin came a curse. The results of sin caused cracks and fissures to form in every aspect of the universe. Humans would be divided from their Creator because God cannot be in the presence of sin. The earth would turn against itself and against humanity, as death and corruption entered the world, even the ground itself would work against us. The division would be between Adam and Eve too, men and women, who, even though they would be drawn towards each other, there would be endless strife. In Genesis 4 we see the story of Cain and Abel, two of the children of Adam and Eve. Cain wants to worship God one way, Abel does it a different way. Cain is enraged when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not his and kills his brother. Then, by the time we get to Genesis 6, the hearts of men are completely corrupt as evil takes over the world.

Heart, soul, mind, body, creation, relationships all divided. Emotional walls, spiritual separation, intellectual disagreement, physical strife, a corrupted universe, destroyed unity – all because of sin. God sends a flood to wipe out the world but, in His grace, spares one family – Noah’s – because Noah was the only one who was listening when God sent the warning. After the flood subsides, humanity starts to spread all over the place, populating the world – creating civilizations, but also bringing sin, suffering, war, and division, wherever they went.

Regardless of if you’re an evolutionist, an “old-earth” person, or a young earth person, the agreement is that it was after a great dispersion, as humans started to settle in parts of the world that had different climates and vegetation, that we start to see minor variations in the human genetic code, as generation after generation develop differences in their skin colour, hair colour, eye shape, etc.

You see, God didn’t create many different races – He created one: The Human Race. You cannot use the Bible to condone any form of racism. It’s not in there. People have used a lot of evolutionary theory to defend racism – saying that some colours are more “evolved” than others – but you can’t defend racism from the Bible.

God didn’t create many races, He created one: The Human Race. God didn’t create many religions and “paths to Him”, He created One, faith in the Son of God, The Messiah, Jesus Christ. God doesn’t prefer one gender over the other. He made them equal and complimentary. God doesn’t prefer one age over another. He knits the baby together in the mother’s womb, loves and defends children, trains up and uses young men and women, and gives important work and honour to the elderly. Salvation through Jesus Christ came through the Jewish People, Jesus came as a Jewish Man, but it was to offer salvation to everyone, regardless of race, nation, age, or gender.

In Revelation 5:9-10, as the story of the end begins and the first scroll is opened, it says they sing,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

In Revelation 7:9-10, it says,

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

In the kingdom of God, there is no division.

All the division we see and experience has one source: the human heart. The corruption sin brings to the human heart is what divides nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. It is sin that creates every terrible “ism” inside us. That’s not from God – that’s our sin.

Racism, classism, ageism, and all the others are not just political or economic issues. It’s not because of a lack of education or a bad upbringing. Yes, they have political, economic, and social implications – but they are not the source or the solution. The source of the problem, the root of the weed, the thing you have to dig all the way down to in order to kill the problem – is the corruption of all human hearts because of the curse of sin.

The Solution

That’s why the only solution to the problem of racism, ageism, sexism, and all the other terrible “isms” is only found in Jesus Christ.

The Gospel, or the “Good News”, of Jesus Christ begins with the bad news. The first words spoken in the Gospel of Matthew are the angel telling Joseph not to divorce Mary, but that “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20–21) The first words of Jesus in the gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15) In Luke we read that the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist’s whole job, was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus by telling people to repent “for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).

The bad news of sin, the acceptance that we are sinners, must come first – and one really good word to describe the results of sin would be “division”. Sin divided us from God (Isa 59:2) and each other. It created a deadly, untreatable infection to come upon our souls, it built an unbreachable wall and dug an uncrossable chasm between humanity and God, and fractured humanity into an irreparable mess. Jesus came to cure the disease, smash that wall, take the judgment – the sinless one became sin, took the whole of it onto Himself, and then was judged and killed in our place – so He could become the bridge that allows us to cross that chasm, and to remake, reform, recreate our individual hearts, and humanity into being whole again.

Look at the life and ministry of Jesus. There was no barrier he didn’t cross. He loved men, women, Jews, gentiles, Samaritans, soldiers, slaves, Pharisees, prostitutes, tradesman, tax collectors, children, seniors, the sick, the possessed, the wealthy and popular, the poor and outcast – equally. He saw every one of them the same – as sinners.

When Jesus declared Himself to be the only “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6) He was calling us lost, lied to, and dead. We are all, as Jesus describes us, sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36), lost people who needed finding (Luke 19:10), sick people who need a physician (Luke 5:31-32), lawbreakers under judgment (Matt 12:36), spiritually dead people who needed resurrection (Rom 6:23; John 14:6). Jesus’ mission wasn’t merely to set a good example for us to follow – it was to, by his own death, to mortify (or kill) the sin inside us, and that has infected the whole world, so that we might rise as a new creation, just as He rose from the dead.

Take a minute and consider what happened at the very birth of the Christian church. Jesus gathers a diverse group of men and women, dies, rises again, ascends to heaven, and tells them to go and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

So they do. About 120 followers of Jesus were gathered together in one room, praying, worshipping, talking together. Men, women, young, old, Pharisees, tax collectors, all gathered in the name of Jesus, waiting obediently for what He promised.

Then boom. Look at Acts 2, which we just read last week,

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1–4)

A diverse group in one place, and what does God do. How does he send the Holy Spirit? Audibly and visually. Everyone hears, everyone sees. Everyone in the room experiences the tongues of fire divide and rest upon everyone else. Not just the apostles, not just the men, not just the old people… everyone is given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God in their hearts. And then everyone starts to speak in languages that they didn’t know before.

Unity upon unity. Jesus unites a diverse group in His name, demonstrates the seriousness of that unity with wind and fire, and decimates the division of races, languages, and nations by equipping His people to share the gospel with the thousands of people around them who were, as verse 5 says, “Jews… from every nation under heaven”.

Peter preaches a long sermon, and presumably, the other 119 take their turn sharing and interpreting, and the crowd yells out (in verse 37), “What shall we do?” Peter answers in verse 38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” First the bad news, then the good news, then the invitation to join the reunited, reformed, recreated, family of God. Who gets access to the Holy Spirit? Just the original followers? Just the people that heard Jesus teaching, and experienced the crucifixion and resurrection? Nope. Everyone. God reverses the curse of the Tower of Babel and unites the people under one banner. As Ephesians 4:4-6 says,

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Then in Acts 2:42-47 we see the Holy Spirit of God working in the hearts of the people as they devote themselves to worshipping together, learning the word of God together, and taking care of each other. Verses 44-45 we see the destruction of classism as

“all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Now, if you remember, Jesus’ command to the apostles right before he ascended was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” But they didn’t want to. They liked what they had going, so they stayed put. So God sent persecution to force a bunch of them to get out of Jerusalem and do what they were supposed to be doing.

Within a short period of time, there were churches all over the place – Macedonia, Galatia, Greece, Rome, Egypt – and it starts to freak the apostles out a bit. Racism starts creeping into the church. It had already been there during the first crisis when the Greek-speaking Jews and the Hebrew-speaking Jews got into a big fight (Acts 6), but now there were people from all over the place, every nation, tribe, tongue, colour… all claiming Jesus as Lord.

Weirdly, it seems the first instinct of the apostles is to say that non-Jewish people couldn’t have access to the Holy Spirit, couldn’t be a full part of God’s family. But God squashes that thought in a hurry!

In Acts 10 God gives Peter a vision of a giant picnic blanket full of every food imaginable – including all kinds of foods the Jews weren’t allowed to eat. God tells Peter, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (v13) And Peter says, “No way, Lord! I would never eat anything ‘unclean’.” And God says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”(v15). Then it says that Peter saw this vision three times in a row as God hammered home the point, but Peter still didn’t quite get it.

So God used a non-Jewish, Roman Centurion named Cornelius to explain it to him. While Peter was standing in Cornelius’ house, sharing the gospel with a whole household of non-Jewish people, the Holy Spirit came again the same way He came the first time: he gave the gentiles the ability to glorify God in languages they didn’t know before that day.

Peter declares in Acts 10:27, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Well, I guess everyone really does get to be part of God’s family!”

It reminds me of my first church. I was a young man. 27 years old when I started. It was in Cleveland, Ohio and it was in rough shape. The building was beautiful. 3 story stained glass window, immaculate flooring, beautiful sanctuary, amazing kitchen in the big basement. Every room was stuffed with ministry material – but it was never used.

When I came to the church, the average age of the people there was 72 years old. The majority of them were German immigrants, who had left a post-World War 2 Europe, and had banded together to start a German church for all their fellows who were coming to America. And for decades the church grew. A boatload of German Baptists would come, and they would come to the German Baptist church. But after a while, there were no more boatloads.

Then the children started growing up. They were attending American schools where they spoke English. They had English friends. They spoke English at their jobs. The only place they spoke their native language was at home and at church. So the young people asked the older people to let them have an English service. Something a little more in their style. Something they could invite their friends to. The parents said “No, the old ways are better.” And family by family the children left – until all that remained was a handful of grey-haired old people who, in desperation, had changed to an English service and called a new, young pastor.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but there wasn’t just ageism in the church, but racism too.

I started to preach and have outreach ideas and God started to bless. But God is hilarious and very smart, so the first people that were saved and came to church were a couple named Senolia and Julio. Senolia was a black woman from the west-side of Cleveland, Julio was a Hispanic rapper full of tattoos. They first came to the church so I could marry them. Senolia said they had called 12 other churches but the pastors wouldn’t perform the marriage because of their race, or because it was a mixed-race marriage. I was more than happy to marry them, but I said that I wouldn’t do it unless they did a bunch of weeks of pre-marital counselling. It was during the premarital counselling that I was able to share the gospel and they were saved and baptised.

When they started coming to church, it was rough. By then a few others had shown up, and they were… shall we say… from a group that the congregation wasn’t used to seeing. For example, there was the young lady who “didn’t dress like a Christian”, her live-in boyfriend who would come to church in a tank-top undershirt to show off his tattoos, and their hyperactive little girl.

Right away I could see there was a problem. The new people sat in their own section, while many of the “regulars” wouldn’t even get up to greet them. The new people would chat with each other, while many of the “regulars” would ignore them, even going so far as to speak to each other in German so they couldn’t be understood.

God was showing me that within this church full of people who said they were Christians and had been attending church for—some of them, 75 years – didn’t know Jesus, didn’t understand His message, didn’t embrace His family, weren’t changed by the gospel. And in the end, and in very short order, only 3 years after I got the job – a year after I left – the church was closed.

Conclusion

The story of the gospel is one of unifying a broken world. The story of the church, when you read the New Testament, is a group of people who are being led by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus’ teaching and example and struggling to be a people who don’t have the barriers of racism, classism, nationalism, and individualism. The church had victories and failures, do good for a while and then do bad for a while, but the consistent message of the Bible, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, is one of unification in Jesus Name.

If you are hearing me today and you have one of those “isms” in your heart – repent and kill that sin right now.

If you’ve elevated yourself above others, believe that you are better and more valuable than others, that you have a special line to truth and connection to God that no one else has – get on your knees and repent because the corruption and darkness of sin has a hold of your heart.

If you have looked down on or talked badly about the opposite gender, stereotyping and jump to conclusions about a person before you even meet them – repent from that sin.

If you have hatred or bias against younger people or older people, valuing one over the other, or disparaging one or the other – you are in sin and need to repent.

If you’ve been watching the news and have been thinking or talking badly about “those people”, prejudging a whole group because of the colour of their skin, where they live, or how much money they have – repent and turn that sin over to Jesus right now. It is ungodly, unbiblical, unChristlike, and is poisoning you and everyone around you.

But you don’t need to listen to me. Listen to the words of scripture:

Romans 10:10–13, “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

1 Corinthians 12:12–14, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”

Colossians 3:8–14, “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Galatians 3:26–28, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 4:1–6, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 2:14–19, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…”

James 2:1–4, 8–10, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?… If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

Do you get it? Do you see the heart of God? Do you see His hatred of racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, individualism…? Do you understand His desire for unity? I hope you do.

 

[1] https://answersingenesis.org/racism/are-there-really-different-races/
https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/why-did-darker-and-lighter-human-skin-colors-evolve

Withdraw to Desolate Places (Caring For Your Heart, Soul, Mind & Body in Difficult Times)

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Please open up to Luke 5:16. We’re going to concentrate our efforts on one verse today and use it as a jumping-off point for something that I believe is important for us during this difficult time.

Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

The NIV translates that “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The New American Standard Bible says, “But Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray.”

The question I want to answer today is “Why did Jesus do that?”

The Humanity of Christ

It’s astonishing when you stop to think about it, what Jesus gave up in the incarnation. Jesus, the Son of God, existed before time began, equal to and in perfect relation with the Father. He lived in perfect love, perfect holiness, perfect strength. Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnipresent. Worshipped by angels, able to create the universe with a thought.

And then, in an act of divine grace and mercy, as John 1:14 puts it, the Son of God “became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, the Son of God, “pitched his tent” or “tabernacled” among us. The fullness of God within the confines of a human man. Not to get too technical, but Theologians call this the Hypostatic Union. Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, possessing all of the Creators attributes, but also the son of Mary (Gal 4:4-5). He had a human nature that had everything that makes us human, including a human mind, soul, and body.[1] These two natures were perfectly united, without any confusion or division.

He did this to save us because humanity couldn’t save itself. We needed a human representative to stand before the Father, but that representative couldn’t be under the curse of sin. Only a perfect being can stand before God. And so God sent His one and only Son to live a perfect life, and then offer Himself to the Father as the final sacrificial blood offering that the Mosaic Law required. God accepts the death of His Son in exchange for anyone who would believe in Him. And, since Jesus hadn’t sinned, death could not hold him, the grave could not keep him, and He was raised from the dead. As we just read in Acts 2:24, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

It’s really important that we understand the implications of that Hypostatic Union – the perfect divinity and perfect humanity of Jesus. Philippians 2:5–8 says it this way, “…Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

In His “emptying”, Jesus didn’t lose or subtract His divinity, but added humanity to His nature. Jesus chose to be born, to live as a servant, to be in the likeness of men, in human form, obedient to all that meant, obedient to the Father, as limited and frail as any human being.[2]

The Bible records the limitations of his human body many times. He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew up (Luke 2:40, 52). He got tired (John 4:6) and thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). At times we see him become physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26).

Jesus also had human emotions. “When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, ‘he marveled’ (Matthew 8:10). Matthew 26:38 says that his ‘soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and even weeps. In John 12:27 Jesus says, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).” [3]

Jesus had a human mind. In Luke 2:52 it tells us that as Jesus grew up into adulthood he, “increased in wisdom and in stature”. At times we see Jesus’ showing a limitation in what he knows, but other times demonstrates supernatural knowledge – but that connected to His spirit rather than his mind.

One way that we see Jesus’ incarnation in action is that when He performs a miracle or does something supernatural, we often read that He did it “by the Spirit of God” (Matt 12:28, Mk 2:8, Luke 4:1 ). This means that part of the limitation Jesus put on Himself would be that He wouldn’t manifest His own power by Himself, but that, like any other human, would be utterly dependant on the Spirit of God, and a connection to His Father. As our perfect example, Jesus knew that He needed to demonstrate how humanity, His followers, was meant to function. And that meant that His power didn’t come from Himself, but from His connection to the Father through the Spirit of God.

This is why, at the beginning of His ministry Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18) This is why we read in Acts 10:38 that…  “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” This isn’t a statement saying that Jesus was some regular, sinful guy that God gave special powers to… it is a declaration that, while Jesus was fully divine, He chose to require that which humans require – the anointing and blessing of God for the power to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.

Our Weakness

Now, why am I tell you all this? Because it’s critical that you see that Jesus was fully human before we get to our passage today. Why? Because you’re human too.

There’s a passage I think a lot about these days. It’s from Mark 12:28–32, and you can turn there if you like.

It says, “And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” …”

The description of holistic spirituality is captured in this very short verse, which is a quote from God in Deuteronomy 6:5. The first and most important law for humanity, the only way we can experience eternal life, is to love God with everything we are and to show that love to others. I would argue – and I think most pastors, theologians, and counselors would agree with me – that one comes before the other. We must love the Lord and experience His love before we will be able to love our neighbour.

But look at how it’s divided: Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. I think those divisions are so critical for us to meditate on. Humans aren’t merely bodies. I don’t care how atheistic or naturalistic you are, you cannot deny that humanity is merely a mechanized concoction of chemicals and matter. You know, inherently, that humans are more than just meat creatures.

In the beginning, when God created humanity, He made us special. He made us in His image. He created our physical bodies, but that’s not all. In order to be God’s image in this world, to be His people, able to be intimately, relationally connected to Him, we needed to be more than merely physical. We needed to be a union of body, intellect, emotion, and spirit.

And so God imbued this physical body with a heart, or emotions, desires, affections. He gave us a soul, or psyche, or consciousness, our being, what makes us unique individuals. And He gave us a mind, or intellect, intelligence. It is the fusion of these four things – heart, soul, mind, and strength that makes a person.

We just covered how these divisions were represented in Christ. And it is in turning all of these areas of our lives over to God that we will experience what it means to be truly human, to know real love, to be able to do good, face evil, share the gospel, and walk with God.

Our Need

With all this as our background, I want to turn back to our verse today, Luke 5:16. Let’s read it in context starting in verse 12, “While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but ‘go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.’ But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”

This was a bit of a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. We read in 4:40 that Jesus would sometimes already stay up all night teaching and healing people, and that He was already growing in popularity as he went from synagogue to synagogue, but after this event, His popularity skyrocketed.

He commanded the leper not to tell anyone because He wanted to avoid crowds of people who would come for physical healing but wouldn’t care about listening to the Gospel message about all that healing symbolized. Throngs of sick and demon-possessed that would come just for a miracle – and then walk away without turning to Jesus as Lord – would lose out on the reason Jesus came in the first place. He didn’t come to merely heal bodies, but to make a way for us to get back into a right relationship with God.

So Jesus tells this man to do what Moses commands but to keep it quiet. The man disobeys – maybe wanting to help Jesus by spreading the news – and all it does is make things more complicated for Jesus and His disciples. Now, instead of Jesus having the freedom to come into towns and preach in synagogues, verse 15 says that the news about Jesus’ power spread like wildfire and huge crowds would gather every time they heard Jesus was around. This is why we read about Jesus, running away, escaping, and taking off on boats and stuff.

What I want to zoom in on right now is Jesus’ response to this newfound stress and opportunity.

Let’s consider ourselves in that position, which shouldn’t be much of a stretch. You’ve got a life going. You’re doing pretty well. Things are going along pretty steadily, with only an occasional blip of frustration or difficulty, but you’re generally able to do what you need to do every day.

Then something happens. Whether it’s a great success or a great failure, a new opportunity or a huge catastrophe, something changes. Maybe it’s a new job, maybe it’s the loss of one. Maybe you come into some money, maybe you or someone you love gets cancer. Maybe it’s becoming part of a new social group, or maybe it’s a global pandemic. Whatever the case, something lobs a grenade into your life and things change.

New stress, new decisions, new fears and worries, new challenges, new relationships, new costs – all growing beyond your capacity to understand and navigate.

Heart, soul, mind, and strength are all getting tapped. Your emotions are becoming frayed, out of control anger, deep valleys of depression, anxiety starting to drive your decisions.

Your mind is running out of resources. There’s too much data to process, too many opinions and ideas to sift through. You have to remember too many things all at once. Now you’re starting to forget things, to push away new ideas, overusing entertainment because you just don’t want to think anymore.

Your body is getting tired. Stress hormones are causing you to have headaches, your joints are sore, your stomach hurts, you can’t sleep and can’t wake up. Starving yourself has made you weaker, and your comfort foods are making you lethargic.

And your spirit is wearing thin. You’re wracked with self-doubt, regrets from the past, fear of the future. You’re having an identity crisis as you try to figure out who you are in all this. All your bad habits have started to show and you feel guilt and shame. You are stretched beyond your giftings and are starting to drop the ball on important stuff. You don’t show kindness like you used to. You don’t want to be generous anymore because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t feel peace like you used to because so many things have been dropped in your lap.

What do you do? What do people usually do?

In truth, they usually blow up their lives. How many people do you know, personally, who went through a time of stress – loss of a loved one, financial crisis, personal sickness, a sudden move, a new career – who seemed like they were doing ok for a while, but then a huge part of their life exploded?

Out of nowhere, they cheat on their spouse.

Out of nowhere, they get caught doing something illegal.

Out of nowhere, they crash their car while drunk driving or end up overdosing and in drug-rehab.

Out of nowhere, they get divorced.

Out of nowhere, you find them covered in scars from self-harm.

Out of nowhere, they lose our gain a huge amount of weight.

Out of nowhere, they drop out of all of their hobbies, interests, teams, stop answering their phone, and go dark online.

Out of nowhere, you find that they’re suddenly interested in weird conspiracy stuff, cults, extremist groups.

That wasn’t “out of nowhere”. This is a person who was stretched beyond the capacity of their heart, soul, mind, and strength – and was stretched so far that something snapped. Maybe you’ve felt it. Maybe you’ve had something snap in you – or someone you know snapped.

It’s all too common and I know more than a few stories. I’m sure you do too. This huge thing didn’t come “out of nowhere” – it was something that built and built and built, and then that sudden change became the catalyst for their life blowing up.

I don’t want that for you. “Oh, it can’t happen to me!” I hear you say. I can introduce you to at least half-a-dozen people who thought the same thing. 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Ephesians 4: 27 says, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (NIV)

The devil, your adversary, is prowling around waiting for you to get tired, weak, to do something stupid. Like an expert climber, he’s looking for that little foothold, that little crack, that opportunity, to grab hold of part of your life… because once he gets into that little crack he can start to wedge in deeper and deeper.

How do we keep from that? How did Jesus keep from that? He had the same weaknesses we do but never sinned, never gave the devil the foothold, never succumbed. The Bible says He was tempted in every way possible (Heb 4:15), that Satan literally got in Jesus’ face on multiple occasions. But He stood firm. How?

Jesus Withdrew

Look back at today’s verse, Luke 5:16, “But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” That’s how. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus run away, retreat, sneak away, to make time to pray. He prayed when he was baptized (3:21), prayed when things got busy (5:16), prayed when he was confronted (Mt 11:25-26), prayed before choosing the disciples (6:12), prayed before he walked on water (Mt 14:23), prayed when he was transfigured (9:29), and prayed on the cross (23:46).

The answer to the question, “How did the fully human man, Jesus Christ, not utterly crumble under the weight of His mission, the disappointment of his followers, the ignorance of the crowds, the brutality of his enemies, and the scope of the plan that would become the pinnacle and fulcrum of history and eternity?” is “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray”. The verb tense in this sentence emphasizes that this was Jesus’ regular practice – which is why some translations put the word “often” in there. Jesus would “often withdraw” to pray.

So I ask you today this simple, yet critical question: “Do you think you are stronger than Jesus?” I know, that’s a brutal, heavy-handed question, but just sit in it for a second.

“If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in whom the Holy Spirit dwelt in power and perfection – absolutely needed to get away and pray – then don’t you think you do to?” The answer is of course, “Yes, you do.” You are nowhere near as spiritually, emotionally, and mentally strong as Jesus Christ – and yet, even in the middle of work, in the morning, at night, before and after big and small events – took off to pray. Shouldn’t you?

Let me read Mark 1:35-37. After a long night of healing, casting out demons, preaching, folks finally start to go home. What does Jesus do? He gets a little sleep and then takes off. Mark 1:35–37: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’”

I wonder how many times that scene played out during Jesus’ earthly ministry. How many times did the disciples turn around and Jesus just wasn’t there? How many times did they wake up in the morning and have to go find Jesus? How many times were throngs of expectant crowds disappointed because Jesus had completely taken off on them? How many people, expecting to be healed, came to where Jesus was, but He had already snuck away and was now miles from where they were? I bet it was often.

Let’s break this sentence down a bit and really dig into it because I think it’s critical we see what Jesus did.

I think the three most important words are “withdraw”, “desolate” and “pray”. That’s our formula. How do we keep our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, focused on God? How do we ensure that the Holy Spirit has full reign in our hearts, that God has full reign over our souls, that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), and give proper, God-given Sabbath rest to our bodies?

We need to “often withdraw”. The word there can also be translated “slip away”. Escape. It means that we leave work on the table. It means we leave people hanging. It means we let the calls go to voicemail. It means we leave the chores undone. It means we don’t watch the show with everyone. It means we won’t be able to accomplish everything on our lists because we have run away to occupy our time with greater things.

This goes against a lot of people’s natural instincts. Most of us feel like we’re letting God down if we aren’t always available to people, or if we don’t finish our daily list. It’s not true. What “lets God down” is when we make ourselves available to people, get our daily list done, but at no point in that day spent any time with Him. It’s not that we’re really “letting God down” though… He doesn’t need us… but He desires us.

He doesn’t want your list of things to do. He doesn’t want your religious activity. He doesn’t want you for your job, your hobby, your social platform, your skills, your abilities, talents, your ideas. He wants you.

He’s a good father that wants to spend time with His kids. Think of it this way: How do you know someone is your friend? Is it when they give you something? No. That’s charity. Is it when they do some work for you? Not really. Is it when they talk about you when you’re not there? Is it when they sit down and read your biography? No.

How do you know they’re your friend? Because they want to spend time with you and do it as often as they can. That’s what God wants. And more than that, it’s what humans need. We are not designed to do anything for a long time. God built physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual limitations in us so we might realize our need for Him.

That’s the first one – you need to “withdraw” – and the second is that you need to go to “desolate places”. The word there is for wilderness, deserts, open pastures, secluded spots. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray, right? Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

How do you know someone is your friend? Because they want to spend time with you. How do you know that they are a close friend, a best friend, or even closer? Because you want to spend more and more time with them alone. If you want an intimate relationship with God, a deep relationship with Jesus, a strong connection to the Holy Spirit – it happens when you are alone and free from distractions.

I don’t need to tell you how to get alone. You know your own life. What I’m trying to say is that if you neglect withdrawing to be alone with God, you are doing harm to your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You are setting yourself up for failure. You are lighting the fuse, however long it is, that leads to you blowing up your life – and hurting yourself and others. You need God’s voice, God’s presence, and God isn’t loud – it’s quiet, soft, and can best be heard when you are alone, quiet, and open.

Conclusion

Let me close with this: You need God. Just as Jesus needed a consistent connection to the Father, so do you. But it won’t just happen. You will never find the time. You must make the time. You must run away from things, escape from things, say no to things, drop out of things, disappoint people, delete the app, unplug the tv or computer, let go of your need for accomplishment, and stop finding your value in how much work you can do.

That is the only way you are going to be able to connect to God. And it’s urgent. It’s a huge deal. The devil is prowling and you are not equipped to resist Him if you are not connected to God. The devil has a foothold in your life and you are not wise enough to see it if you aren’t hearing the voice of God. The enemy wants to cripple your heart, soul, mind, and strength – and he will succeed if you do not “withdraw to desolate places and pray”.

[1] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/the-omnipresent-son-of-god/

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-incarnation/

[3] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/jesus-is-fully-human

Stay in the Word (God Speaks to You Personally Through the Bible)

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A Living and Active Word

Most of you know the passages I read at the beginning of service – the Call to Worship and the weekly Scripture Reading – are chosen long before I read them on Sunday mornings. Around the beginning of December each year I usually take a day to sit down with what’s called a “Lectionary of Daily Readings” – which itself was written a long time ago and is based on a Liturgical calendar from centuries ago – and I go through and read and choose each of the Sunday passages for the year.

I do this from a Lectionary mostly because it is designed to give an overview of Christian theology and important passages throughout the year – and there’s no way I would be able to come up with something better than they would. The difficult part is that each Sunday actually has 4 readings – one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament Letters, one from the Gospels, and another passage chosen based on what day of the Liturgical calendar it is.

For example, today is the “Sixth Sunday of Easter”, of “Year A” in the 3-year rotation, and the readings are from Acts 17, Psalm 66, 1 Peter 3, and John 14. But since the tradition at our church is to have only two scripture readings, I try to rotate between the bunch so our church gets a balanced diet of Old, New, Psalm, and Letters.

But what amazes me almost every week is that even though these passages are chosen long ago, and based on calendars from even longer ago – they are so often exactly what our church needs to hear that day.

God, in His wisdom and grace, has given us a book where the words don’t just stay on the page, but is (as Hebrews 4:12 says) “the word of God… living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

The Bible isn’t merely a book. It is the main and usual means by which God speaks to us today, by His Holy Spirit making the words of the Bible come alive to us, speaking exactly what we need to hear, like God was writing specifically to us. All we need to do us submit ourselves to reading it, humbling ourselves before it, and being open to what God wants to say – and then listen to what God says when He does speak!

Sometimes He speaks messages of encouragement, other times conviction – but His Word and His Spirit work together in a humble heart to tell us exactly what we need to hear.

When Suffering Comes

Turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:10 and listen to the words of Paul to his protégé Timothy. These are the words of an older servant of God who is in prison, facing his final days on earth, preparing to be sentenced to death at any moment for the sake of the gospel. And listen to what He says to Timothy:

“You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”

Young Timothy’s job was to try to combat the false teachers who had taken over some of the churches that he and Paul had been planting. But Timothy was a very different person than Paul. Timothy was younger, meeker, more tender-hearted. Paul was a rock – Timothy was more easily bruised. Not that Timothy wasn’t courageous and wise – he was just younger. But he’s been following Paul’s example – obeying Jesus, stepping up to speak and serve as a pastor to the church in Ephesus – and then suffering just like Paul did, just like Jesus did. And Paul says, “You’ve been following in my footsteps – and those footsteps often lead to suffering.”

And he continues in verse 12,

“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

“This is the usual way of things, Timothy.” Jesus promised that everyone who tries to live like Him will face what He faced – difficult times, persecution, evil people, fake people, and liars. Obedient Christianity is not an easy road. Paul knew this. Timothy knew this.

But now, Timothy was all alone. Paul was locked up in a Roman prison hundreds of miles away. Timothy couldn’t just hide behind Paul whenever he had a problem. He couldn’t ask Paul whenever there was a tough question. When the fake people, the deceivers were spreading rumours and lies about him, and Paul, and Jesus, and God, and how salvation worked, and were successfully convincing good Christians to do wrong things, He couldn’t just get Paul to refute them. Timothy was alone.

And so Paul, who himself was very lonely in his prison cell, wrote to tell Timothy what to do.

And I think that’s where a parallel comes in for us today, right? A lot of you who are listening to me right now are alone. Either you are alone because there’s no one around you – or you are alone in your faith because you’re the only believer in your family – or you’re alone because God has called you to do something difficult that people don’t really understand – or you’re alone because your work has forced you to live behind walls, barriers, masks, and gloves – or maybe you are surrounded by family, but you feel alone because there is tension in the house, arguing and hurt feelings, and you find yourself sitting by yourself a lot.

Loneliness is a huge issue right now. Despite the bit of good news recently about reopening a few places, we’re still under “social isolation” rules and many people are feeling a “wave of loneliness”[1] hitting them as COVID-19 continues to be a present reality. I don’t need to recount all the things that have been going on because you know them – but I’m sure it won’t surprise you that the mental health crisis we were already having has only gotten worse. Depression, anxiety, addiction, abuse, panic attacks, suicides, are on the rise. Things weren’t great before and they’re worse now.

In our church, I’m amazed at how well folks are holding up. If my numbers are correct, about half of our church has lost their jobs, and most are negatively financially impacted by what’s going on – and yet, when we talk, even though there are concerns and some discouragement, I mostly hear stories full of positivity, hope, and faith.

But we’re not immune to the effects of this pandemic, are we? We’re not immune to loneliness, isolation, stress, and fear. I don’t want to speak for you, but I wonder if a lot of us feel like Timothy might have. We have faith. We know God has the big-picture under control. We’re not worried about our souls because Jesus is our gracious Saviour. But moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, we are presented with questions we don’t have answers to, people that frustrate us, fears that we can’t shake, and moments of discouragement.

Maybe it’s right after we watch the news or see some article go by on social media. Maybe it’s after a conversation with someone that didn’t go the way you thought it would. Maybe it’s when you’re standing in the grocery store surrounded by people in masks and visors and surgical gloves, where you’re thinking about every single little thing you’re touching and reminding yourself not to touch your face – and the anxiety rises. Maybe it’s when you get to the till and you wonder if there’s enough money in the bank, or for how long the money will last. Maybe it’s the quiet moments, right after you turn off the tv or the tablet, right before you go to sleep, that things start to sink in, the worries creep in, the guilt, the bitterness, the anger…

Christians aren’t immune. Timothy was a wonderful man of God, trained by the greatest missionary ever, given charge over what was, at the time, the most important missionary church in the world – but Timothy wasn’t immune to the fears, stresses, and the emotional toll.

Keep in mind that the emperor at the time was Nero, one of the most terrible people in history! We might complain that the government is being unfair to churches now, but Nero was literally feeding Christians to the lions, and lighting Christians on fire, for entertainment. That’s the environment Timothy was in.

Stay In The Word

So what does Paul say to Timothy? Paul is writing what he thinks could be the last letter he will ever write, to someone he deeply loves. What does the greatest missionary of all time, the author of the letters of the New Testament, the man who had unparalleled revelations from God, who perhaps suffered more for the gospel than any other person ever – what does Paul write in the final paragraphs of his final letter to this stressed out young man who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders?

Look at verse 14:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

What does Paul say? Stay in the Word of God. Root yourself in the Bible. Eat, sleep and breathe the scriptures.

Timothy was raised by a Christian mother and grandmother and grew up in the faith. He’s been hearing bible stories and reading the prophets since he was little. Today, we would say that Timothy went to Sunday School, went to Youth Group, went to AWANA, took catechism, grew up in church, had active Christian role-models. The Bible, which we would call the Old Testament, was a huge part of Timothy’s Christian upbringing.

And then, when God told Paul to mentor Timothy and take him on his journeys, his family and his church laid hands on him, prayed over him, and commissioned him for ministry. Then, as the Apostles wrote more scriptures, and they were being copied and sent around, Timothy would have been part of collecting them and keeping them. He would likely have copies of the gospel of Luke and Acts, the book of James, and Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, Corinthians, and even Romans – and of course the two personal letters to himself.

When Timothy got stressed out, confused, overwhelmed, tired, sick, afraid, and attacked – what did Paul say to do? Turn to the scriptures. Read. Pray. Listen to God’s Spirit speak to you directly through the words of the Proverbs, Psalms, Prophets, the Law, and the Apostles. He told Timothy – when the difficulties come – remember what you already know, what you’ve already learned, the parts you’ve memorized and studied, all of the scriptures you’ve hidden in your heart, all the stories your grandma told you, all the songs your mother sang to you, all the stories about Jesus you’ve heard and read – bring them all to mind, Timothy!

Timothy, your faith in Jesus Christ is fed and fueled by your attention to and humility before the Word of God. They’ll connect you to Jesus Christ, increase your faith, remind you of your hope and salvation, and make you wise.

Do you need to connect to the Spirit of God? The scriptures were breathed out by Him. They have the power and presence of God in them.

Do you feel inadequate to interpret these times, confused by the slick false-teachers and need some instruction? Do you feel confused about the big questions of life, meaning, eternity… the scriptures are a spring of knowledge that will never run dry.

Do you sense that you are being lied to or that you believe lies? Do you feel like the darkness is starting to seep into your soul? The scriptures only tell the truth and are valuable for reproof, or rebuking, bringing light and clarity to and light in the darkness of this world.

Do you wonder if you’re going the right way? Wonder what needs to change in your life? Do you see someone in sin and not know what to do? The Scriptures are the best way you can correct yourself or someone else. They present the straight and narrow path, show you the walls on either side, and is the compass that will guide you to true north.

You don’t need to have the right words to say when you see someone in trouble – the Bible has them. You don’t need to wonder about your life plan – the scripture will tell you. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – 95% of what humans spend so much time trying to figure out, the most important things every human wants to know, has already been answered in the Bible! The Word of God will train you up, show you the right way, help you grow in maturity, and give you the equipment you need to do good in this world.

One of my commentaries says it this way,

“If Timothy would nurture his spiritual life in the Scriptures that he would use in his ministry, he would be fully qualified and prepared to undertake whatever tasks God put before him. What a tragedy for any Christian to be labelled as spiritually unprepared for a task when the means of instruction and preparation are readily at hand!”[2]

Sunday School

I’ve always felt a sense of kinship with Timothy. I also grew up in the church. I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. I have more bible stories, hymns, songs, and sermons in my brain than almost anything else. I’ve served in some form of ministry since I was asked to be a puppeteer in the Sunday School at age 13.

When I was called into ministry, I really connected with Timothy. He was a young pastor, stretched way beyond his comfort zone, taken far from his home and comforts, and dropped into a difficult church with no idea what to do. That was me in my first and second churches!

People stopped telling me how “young I am for being a pastor” about 5 years ago, but it hasn’t been that long since I felt like I was living a very Timothy-esque life. That often meant not knowing what to do, what to say, or how to help. It meant many hours of loneliness, heartache, fear, and confusion as people within the church lied to, betrayed, and hurt me and my family. There were some wonderful, beautiful times, and some amazing people too – but it also meant shedding a lot of tears.

And when I did, I would read Paul’s letters to Timothy and know that they were also God’s letters to me. Jesus spoke to me through them. When I turned to scripture, Jesus would comfort me, teach me, correct me, train me, and equip me for what I needed to do. Often hymns and scripture songs would come to my mind that I sung during church, Sunday School, or one of the Bible programs or VBS’s I went to. And they would be like a healing balm to my soul. A personal message from God, like He was singing to me personally.

I’m so glad I grew up in church and I know that some of you have had the same experiences. I’m so thankful for the Sunday School teachers I had, the AWANA leaders, the people that ran the Vacation Bible Schools, the pastors and song leaders that put the time in day after day, week after week, trying to get some little bit of light, some nugget of truth, some bit of Godly wisdom, drilling bible verses into my thick, distracted, little skull. Because those little bits of light were what God used to bring me out of some very dark times.

Sometimes, even as a pastor, I didn’t feel like reading my Bible. I got down, felt hurt, felt like God tricked me into taking a job that only made my life miserable. And I didn’t want to talk to God. I didn’t want to read something else about perseverance, or patience, or because I wanted to quit.

And in those moments, so very often, a bible song would come to my mind, an old hymn that was rich in scripture. And it wouldn’t be convicting or challenging or harsh. God didn’t send a criticism or some spur to kick me into gear. He sent me light, comfort, joy.

♫“For I am convinced, that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers. Nor life, nor death, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ♫

That’s Romans 8:38-30.

Or

♫ “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the valleys are His, the stars are his handiwork too. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.” ♫

That’s basically Psalm 8, 66, 147, and Isaiah 40 all wrapped up into one verse.

 

Conclusion

My message today has one point – stay in God’s word. Keep reading in 2 Timothy and you’ll see why I preach how I do.

But the Bible isn’t just for preachers. It’s not just for missionaries, teachers, and youth workers. The Bible was written in a common language, for common people, to bring everyone to God. It is not merely for studying and arguing about.

I can’t tell you how special it was when I went from studying God’s word, memorizing it, learning about it like a textbook – to reading it like it is God’s personal letter to me. When I finally realized that the “living and active” word of God wasn’t just big ideas and grandiose concepts meant to guide our lives – but that if I listened, if I asked, if I prayed, that God would actually talk to me, individually, through His Holy Spirit making the word come alive and speak to me about exactly what I’m going through, showing me something about God or myself or the world that I needed to see that day.

And that’s true for everyone. God still speaks through His Spirit and His Word today, to anyone who is willing to humble themselves and listen.

Now of course, I have to give the warning that not everything you think is correct, right? Like, that old joke where the man was desperate to know the will of God so he decided he would open up the bible to a random page and whatever it said he would do. So he opened up to Matthew 27:5 and it said, “Judas hanged himself.” Startled, the man quickly closed the bible and reopened it with his finger landing on Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise”. Now, a lot more worried, the man tried one more time, with his finger landing on John 13:27, “What you are about to do, do quickly!”

You know that’s not how it works, right? You know you need context, study, meditation, to tell others what you think God is saying, and to get guidance from Christian friends, elders and pastors.

So what am I saying? I’m saying that during a time like we are having now. When loneliness, anxiety, worry, and stress, are starting max out, take over, become their own epidemic – that it’s critical that you commit yourself to reading the Bible, singing the Bible, sharing the Bible, posting the Bible on your fridge and phone and computer.

But most of all, when you get alone with God, when you’ve made the time to read His Word – to read with anticipation that God is present and willing to speak! To read knowing and trusting that if you have given your life to God, if you are saved by Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian, that God’s Holy Spirit will speak to you through His Word.

To come to His Word the way you come for your first meal of the day – hungry and expecting it to feed your soul, fill you up, energize you for the day, and keep you alive – knowing that if you don’t get it in you, if you starve yourself, you are going to be weak and unable to function. Come to God’s Word anticipating, expecting, longing for it to feed your soul for the day.

[1] https://www.cbc.ca/radio/frontburner/covid-19-unlocks-wave-of-loneliness-1.5568625

[2] Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, pp. 237–238). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

The Persistent Love of God (A Mother’s Day Sermon)

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“Before I was a Mom”

By Suzana Haertzen

Before I was a Mom…I made and ate hot meals. I had unstained clothing. I had quiet conversations on the phone.

Before I was a Mom… I slept as late as I wanted and never worried about how late I got into bed. I brushed my hair and my teeth every day.

Before I was a Mom… I cleaned my house each day. I never tripped over toys or forgot words to lullabies.

Before I was a Mom… I didn’t worry whether or not my plants were poisonous. I never thought about Immunizations.

Before I was a Mom… I had never been puked on, pooped on, spit on, chewed on, peed on or pinched by tiny fingers. I had complete control of my mind, my thoughts, and my body. I slept all night.

Before I was a Mom… I never held down a screaming child so that doctors could do tests or give shots. I never looked into teary eyes and cried. I never got gloriously happy over a simple grin. I never sat up late hours at night watching a baby sleep.

Before I was a Mom… I never held a sleeping baby just because I didn’t want to put it down. I never felt my heart break into a million pieces when I couldn’t stop the hurt. I never knew that something so small could affect my life so much. I never knew that I could love someone so much. I never knew I would love being a Mom.

Before I was a Mom… I didn’t know the feeling of having my heart outside my body. I didn’t know how special it could feel to feed a hungry baby. I didn’t know that bond between a mother and her child. I didn’t know that something so small could make me feel so important.

Before I was a Mom… I had never gotten up in the middle of the night every 10 minutes to make sure all was okay. I had never known the warmth, the joy, the love, the heartache, the wonderment, or the satisfaction of being a Mom. I didn’t know I was capable of feeling so much before I was a Mom

I like that poem because it reminds me of the persistence of mothers. There are many words that we can use to describe moms. Words like loving, patient, compassionate… but I think the word “persistent” is one that works the best. Movies and books are replete with stories about good guys who credit their mothers for how they turned out so good – and bad guys who could always count on their mother loving them. Regardless of the outcome of the child’s life, one thing that remains is the persistent love of their Mother.

The Persistent Love of God

The untiring love of a mother actually serves to point us to One that is greater – to God’s love. That’s what I want to talk about today: God’s persistent love.

I believe that the perpetual, stubborn love a mother has for their child is part of how God designed them to be – and is meant to reflect and teach us something about God’s love for us. In scripture, God is presented as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the one in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-29; Psalm 104) . He is persistently ensuring the existence of all things.

When Jesus was challenged about healing on the Sabbath, he looked at the Jews and said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 7:15) meaning that even though God invented the Sabbath by resting on the seventh day, God was still upholding the universe – if He were to stop, everything would cease to exist.

God doesn’t quit. Think of the nation of Israel who did everything they possibly could to offend and reject God, trying to thwart everything He was trying to do for them. They worshipped demons, killed the prophets, and turned their backs on His Word. At more than one point they were so far gone that they even forgot about their miraculous deliverance from Egypt (Judges 2) and even lost the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22).

Yet, as much disrespect as God suffered, He continued to treat them with special care and persistent love. When one generation didn’t respond, He’d come back to the next generation and try again. When they went on their trip through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, just like little kids in the car (back before iPads), they whined about everything. It was like the world’s worst car trip! God’s taking them to Disneyworld and they spend the entire time complaining about the food, water, directions, view, signs, all the while kicking the driver’s seat.

Yet, God continuously and persistently provided what they needed and even more. A prophet would ask for a sign and God would give them one. A king would go into a foolhardy, selfish battle, and God would allow him to succeed. When the nation of Israel couldn’t get over their worship of idols, God treated them as children and sent them to their room – a whole generation into Babylonian captivity as a discipline – and then rescued them so they could be with Him again. God showed persistent devotion to His people.

Our Lack of Persistence

Most of us are lousy at being persistent. The divorce rate, even among Christians, hovers around 40%, and many today aren’t even getting married in the first place – and more and more couples are refusing to have children.[1] That makes moms very special.

But it’s not just marriages and families, people are also dropping out of high-school and college at alarming rates – especially young men.[2]

Most people don’t even keep the same job for more than a few years. According to one report I read, half of people stay in their job for under 2 years, and only 30% stay at one job for over four. The average Canadian will have roughly 15 careers in their lifetime. The average new, small business will last less than five years. And it’s not because of the financial crisis. 75% of the time it’s because they end up with too many personal problems that get in the way, so they have to shut down their successful small business.[3]

I could go on, but I think that most of know – especially these days when so many of our excuses have been taken away – that all of us have a problem with persistence, and the problem is getting worse. Do you ever sit at home these days and wonder why you can’t just keep a consistent schedule? A consistent attitude? A consistent diet? Why every day – even though for most of us, our schedules have been almost completely cleared – we struggle to remain consistent.

The Persistent Love of Jesus

As in all things, we would do well to look at Jesus, who was doggedly persistent. Consider how He treated His disciples! They argued with Him, ignored Him, denied Him, sold Him out, and fled the Garden of Gethsemane, cowering in the dark as He died on the cross, but He always loved them, forgave them, restored them, and continued to work with them. They kept asking the same dumb questions, doing the same dumb things, and Jesus kept forgiving them, repeating Himself, teaching them, loving them, serving them, and sacrificing for them.

Our salvation was brought by Jesus’ deep desire to win us back to His Father. He marched to the cross of His own will, despite the pain, clueless disciples, and abusive religious authorities. He had the power to quit anytime – but He obeyed His Father in the face of great temptation, so He could finish the work of salvation for our sakes. He stood firm on the promises and the power of God – and marched forward out of love for you and me.

The persistent love of a good mother points us to the greater love we see in Jesus. Those who had a good mom, who had a mom that loved them despite their foolishness, are more able to understand what it means that God won’t quit on them.

God Makes Strange Selections

For a lot of us, we think that God’s love is dependent on how worthy we are. “But”, we say, “I’m not like Peter, or Paul, or John, or Moses, or Elijah, or any of the other heroes of the Bible! Of course, God loved them, of course, Jesus loved them. They had special powers and great faith. I can’t even read the Bible and every day – those guys were amazing! They were easy for God to love! I can’t see how God can love someone as inconsistent and sinful as me!”

Actually, you might be more like those “heroes” guys you know. What is awesome about the love of God is that He shows it most often in the strangest places, and to the weirdest people. Most often He doesn’t go for the best and brightest, the most loveable, but instead chooses the small, weak, dumb, pitiable, faltering, failing, down and out, unlovable people that no one would pick.

Did you ever play dodge-ball as a kid? By the way, did you know that many schools have outlawed dodge-ball? One expert I read said, “We take the position that [dodgeball] is not an appropriate instructional activity because it eliminates children and it does not respect the needs of less-skilled children.” That guy sure wasn’t around when I was growing up! I was definitely one of the “less-skilled” children and had absolutely none of my “needs respected” during dodge-ball!

I absolutely remember what it was like when the teacher would yell out “DODGEBALL!” Fear immediately gripped my tiny heart. Except for a few of the girls, I was easily the smallest kid in my class. And we would always line up against the walls, the teacher would pick two “Captains” and then they would pick teams. Anyone else go through this?

They would go through the whole class and take turns picking the big kids, fast kids, kids that threw hard, the popular kids… and there would be me, the fat kid, the kid that got asthma attacks, and a couple other “losers”, standing against the wall as the kids fight over who had to take us. I hated that feeling – but I knew why: I wasn’t big, or strong, or fast, or popular.

Here’s my point: If God was picking the dodgeball team, He would do it differently. He would have picked me, the littlest girls, the fattest kid, and the kid with asthma first, and then shown how He could win the game with us. To God be the glory!

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 is something I read often and it says,

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Isn’t that awesome?! God shows His persistent love by loving those who need it most. He chooses the weak things of the world on purpose to show His glory. For all our faults and failings, God loves us even more – because it’s when we realize our weakness and our utter dependence on God that He can finally show His strength through us.

Why?

God’s Overwhelming Optimism

I think it’s because God, like a good mother, has an overwhelming amount of optimism about what His children are capable of if they were just listening to Him.

That’s what a good mom does right? No matter how much we screw up, mom says, “You have such potential! You’re so smart! So handsome! So pretty! You have so much potential! You have a light inside you! It’s just that you keep making dumb decisions, hang out with dumb people, and need some serious help.” How many of us got that speech?

I think God feels something similar. Not because of how great we are and what we can do for Him, but because He knows what He can do through us! He knows what we’re like. It’s not like we can fool Him into believing we are better than we are. We can’t pad our resume before God. God knows how utterly messed up we really are – but He still has an overwhelming optimism that when He chooses us to do something, that we can do it.

When He picks us, introduces us to Jesus, saves us from Hell, gives us the gift of His Spirit, and then gives us a mission in this world, He actually believes we can do it! Is it a strange thought to believe that God has faith that you can overcome temptation, overcome your addiction, overcome bitterness, overcome fear, and grow into a better image of Jesus? God knows what He can do, and so He knows that when you are depending on Him, you can do anything!

In Philippians 4:13 Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul asks God to make him stronger by getting rid of a terrible malady he is facing, and God simply tells him “no”. Why? God says, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” And Paul’s response was,

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10)

J Oswald Sanders once said,

“There is an optimism in God which discerns the hidden possibilities in the unpromising character. He has a keen eye for hidden elements of nobility and promise in an unprepossessing life. He is the God of the difficult temperament, the God of the warped personality, the God of the misfit.”

We look at ourselves and that’s what we see: “the difficult temperament… the warped personality… the misfit.” We don’t see a person God could use – let alone doggedly pursue with persistent love. We see our sin and addictions and feel defeated all the time. We see our hang-ups and fears, and all the hidden things in our lives and minds that we think prevent us from being loved and used by God. We see our lack of ability, lack of holiness, lack of understanding, lack of courage – we are too afraid, too young, too old, too uneducated, too different, not different enough.

What I want to tell you this morning is that the persistent love of God covers that. God believes in You because He believes in Himself – and when you feel weak, all He requires is that you lean harder into Him. A life turned over to God will be imbued, infused, permeated, saturated with His amazing power and love.

God’s Relentless Pursuit

God believes in you because it is God Himself that is working through you, even despite your weakness and flaws. Just as a mother can’t forget her love for her child, but continues to love them no matter what they have done, even more-so does God relentlessly, persistently, love His children. He can’t forget His love for us.

We have a book at home called “I Love You Stinky Face” which is about a child trying to see how far his mother’s love will go, coming up with all manner of terrible ways he thinks could make his mother not love him.

“But Mama, but mama! What if I were a big, scary ape? Would you still love me then?:

“But Mama, but Mama, what if I were a swamp creature with slimy, smelly seaweed hanging from my body, and I couldn’t ever leave the swamp or I would die? Will you still love me then?”

“But Mama, But Mama, what if I were a super smelly skink, and I smelled so bad that my name was Stinky Face?”

And the mother always sweetly responds, reassuring her child that she will love him no matter what. She replies, “Then I would give you a bath and sprinkle you with sweet-smelling powder…  And if you still smelled bad, I wouldn’t mind, and I would hug you tight and whisper in your ear, ‘I love you Stinky Face’. ”

I think Psalm 23 is like that. Let’s close by reading it:

Consider as I read: Who is the active person in this relationship?

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

We are sheep. We get tired and He makes us lie down. We get thirsty and he takes us to a drink. We get sick and He restores. We pursue sin and he puts us on the righteous path. We wander into the valley of the shadow of death, God pursues us, protects us, comforts us. We surround ourselves with enemies and strife, and Jesus does all the work to save us – and proceeds to make us a celebration dinner and crown us as victors! Then, for our whole life, he follows us, follows us, follows us – until we finally take our rest in His House forever.

Do you see how much God loves you? Pursues you? Acts on your behalf?

The reminder of God being the one that pursues us with relentless love is found all over scripture. He stubbornly, tenaciously pursues us, inviting us over and over to turn more and more of our life over to Him because He knows that if we give our life to Him fully that we will finally know peace, joy, and purpose.

While you might quit on yourself. God will never quit on you.

“But God, But God, What if I continuously work myself into a frenzy, anxious about almost everything in my life? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will lie you down in green pastures, beside still waters.”)

“But God, but God, what if I destroy my soul with sin, harden my heart with bitterness, and corrupt my spirit with lusts of the eye and the flesh? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and then I will restore your soul, and I will lead you down the paths of righteousness.”)

“But God, but God, what if I go through a depression so bad that it’s like walking through a valley of the shadow of death? One so dark that I can’t even see you? Will you still love me then?” (“Yes, and I will walk with you, and comfort and protect you every step of the way – even if you don’t know I’m there or thank me.”)

It is the devil preaches the message of despair. He’s the one that whispers in your ear that God doesn’t care about you, God has forgotten you, that you are beyond His grace and forgiveness, that you’ve finally gone too far, that you’ve reached the end of His patience, that you should just quit praying because He’s not listening, that God gave up on you, that God’s punishing you, that everything is too scary and God’s no longer helping you… That’s the voice of Satan lying to you, not God.

God will never quit on you, and will always love you. A long as you are still taking breaths in this world, if you have given your life to Jesus, if you are one of His children, who has accepted Him as your Lord and Savior – no matter how far you’ve backslidden – you will always be loved and always given the chance to come to Him – because He’s not just waiting on you, He is constantly, and relentlessly pursuing you with His love. All you need to do is turn around – and you’ll see Him right there.

 

[1] (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/domestic-dream-of-2-5-children-per-woman-long-gone-as-fertility-rate-declines-for-third-year-in-row)

[2] (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-004-x/2008001/article/10561-eng.htm)

[3] (http://www.workopolis.com/content/advice/article/how-many-jobs-do-canadians-hold-in-a-lifetime/)

Revealing & Refining Fire (How Tough Times Help You Grow)

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To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.

I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.

How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?

Coping with Stress

No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.

How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.

Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?

Trial by Fire

Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.

And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.

Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.

He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.

But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.

Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.

And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.

Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.

And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.

Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith

That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.

What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.

God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.

Bear the Fruit of Repentance

Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:

This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”

So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.

He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.

But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.

But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.

John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”

And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.

The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?

John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,

“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”

Conclusion

Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.

That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.

The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.

When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.

Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.

I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.

[i] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-627-m/11-627-m2020029-eng.htm

How Have You Been? (Radical Honesty During Difficult Times)

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How have you been this week? I know asking that right now is weird. I’m standing alone in a room full of empty pews, addressing myself to an iPhone strapped to a camera – you’re sitting at home in front of a laptop or tablet or tv watching this. You can’t respond and I can’t hear you.

But still – I ask the question: “How have you been this week?” Take a minute to think about it. If I were in the same room as you, what would you say? Would you smile and tell me how wonderfully you’ve been doing, recounting a story from this week of how you’ve seen blessing? Would you give me a quick “I’m fine.” and then ask how I am? Would you sigh and say it’s been a little difficult, but then quickly change the subject in hopes I don’t pry further?

So, how have you been?

I’ll be honest with you; this has been a really tough week for me. Now, I know that some of you have told me that you don’t want to hear stuff like this on a Sunday morning. Some of you have told me that I’m not supposed to talk about having a rough week, that I’m supposed to keep things positive and upbeat on Sunday mornings, that me sharing my more difficult feelings makes you uncomfortable – and you think it makes everyone else uncomfortable – and you warn me that if I don’t stay positive and upbeat, that people won’t listen to the sermons, people will stop coming to church, and that you, yourself, will stop – because – as you’ve told me – when you come to church you want to hear “things that inspire you”, that give you a “positive worship experience”, that make you “feel better when you leave”.

Well, I might not be able to do that today, because, honestly – I had a really rough week. I was emotionally depressed, spiritually dry, mentally wiped-out, and physically exhausted. Most of the days this week I felt like a worthless pile of junk and everything I did took 10-times the effort it should have. It was, by almost all accounts, a bad week.

I had a Psalm 6 type week. Turn there if you want. It begins,

“O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?

Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes.”

It was a rough week. How was your week? Honestly, how was it?

From my limited perspective, I felt like a lot of people turned an emotional corner this week and were down in the dumps. We’ve been doing this social isolation thing for a while now, and it’s not really good for us. But what makes it worse is the constant stream of news and policies and updates that keep coming all the time. I don’t know about you, but it sometimes feels like we’re all locked in our rooms on a boat being bashed by an unpredictable storm. Our room doesn’t have a window, the wind and waves keep changing direction, and the command crew – the people in charge – seem to have a lot more confidence than they have skill at sailing.

And I think that the emotional toll of being stuck in our little windowless cabins is catching up to more and more people. I know it caught up to me this week.

The Danger of Echo Chambers

I guess one advantage of doing this as a livestream over social media, isn’t that you can just turn me off, right? If you’re one of the people that just can’t handle hearing lament, you can just search up whatever message or song or speaker you want.

What a dangerous temptation that is. To just turn off people and messages that don’t tell you what you want to hear the way you want to hear it. To be able to ignore voices in your life that don’t tell you what you think you want to hear.

While I love how amazing it is to be able to google whatever we want and YouTube up some of the greatest Christian speakers in the world at any time – it is also very spiritually dangerous. Sure, we can learn about a topic of interest, but it can also cause us to live in an echo chamber. This sort of technology allows us to disconnect ourselves from the reality around us, the people nearest to us, the church family around us, to exit our own context and only hear what we want to hear, from the people we want to hear it from, in the style we prefer best. It’s a wonderful gift – but it’s also dangerous too. It’s dangerous to think we are the ones best able to decide what we need. It’s arrogant, self-deceiving, and only serves to make the blind-spots in our lives more pronounced.

And when we live in that echo chamber, one of the temptations that comes along with it is to lie when we are asked “How have you been?” In the first, you lie to yourself – in the second, you lie to others. But that lie usually comes from the same place. Fear.

Consider: When I or someone else asks you, “How have you been?” some of you are and become immediately flooded with fear, and to deal with that fear, you lie. And I’m not just talking about when we’re at church. This happens in marriage. It happens between parents and children. It happens at work and among your friends. Many people, maybe most people, live in fear of honestly answering the question “How have you been?”

Be honest. How many of you have someone in your life that you can tell anything – literally anything to – and you know for certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they will not only listen to you but that there is a zero percent chance they will ever use it against you? Not many of us have that sort of person in our life. Many of you don’t have that even among members of your family. Not with your spouse, parents, or even friends. Some of you see professional counsellors – and pay good money to talk to them – but you still lie to them.

Why? Because you are too afraid to even attempt that sort of relationship. You have already decided in your heart, with no one around, in the silence of your mind, that there are some things that are just no-go-zones for any conversation.

There’s a thought that rumbles through your head, a temptation that is always at hand – but no one will ever know – no one. Do you do that? Do you have scary, or disturbing, or violent, or intensely sad thought, that you have decided in advance that no one will ever know about? Not your spouse, your friend, your mentor, your pastor, not even God? Thoughts you won’t even give voice to in your secret prayer place, not in your journal or even allow to form as a full thought in your mind, because you don’t know what will happen if you do?

What are you afraid of? You are afraid that if you do let that thought out – you’ll collapse. You spend so much time ignoring the difficult things inside you that you are basically a façade. Or, you’re afraid that if you actually tell someone what’s really going on in your life, how you really feel, what you’ve really been doing with your time, the sorts of thoughts that pervade your mind whenever the TV stops or as you lie in your bed before falling to sleep – that they will hate you, reject you, judge you, get angry with you, call you faithless, give some trite answer, compete with you, or even punish you. And that’s the last thing you want. You don’t feel good, and you figure the last thing you need is to tell someone what’s going on and have them make you feel worse.

What a terrible thing it is to have these two temptations dominating your life. On one hand you have yourself as master with no room for anyone else’s teaching, opinions, direction, guidance, or conviction – which leaves you alone, stuck in the muck and mire, unable to grow beyond yourself. And on the other hand, whenever someone tries to break through that armour, to dip their hand into the muck to help you, to take a peek behind your well-manufactured curtain, to shed light in your dark places, you are suddenly full of fear and end up lying to them – which only reinforces the wall between you and the truth. That’s fear and it’s keeping you trapped in a cycle of misery.

Before any conversation is ever had – whether it’s your spouse, parent, friend, pastor, counsellor, or God – you’ve already pre-decided that the person will hurt you – or at least that there’s a chance they might hurt you so it’s not worth the risk. All they’re going to do is dredge up things a bunch of things you don’t want to deal with, give you zero answers, and then pat you on the back, tell you “it’ll be ok” and then leave – so you put up another layer of brick between you and them, you and the world, you and God. Then because that interaction caused discomfort, because you were forced just by the words “How are you doing?” to look at the lockbox full of scary stuff you keep in your heart, you run back to the people and voices that you like to hear, that reinforce what you already think, believe, that makes you feel how you want to feel. Your self-deception reinforced by your echo chamber.

Manipulated by Agreement

Can you see the danger in that?

It’s a risk, isn’t it? Telling the truth, sharing your feelings, opening your heart to someone else and letting them see what’s really going on in there is a terrible risk, isn’t it? Sitting through a sermon or talk, or reading a book, or sitting with a person, that forces you to examine yourself, your beliefs, your preconceptions, your worldview, is dangerous and uncomfortable. That’s why a lot of people avoid it. And when you avoid it – you open yourself up to all kinds of dangers. For example, tribalism.

I’m going to describe something and I want you to consider if you have ever experienced this or watched someone else go through this.

It begins on a successful social media site. You’re not feeling very good about yourself, you don’t like something about yourself, and you want some distraction, something to make you feel better – so you log in to see what’s going on.

The first things you see make you feel more miserable because it’s just a stream of people that are smarter, better looking, more successful, more clever, more popular, more talented, with cleaner homes, nicer stuff, happier relationships, and greener grass than you. And you think, “Wow, that’s not me. Now I feel bad. But wait… I have an idea. I’ll find people like me – same age, same thoughts, same interests, same problems. People who like what I like, who don’t care about what I don’t care about, who have the same quality of life as me…” And when you find this group you feel better. “Ah… my people.”, you think. And it’s nice.

But then, in a short period of time, the posts go from championing how great you and “your people” are to talking about how bad the “other people” are.

You joined the “I like green grass” group, and half the posts are about how lazy and stupid people are who don’t have green grass. Or you joined the “I don’t care about my grass” group and half the posts are about how pretentious the green grass people are, how bad their marriages are, how broke they must be…

You joined the “diet and exercise” group, and half the posts are mocking overweight people and people who don’t know how to use gym equipment. Or, you joined the “body positive” group and half the posts are about how shallow and stupid people who go to the gym are.

It doesn’t matter what group you join. Seniors are pit against teens, teens against seniors. Moms against professional women. Men against women. Sports fans against book readers.

Then come the posts about how no one understands except the people in your echo chamber. No one except you and them knows where to get the good stuff. No one except you and they know the truth. No one except you and they knows what’s funny or smart or accurate. And anyone who isn’t following what your tribe is following, saying what they’re saying, doing what they’re doing… isn’t just wrong… their evil.

It’s not just “pro us”, it’s “anti-them”. You’re good they’re bad. You’re smart they’re dumb. Your appetites are good and right and anyone who says differently is wrong and bad. Your opinions are good and right and everyone else is stupid and wrong.

Then comes the pressure from within the group to not only conform further – and to hate the other guys more – but to believe that every other opinion outside that group is not only wrong but dangerous.

Introverts can’t learn anything from extroverts. Baptists can’t learn anything from Pentecostals. Homeschoolers can’t learn anything from formal education. Christians can’t learn anything from evolutionists. Everyone else is bad and wrong and evil except us – and if you even think of listening any other group, you run the risk of your own people turning on you.

Congratulations, you just joined a cult. Does it sound like I’m exaggerating? Maybe a bit, but that’s how cults work. It’s also how social media echo chambers and tribalism works.

Those echo chambers – which can be found all sorts of places – from who you follow on Instagram, to your favourite e-mail chain, to the TV shows, podcasts and videos you subscribe to – have the danger of reinforcing the barriers between you and what you actually need to hear, what you actually need to experience, what you actually need to feel, what you actually need to share, what you actually need to experience.

Truth Sets You Free

I want you to turn with me to James 1:19-26. This passage speaks a lot about self-deception and the danger of avoiding the truth by surrounding yourself with voices that only tell you what you want to hear.

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

This passage is speaking to the one that God is trying to break through to, who needs to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit, needs to humble themselves to the voice of God, but can’t because they are so constantly deceiving themselves. It’s about breaking down those self-imposed walls that keep us from experiencing what God wants us to experience, from hearing what God wants us to hear.

These are words that I need to hear as much as you do.

It begins in verse 19 telling you to close your mouth and open your ears. To stop letting your emotions drive your decisions, but to just listen.

When someone asks, “How have you been?” our emotions flare-up. Fear, anger, sadness, whatever – and that emotion says, “Shut it down. Lie. If you don’t there will be trouble.” This passage says that listening to that emotion, acting on that emotion, is not going to produce what God wants. What will… engaging in that moment with what God is doing. Stop, listen to what the other person is saying, is asking, is wanting from you, is trying to do for you… and then speak slowly and carefully and honestly.

In your relationship with others, maybe that means you need to not throw out the “I’m fine” so fast without actually listening. Sometimes that person is offering an olive branch. They’re trying to comfort you, to get to know you, to show you love – but you are so used to letting the emotions rule and speaking quickly that you don’t even see how sincere they are. Slowing down and listening to what they’re saying will help. “What do you mean? Do you really want to know? Are you serious? Do you want me to share with you? I’ve got a lot going on… do you really want to know?”

This goes for your relationship with God too. It means that you don’t just jump into the bible verse, prayer book, prayer list, or whatever. Stop. Listen. Wait. Be slow to speak. “God, do you want to say something? Do you really want to listen to me? I know you see what’s going on inside – will you help me get it out? I’m not sure I can… can you give me the words? Let me hear what you want to say about what’s going on inside me.”

Next, in verse 21 we see the importance of repentance. It says, “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”. In other words, God has already planted a seed in you… but your filthiness and wickedness, your sin… has made it so that the seed won’t grow. You are dry, your soil is polluted, and you need purity. First, you wait, listening to God – then God always follows it up with, “Ok, now repent. See your sin. Acknowledge your sin. Hate your sin. Give your sin to Jesus. Let Jesus die for that sin. Accept forgiveness.” As long as you continue in your sin, you will never be able to hear what God wants to say, because the sin won’t let the implanted seed of God’s word grow!

Next, verses 22-25 speak of ridding yourself of your self-deception. You stop and listen, asking God to speak. God says, “Repent from your sin.”. Then, immediately, fear rises up. “Ok… I’m going to confess some of them – but there’s some stuff in the basement I’m not bringing up.”

These verses say, “You’re not fooling God, you’re only deceiving yourself! God already knows what’s in the basement! You’re the one who denies what they really look like. You’re the one who sees their deepest sins reflected back by the scriptures and then choose to pretend like they don’t exist. God already knows! So He invites you to tell the truth, live in the truth, and to persevere through that truth.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this. It happens in mere moments, microseconds even. God, either in your spirit or through another person says, “How are you doing? Let’s talk. I need to do some heart-work in you”. You want to speak quickly and lie. But this time you don’t. You listen, accept their love and desire to help, and are ready to speak.

But then, before your mouth opens, you realize what you are about to say. It’s not going to be “nice”. It’s going to be “real” and that scares you. What does God say in that moment? “It’s ok. Tell me. We’ll get rid of the garbage together. Just tell me all of it. Share it all. Let me see everything. Then I can make that seed grow.”

But you’re so used to pretending that it’s almost habit to make yourself forget. You want to say how you’re doing, and you’re ready to repent, but you’re afraid and you want to turn away and pretend the conversation isn’t even happening. Shut it down. Walk away.

What does God say? “Look in the mirror. I see you and I want you to know that I see you too — and I want you to see what I see. This is the only way you’re going to be free. I need you to look at my word, listen to my Spirit, and have the courage to say outloud the things that you are too afraid to admit — and then see that I love you. Tell me the sins I already know you commit. Tell me the terrible thoughts I already know you have. Tell me about the fear I already know that dwells within you. I can handle it because I already see it. But I need you to see it, you to acknowledge it, you to drag it into the light, and give it to me so that I can finally let you be free of it. Don’t just say you want my help – actually accept it. I’m standing right here. I see everything. Just be honest.”

This can happen in prayer – or it can happen when you’re talking to a fellow Christian. Remember, James 5:16 says,

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

The healing comes by Christians confessing and praying together.

Finally, look at verse 26. I think this is written to the religious hypocrites who think that they need to pretend for the sake of looking like a good Christian, or to not bring shame to Jesus, or because it might make them or the church look bad. I think it says here, in effect, “The religion that makes you pretend to be good and deny reality is fake – real religion is the one that tells the truth to God, others, and themselves – regardless of how it makes them look.” Because if you lie with your tongue and lie to your own heart – God says your religion is worthless.

Conclusion

What’s my conclusion today? Well, this little series here is about “Building Faith in Difficult Times” and I think the foundation of that is going to be honesty with yourself and with others.

This week, I was not “fine”. I was sad, tired, and made some bad decisions. It does me absolutely no good to hide that from you. Likewise, it doesn’t do any of you any good to hide what’s really going on inside you from God or the people that love you.

Am I saying you should dump your emotional truck on the next cashier who asks you “How are you doing today?” No. What I am saying is that the only way you are going to be able to grow into an emotionally and spiritually strong person, with a robust faith that can withstand difficult times like these – is to be honest with yourself and with others, even if it is risky.

Will everyone react perfectly? No.

But the benefit of living an honest and open life far outweighs the dangers of living in an echo chamber of self-denial and dishonesty.

So, what I want you to do this week is to commit twofold:

First, tell God what’s really going on inside you. Use words you’ve never used before. Say the things you’ve been refusing to say, that you’ve been pretending aren’t inside you, that you are too afraid to voice to even God. Dump it all on Jesus – and then accept that not only can He handle it, but that He still loves you, still forgives you, and will never leave you.

Second, after you’ve talked to God, I want you to commit to finding and telling one person who you trust, someone who you already have a relationship with, what’s really going on in your heart. Whether it’s your sibling, your parent, your Christian friend, your spouse, or your counsellor – tell yourself that, in obedience to God, you are going to confess all the horrible stuff, the scary stuff, the dangerous stuff, the stuff that you never wanted to voice, but that bounces around like a ping-pong ball in your head.

And to those who are about to have this person open up to them – James 1:19–20, “…be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Shut up and listen. Don’t judge. Just listen. Don’t give advice. Just listen. Don’t try to solve the problem. Just listen. “I hear you. I love you. I’ll pray for you. I’m here for you.” That’s it.

Fear, Worry & The God Who Raises the Dead

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Please open up to 2 Corinthians 1:3-10 and let’s read it together.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”

Nothing New Under the Sun

Just pause there for a second. I know I just started, but I really need you to notice this: things weren’t going well for Paul, his missionary team, the other apostles, or the churches they had been planting.

Normally, at the beginning of his letters, Paul starts a bit more cheerfully by thanking God and pronouncing a blessing on the people he’s writing to, but he just sort of jumps in right here with the serious stuff.

If you remember our series in Corinthians you’ll remember that Corinth was a pretty rough place to be a Christian. It was full of temptations and pagan thinking, and as soon as Paul left town to plant other churches the Corinthian Church fell backward in a big way. That’s where we get 1st Corinthians. 2nd Corinthians was written to the same church, but things had gotten worse. Now, not only were false teachers taking over the church with unchristian teachings and practices, but those who had stayed faithful were facing all sorts of hardship. Nero had recently become emperor of Rome and we all know how much he hated Christians, so the persecution of believers was ramping up throughout the whole world.

Not only were there spiritual and personal problems within the church, but now Christians were starting to lose their jobs, get kicked out of the guilds, and having their ability to buy things for their family and sell things to make money stripped away. Their lives were in danger as they were being reported for false crimes, and their refusal to call Nero a “god” and bow to him as “lord” meant they were in danger of being tried and executed as enemies of the state. It was not a good time to be a Christian or a missionary.

So, when Paul opens up his letter here, he jumps right to what the Christians in Corinth needed to hear most. In light of all the danger, difficulty and frustration around them, he begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

What amazing words from a man who is afflicted, suffering, and “utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” – writing to people who were potentially suffering the same problems. Astonishing words from a man who thought he might die at any moment for the sake of the gospel – writing to people who might die at any moment because they believed.

Over and over these days we keep hearing that we are “living in unprecedented times” and need “unprecedented measures”. I googled that phrase – “unprecedented times” – and told google to show me results for only the past month. I got 15 million results. But these are not “unprecedented times”!

Even if we just go back 500 years we’ll see Martin Luther and all the doctors, politicians, and churches in his era facing the Bubonic Plague. Later, in the Fall of 1665 we see the “Great Plague of London”. Then, a couple hundred years later, in the fall of 1854, Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, faced a massive Cholera outbreak – and all of these were “as real and as impactful as what we are facing now”[i].

And, what’s interesting – but not too surprising when you think about it – is that you’ll read almost the same things from these pastors, doctors and politicians that you read in the news today: Make sure you wash your hands, don’t gather together in big crowds, and make sure you say your prayers. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9)!

The people who faced these times – whether it was Roman persecution or a pandemic – were just as confused and worried as we are.

That’s why it bugs me when people say these are unprecedented times. They’re not. Disease, sickness, and death are part of life. Suffering is the usual course of mankind. People being selfish and hoarding resources is nothing new. Watching politicians and rich people use the crisis to try to gain power, influence, and money is nothing new. Worrying over our families and neighbours because of unforeseen trouble is nothing new. And seeing people rise up to the occasion to spread hope, joy, and help to their fellow man, is also nothing new.

What Do We Do?

But it somehow always comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? Whether we get sick, someone we love dies, we get robbed, people try to capitalize on suffering, or the governing authorities mess up – we somehow always seem to react like it’s completely unexpected and has never happened to anyone else, ever. It seems to be human nature to get so myopic, so self-focused, so caught up in our own lives and moments, that we think that the whole universe not only revolves around us – but that we are so special that history began when we were born and no one else’s experience can compare to our own. But that’s not true, is it?

And so, with that in mind – taking the historical blinders off, opening our vision up beyond ourselves, and realizing that others have faced what we are facing – we must ask ourselves, “How did they get through it? How did they react? What did they stand on?”

Which brings us back to our scripture for today. Look back at verse 9. It begins, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” What did Paul do when he was faced with suffering, pain, sickness, persecution, and the threat of imminent death? How did he get through it? What words of hope did He give to the people he loved and served?

Let’s read:

“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”

Christian theology and belief is not separated from our real life experiences. The miracle of the Resurrection at Easter is not merely an historical event that we just fondly remember at this time of year – it is a truth that affects our daily lives. Christians exist, moment to moment, in light of the resurrection – and the further we get from that light, the less time we spend talking to God about it, meditating on it, reading about it, the more hopeless we become.

We’ve talked many times before about how important it is that we take what we know about the gospel in our heads and allow it to affect our hearts and our hands – how critical it is that we don’t merely say we believe, but actually live and think and love and hope, like the death of Jesus on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension, are the very air we breathe.

That’s why Paul could look at the “deadly peril” he was facing and say “There is some good to be found in this difficulty because it ‘makes us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead’”. And the more we rely on God, the better off we will be.

Paul said it this way in the 1st letter to the Corinthians:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)

Or to the Romans,

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?…  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–32; 35–39)

These words were not written by a wealthy mega-church pastor, sitting in a clean office with an ensuite bathroom, surrounded by a bunch of middle-class church folks – these words were written by a suffering servant of Jesus who says his life felt like he was “being killed all day long”.

Where does that strength come from? Where can you find that kind of hope? How do you take another step, plant another church, face another shipwreck, do another day of travelling hungry, when the churches you plant are under attack, you’re constantly on the run from being stoned or lashed, and Emperor Nero, the cruelest ruler in Roman history, was only a few years away from burning Christians as human torches to light his dinner parties?

Or, for us today – how can you watch the news, read your Facebook feed, and live in the world today as the COVID19 Pandemic takes over our daily lives – as we lose more and more freedoms – as we told to isolate ourselves and live in fear? How do we face it?

If your hope is in “science” or “politicians” or “policies”, they will fail you. Their best attempts and intentions are still affected by human corruption and have yet to save the world from pain, disease, fear, and death. And they certainly haven’t shown themselves to have the power to raise the dead!

Your hope must be in the Risen Lord Jesus. You must rely, as our scripture today says, “not on yourselves but on God who raises the dead”. He is the only one who can deliver you from “deadly peril” – whether by preserving you from becoming ill, or by sending a miracle to make you well when you are sick, or by delivering you to heaven after you die. That is what is captured in the confident phrase of verse 10: “…and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” It is in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection that we find our comfort.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation, of everything else that Christians believe. All our theology – all our ministries – all our morality – all our preaching and teaching – all our values – our entire worldview rests on the historical fact that Jesus Christ really died on the cross, was really buried in a tomb for 3 days, and then really rose again from death to life, and still lives today. It’s the single, most important belief in Christianity – and it is constantly under attack by unbelievers, and sometimes even overlooked or ignored by those who claim to be followers of Jesus. They’re fine with Jesus as a good moral teacher, but they stumble over the resurrection. But when they do, they miss the entirety of the gospel.

The Corinthian church had this problem too, and Paul addressed it in 1 Corinthians 15. Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 15:12 and let’s read it together:

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)

I don’t intend to go into the evidences for the resurrection, because that’s not really the point of today’s message – but I do commend you to read “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel or even watch the movie.

Today, I’m talking to believers, to Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are plagued with fear and worry about what’s happening in the world around them, to the people they love, and within their own hearts.

My message to you today is that when there is so much uncertainty in the air, so much misinformation and confusion, so many people grasping at temporary salvation through extreme measures and putting their hopes in human efforts, that you will remember that everything you are going through is an opportunity to remember that you cannot rely on yourself or anyone else to save you from death, or to bring you joy, or give you the hope that will bring you through this time – you must connect with and trust the God who raises the dead, the Holy Spirit He sent to live within you, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who has promised to deliver you. Are you talking to Him every day? Are you living in the light of the resurrection and the presence of the risen Lord?

Conclusion

Let me close with this: I want you to notice that there are three sources of comfort mentioned in our passage today that we should be availing ourselves of every day. Look back at 2nd Corinthians 1:3.

Of course, the primary comfort is the one that I’ve been talking about already – the comfort that comes from knowing our future is secure because of the Risen Lord Jesus – but there are two more.

The first comfort mentioned is the comfort of God the Father. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…” Every day, every moment, your Heavenly Father is ready and willing to grant you peace and joy in the midst of your trials. Are you coming to Him every morning, every afternoon, every night – reading His word, talking to Him in prayer, singing to Him songs of praise, sitting silently and meditating on His truths – so He can fill up your very, very leaky cup?

The second comfort mentioned is each other. “…The Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

We who are receiving comfort from God, are given that comfort not only for ourselves, but so that we can pass it on to others. When we feel lonely, afraid, weak, or sick – an then God meets us in our affliction, making us feel strong because God is strengthening us, it is our responsibility, to make purposeful contact with people who are weak. God meets us in our loneliness so we can share that grace with someone else who is lonely. God gives us hope and joy to combat our fears – and then tells us to go share what we have experienced with someone else who needs to hear it. God strengthens our feeble hands when they are weak so that we can serve others who need it! He doesn’t just meet us in our affliction for our own sake – but so that we will meet others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  Are you being a source of joy and hope for your immediate family, for your extended family, and for the people in your church – even those not in your usual circle? Are you talking to God every day, feeling His presence – and then using that strength to making the phone calls, sending the texts and emails, and spread that hope and joy to others?

And to those who need comfort – are you allowing not only God but other believers to bring it to you? Are you making yourself available to them, picking up the phone, responding to texts, connecting wherever you can so that they can point you to Jesus?

This is how we will get through this time. By meditating on the resurrected Lord Jesus and the hope that brings us. By using that meditation to connect ourselves to God the Father through the Holy Spirit, the One who raised Jesus from the dead. And by taking the strength we receive from Him and spreading it to the people around us who need it.

[i]   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTHV9T8b4kI

https://www.kpcnews.com/columnists/article_77932ca8-539a-5192-8204-034fb69ecf36.html

https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/blog-entries/spurgeon-and-the-cholera-outbreak-of-1854

EPIC 2020

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It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.

Chapter 1: The Beginning

Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there ever were heavens or an earth.

So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance – it was “Created”. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.

And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divinity with us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.

And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease was unheard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.

 Chapter 2: The Fall

Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.

Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to be an option.

Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that something they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.

Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden

The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of good, they wanted the knowledge of evil too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.

And since God is good, perfect and holy, He can’t be in relationship with evil. He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of their decision to sin.

As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that creation was tainted, marred, effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.

Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. And, as God had promised, they would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.

Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.

Chapter 4: Noah

Now, even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.

Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.

The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.

But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.

After the flood, God started overusing Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we will even want to get right with God.

And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.

Chapter 5: Abraham

Right around the death of Noah a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.

God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.

This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.

Chapter 6: Joseph

Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save Jacob’s family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.

His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God raised Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.

Chapter 7: Moses

Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a couple hundred years, until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of suffering, but still having many children.

One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.

Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.

But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.

God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.

He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.

But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year, where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.

All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before the Fall.

So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just like the flood didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.

The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away from the Law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even praying to and making sacrifices to wooden and stone statues of their own making.

Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more saving work that needed to be done.

Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened but it was really just an endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.

As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.

But there was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even participated in child sacrifice. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!

For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law-giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that He picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.

Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.

Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.

This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.

Humanity was in a miserable state and needed One who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.

Chapter 9: The Messiah

God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built roads and laws and a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift – but He surprised everyone by how He did it.

Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.

He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.

No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) were looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.

His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?

Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.

Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.

I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge, and spread the good news that God had sent the Messiah!

Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love, and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. God comes to save us – and we murdered God.

One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?

For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…

Chapter 10: The Resurrection

But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story.

Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!

God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than one who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.

The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire, it isn’t sickness or sadness… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.

If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.

Not sickness, not poverty, not gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.

And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement­, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.

But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires choice. So God offers a choice.

God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.

Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

Chapter 11: The Denouement

Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.

This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.

This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.

Fear Leaves Scars (How to Fight Fear)

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The song I played earlier is called “The Voice of Truth” and it’s by a Christian band called “Casting Crowns”. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me over the years – especially in my first years of being a pastor.

You see, when I was in high school I never thought in a million years that I would be a preacher. I grew up loving computers and Star Trek. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. From the moment my dad bought the family that Tandy 1000 and I got that first MS-DOS manual, I was hooked. Put it this way, when I was in high school and the library computer wasn’t working properly, I was the one who got called out of class to come and take a look at it – and only sometimes because I was the one who had broken it in the first place.

So, when God called me to ministry it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. My call came during my first year of Bible College. I had just flunked out of computer school and needed to be registered somewhere in order to be a Summer Student at the Pulp Mill in my home town, so I registered at the Bible College my pastor went to. I only signed up for one year because I definitely wasn’t going to need a Bible degree, but within the first 3 months, once I had given my life back to Jesus and He had done some work in my heart, He told me one thing: “Stay here”.

So, I signed up for the 4 year Bachelor’s Degree program, still having no idea what I was supposed to do with my life – only knowing one thing: I won’t be a preacher. I took courses to work for a missionary organization, or be a counsellor, but nothing for preaching or teaching.

Then, after 4 years, with a Certificate, a Diploma, and a bunch of ministry experience, under my belt, I still didn’t know what to do. I asked my denominational leader, and he told me to go back to school. So I signed up for a 3 Year Master’s of Divinity Degree – still having no idea what I’d be when I grew up.

Fast forward to the last semester of my third year. I had picked my own classes, found my own mentors, volunteered and worked for the churches I wanted to, even created a new job at a big church called “media minister” where I organized the sound, video, and print ministries of the church. I’d done everything in my power to avoid preaching. Everything I did was behind the scenes. I took lots of courses for everything other than preaching… sure that my future was in ministry, but not in the pulpit. But by the last semester, I still didn’t know what God wanted me to do.

Until one day when I just gave up trying to control my future. I gave up on guiding my own way and guessing what my future would look like. Instead, I prayed a very dangerous prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and abilities, and have no idea what you want. So, from this moment on, I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to everything everyone asks me to do. You’d better put some people in my way because I’m just going to say ‘yes’.”

Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that prayer, but I’ll tell you what happened. Three days later the Academic Vice President of the school called me out of the blue and said, “Al, I want you to preach at a little church that just lost their pastor.” If I hadn’t told God that I would say ‘yes’ to everything, I would have laughed him off the phone, said “No thank you, sir.” and hung up. But I committed to saying ‘yes’.

So I took the one and only sermon I had ever had to write, for the one and only class I was forced to take to pass my degree, and I preached it at that little church. I was petrified. But, they asked me back. I’m guessing they were desperate because the sermon was not good.

Then, another church called and wanted me to preach there. And I said “yes” and went. Then a little church in the middle of nowhere, a full hour away from where my family was living in Edmonton, in a little town named Gwynne Alberta, called me to be their weekly preacher. And, scared as I was… I still said “yes”.

Then I graduated, and another little church – this time in Cleveland, Ohio called me to be their full-time pastor. I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t want to be a solo pastor. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to serve behind the scenes, help other pastors and preachers be good at what they do – but no, God said, “No. I’m taking you out of your comfort zone, Al. I’m taking you from your churches of 1000 people and I’m putting you in a church of 25. I’m taking you out of Canada. I’m taking you from being surrounded by technology to a place where they still use an overhead projector, slides and a hymnal. And most of all, I’m taking you away from the comfort of hiding in the back, and I’m going to make you stand up and preach my word.”

And, I said yes. And here’s something a lot of people don’t know – and why that song “Voice of Truth” is so meaningful to me. I was terrified every week for over 10 years. Every week for over a decade, 50 weeks out of the year, right before service, I would be in the bathroom sick, on my knees in front of a toilet, begging God to help me. I’ve been preaching for about 16 years now, and for well over half of it – and still sometimes to this day – I’m often still so scared that I end up on my knees in the bathroom before service.

There were a lot of times I wanted to run away, quit, do something to disqualify myself so I wouldn’t be allowed to preach anymore. There were a lot of times well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people said something that devastated me for days after the sermon. There have been times I would sit before my computer, blank cursor blinking away, fighting back tears because I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to write one more message.

The voices in my head would say the very same things that the lyrics to the song said. The first verse is about when Peter was standing in the boat, looking out at Jesus walking on the water, wanting to walk out to Him, and then taking that step off the boat… It says, “Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in, onto the crashing waves. To step out of my comfort zone into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is and He’s holding out His hand. But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me, time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win! You’ll never win!’”

I’ve heard that voice many times. I’m sure you have too.

Negative Voices

These are trying times we are living in right now. So much fear, confusion, anguish, and uncertainty. The enemy the world is trying to fight right now isn’t some rogue nation, or terrorist organization, its invisible – a virus. It’s not happening somewhere over there in a foreign land – it’s happening right here, in our towns and cities, to people we know.

There’s literally panic in the streets as people hoard food and essentials, not knowing what will happen next. People are being told to stay in their homes, to be wary of one another, to fear strangers, to always be on guard, to change their whole lives. People are being sent home from work and are afraid of what that means for their finances because most people in Canada simply don’t have anything in their savings. Others are being forced to work in places where they can become infected – but the protective equipment is becoming scarce, their hands are dry and painfully cracking from constantly using hand-sanitizer, and the customers they serve are getting more upset, more impatient, and won’t abide by the rules.

The politicians and media and bloggers and podcasters are all in a frenzy right now, spitting out new information, ideas, numbers, explanations, guesses, and theories. The helpful ideas and statistics we hear one day end up being completely altered the next. Information and misinformation are passed along with equal authority by news agencies and well-meaning citizens, and it’s hard to know what the truth is, and how we’re really supposed to be responding.

And I’m not talking about “social distancing”, “washing your hands”, and not buying all the toilet paper at the store. I’m talking about how to respond in our hearts, our minds, our souls. We’re so worried about our bodies these days that it’s easy to forget that humans are far more than just flesh. The damage that can be done to us during this time is not merely physical. Yes, it would be bad to get COVID19, and we should take precautions – but that’s not the only thing that will cause us harm.

We are also intelligent creatures, emotional creatures, and spiritual creatures. It’s entirely possible for us to get through this pandemic without ever getting the Coronavirus, and yet still have permanent scars.

Fear Scars

Fear can cause spiritual sickness and leave permanent scars too. Anyone who has ever experienced trauma, abuse, or has a phobia knows this. The scars aren’t external, but internal. It is easy to be afraid these days – and to let that fear dictate our lives – and for that fear to make permanent changes inside of us. It’s easy to look at the crashing waves before us, to see the upheaval in the land, have our hearts melt within us, and to form beliefs that will cripple us for a long time.

The frustration and anger we have against those who were first diagnosed, with those who spread it, with those who refused to self-isolate, who hoard and steal supplies, who are mismanaging the crisis and causing us to lose work and money, or putting people we love in danger – that anger – can start to fester, to spread to the people around you, and that bitterness can infect the people around you causing them to get bitter too. That anger can start to manifest in more permanent scars like divorce, abuse, broken friendships, racism, sexism, ageism – that don’t go away, but stick with us.

Another scar that fear creates is paranoia. You start to believe the world is out of control. The invisible virus is everywhere, and there’s no way to know who has it. The government starts cracking down with harsher controls and penalties, and it starts to feel more and more oligarchical, more oppressive. The media hypes to the max, blogs and websites start to write more conspiracies and talk more about superstition than actual healthcare. The stores shut down, work shuts down, construction shuts down, and you start to be afraid for your financial future too. Your neighbour or family member doesn’t believe it’s serious and tries to leave the house or come over for a visit… and you get scared for them, for you, for everyone.

That fear isn’t something that will go away when the pandemic subsides. That fear will stay with you, because it was there before and it’s deep-seated, firmly established inside you. All the things you were secretly thinking before starting to become reality – and you convince yourself that this pandemic isn’t the problem – it’s just the surface of all the other terrible things that need to be worried about. And it’s crippling.

Then you end up being the one on your knees in the bathroom, sick to your stomach, with a thousand voices telling you how terrible it will be, how no one can be trusted, how everything is against you, how the systems will fail, how no one is watching, no one understands, and no one cares…

Have you felt that fear? Have you felt racism and prejudice rise up in you? Anger and bitterness? Paranoia, desperation, and superstition? I’m sure you have. What can be done? How do we combat that level of fear?

The song gives us a clue. I want to read the chorus to you, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story. The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”. The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”. Out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”

The greatest weapons we have against fear are Truth and Faith. When the voices come barreling into our head, log-jamming our mind with fear, what are we to do? Seek Truth and hold fast to Faith.

I think of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – turn with me there. It says,

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”

The whole world is trying to find and use tools to fix this pandemic. Scientists and doctors are pulling out all the stops to try to end the devastating effects of COVID19. But how do we destroy the effects of fear, the stronghold that fear can take in our lives? What weapons do we have at our disposal? They are not “fleshly” weapons. Washing our hands, social distancing, cleaning the house, having a good schedule, working out, eating well, is not going to demolish the stronghold of fear in our hearts. There is not enough money, power, and political might out there to solve the problem of fear. We keep trying to put our faith in these things, but it never works. There’s always something they miss, something they didn’t see coming.

So many people sat in their homes and jobs thinking our modern society is way beyond ever having a “plague” again. Our scientists are too smart for that. Our medicine to amazing to allow for it. Our laws too well thought out. Our economy too strong to fall apart, our political leaders too experienced to ever let the whole world shut down like it did a century ago. And yet, here we are.

I’m all for science and technology. I love living in a world of medicine and antibiotics and MRI machines. I’m glad we have economists and police officers and politicians. But we have to remember that our greatest weapons against fear are not these people, their money, their systems, or their clever ideas. Our greatest weapons are Truth and Faith.

When we face all the “arguments” and “lofty opinions” out there that tell the dozens of reasons to be afraid – what can we do? We do as verse 5 says, we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. What does that mean?

It means that when we are faced with something to be afraid of, with a news article, blog post, podcast, family member or friend, or even a thought in our head – that causes us to be afraid, to worry, to want to panic, to hide, to lash out, to take control, to get bitter – to do whatever it is you do when you’re angry. You stop, you take that thought captive, and you hold it up to the truth of Christ, and you say, “Lord Jesus, is this thought true? Does it line up with reality and logic and your Word? Does it obey you?” As Jesus said, “the Truth will set you free…” (John 8:21-32)

Psalm 46

Turn with me to Psalm 46.

Literally, when I was writing this script, I got an emergency message on my phone. You know the one complete with lights and horns and scary noises and yellow exclamation marks that freak you out in the middle of the night? I got one of those that read, “You are at high risk of spreading COVID 19. You are required by law to self-isolate. DO NOT visit stores, family or friends.” I thought, “Dang! How does my phone know if I got it!?! What app did I download? What government spy software is on there?!” Turns out it was for “Travellers Returning to Ontario”, but I missed that part. It kind of freaked me out for a second.

What do we do when our mind says the world is out of control, no one knows what to do, terrible things are on the horizon, it’s too much for me, but no one else can do anything about it either? What do we do? Look at Psalm 46:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”

God is not weak, God is not distant. This Psalm says, “Remember who God really is, what God really wants, and remember His strength. Nothing is out of His control. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Present, and All-Powerful. He sees everything and everything works within his constraints and abides by His plans. Be Still, my heart, know that God – the God of hosts, the God of angel armies, is with us. He is the fortress we run to because He is strong.”

But our mind says, “But how can any of this be for the good? Maybe God is all powerful, but maybe He doesn’t care.”

Then we read the words of Romans 5:1–8. Turn there.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We read this and remind ourselves: “I know I am loved because God actually traded His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for me on the cross. While I was His enemy, dead in my sins, unable to do anything of value, a child of hell, God sent His Son to save me – to die for me – to take the cross for me. I don’t need to ever doubt His love.”

Plus, God promises that all the current suffering will work out for God’s glory and our good. All this suffering is building endurance and character. It’s a trial to go through, a refining fire, where, if we are wise, obedient, and faithful, we will come out the other side more hopeful, more loving, more godly than before. What is happening in the world is bad – but it’s not all bad – there is much opportunity for good! I think of the words of Mr. Rogers who reminded us that when bad things happen and we’re scared when watching the news, to “look for the helpers.”

Jesus suffered for the sins of the world, and asks believers to follow in His footsteps. So, as His followers, we don’t fear suffering, we face it knowing God is good, God is with us, and God can do amazing things with faithful people who are willing to be obedient to Him.

What got me off the floor of the bathroom each and every Sunday was not the strength of my own character or will. It wasn’t any strength I had inside me. It was because God had brought me to a place where I was utterly dependant on Him – and so I had to trust that He would allow me to do what He wanted done. If you’re a Christian today, I’m sure you can relate to God doing something similar with you. This pandemic is a way to show us how weak we are, how finite we are, and should cause us to become more dependant on Him. The only weapons we have when fear starts to take over are Truth and Faith. What’s true? And is God still God?

“God called me to preach. God’s Word has Power. It will not return void. God has given me something to say. He will give me the strength to say it. He won’t abandon me. He will be with me every step of the way. Now, all I have to do is get up and do what He has already told me to, and trust the I can because He will do it.”

Conclusion

Let me close with two more verses to keep in mind.

The first is 1 John 1:18,

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”

One reason you might feel fear is because you think God is punishing you – or the world – and you’re worried that the only way you can fix it is to live perfectly. That’s impossible – and it’s a trap.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are an imperfect sinner, born into sin, who loves their sin, and cannot escape it because it is woven into your DNA like a curse. Even all the good deeds you do to try to impress God end up working against you because they’re not even good deeds for their own sake – but driven by fear and selfishness. But, you are right to fear punishment, because God is wrathful against sinners and anyone who has broken His law. If you’ve ever violated any part of the Bible or any part of your conscience, you are a sinner doomed to face the wrath of God. And just like if you broke the laws of Canada, you can’t just tell the judge what a great person you are most of the time and ask him to let you go. There’s no amount of good you can do to cancel out your sin.

The only way to be saved, to be free from the fear of judgement, is to believe that you are a desperate sinner in need of a great saviour. That you are utterly unable to save yourself, and that you need Jesus to take all the punishment for you. To trust in the love of God, the “perfect love” of God, that accepts you as you are, and if you ask, will place all your guilt, shame, and sin onto Jesus, so He can take the punishment for you.

Then, the moment you believe, you are saved and utterly clean and totally free. As Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, when the thought comes that God is punishing you or your family for doing something bad, you can say, “Nope. God placed all my punishment on Jesus, who took it gladly for my sake, and there is no condemnation for me anymore. This bad thing that is happening not because God is mad at me, or because I’m supposed to be punished – it’s a bad thing because there is sin in the world, and the effects of sin are evil. I’m not in heaven yet. But, I trust that God will do something good through this, so I will remain faithful to Him.”

Truth and Faith.

And the final verse I want to leave you with is one that I’ve had in mind for a couple weeks now. It’s Isaiah 26:3–4, which says,

“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”

Do you want peace at this time? Stand steadfastly in Faith on the Word of God and the Person of Jesus. Let God’s Word and the presence of Jesus Christ, be the everlasting rock beneath your feet. Turn to those spiritual weapons – prayer, reading the Bible, sharing your fears with other believers, listening to testimonies of God’s faith from biographies and online videos. Fill your mind with Truth and practice Faith – and you will break those strongholds and come out of this time stronger and more hopeful than when you went in.

Why Did Jesus Suffer? (Lent 2020)

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During the season of Lent is the time when we fast and contemplate the sufferings of Jesus, what they teach us about Him, and what they mean to us.

Please open up to Mark 8:27-38:

“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.’

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”

Suffering should be no surprise to Christians, but it always seems to be. Yet, Jesus was so crystal clear about what following Him would look like.

If you look at the passage today you’ll see that Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that really means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.

But look at Peter’s response. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their whole picture of what it meant to follow Jesus, what that life would look like walking with Him, and how their lives would end – didn’t include suffering – especially unjust suffering. That’s what Peter was rebuking. His idea was to march into Jerusalem as a conquering hero, overthrow Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, call down some angels and fire, spread health and wealth to the people, kick out all the bad rulers and install the 12 disciples as the new regents under Jesus. Victory upon victory. No place for suffering. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.

Suffering MUST Happen

It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…” This is the issue that burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? If Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, you’d think He’d have a charmed life. Why “must” the King of Kings “suffer many things”? And, by extension, why should everyone who follows Him be required to take up a cross and suffer along with Him?

God is all-powerful, all good, all-knowing, all-loving – and yet He allowed His Son and all who would follow Him, to face unbelievable heartache, betrayal, and pain. It doesn’t make sense – which is why Peter had such a strong reaction. It’s the same reaction we have when the suffering gets piled on, isn’t it? It goes against our natural inclinations and causes us to question everything.

When we’re hit with sickness, death, pain, or sadness, these are all-natural questions: Why am I suffering? Am I even allowed to call this suffering in light of all the terrible things others are going through? What does it mean to suffer? What purpose does this pain have? Why am I going through this? Why is the person I love facing this? If God is all-good and all-powerful, can’t he come up with a better way? If I were God I know I could…

As we ask and read and pray, talk to some Christians, and more time passes – especially when we look back at other times of suffering – we start to understand more, but not completely. We start to see a little purpose in the suffering, some reasons behind it, some fruit that has come from it, and start to see some of God’s reasoning – but the question still lingers: “Wasn’t there a better way? How can this level of suffering be God’s perfect plan? Must it really be this way?”

The Sufferings of Christ

For the answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. If Jesus lived the perfect life and was perfectly loved by the Father… if Jesus is the perfect model and standard for living… if Jesus is our true teacher and friend… if His Father is our Father… if, once we are saved, His perfection is our perfection, and we are truly saved and fit for heaven… then whatever His life looked like – and whatever His follower’s life looks like – is going to give us a hint as to what is normal or normative or usual for all believers. Especially since He said,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

So, did Jesus have to suffer? Theologically speaking, one thing we know for sure – and we’ve talked about this a lot – is that Jesus’ suffering was the only way to destroy the curse of sin.

2 Corinthians 5:21 says,

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Hebrews 9:22 says,

“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

It was only through His suffering that we could be saved. Listen to Colossians 2:13–14,

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

Now turn to Romans 5:1–11,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Our peace with God comes through the shed blood of Jesus. That was the price. God said, “Those who break my law must pay the penalty of suffering and death.” Jesus said, “I will suffer and die for their sake.” And anyone who accepts that is saved.

What we don’t usually understand though is that the sufferings of Christ that led to our salvation were not just in the final week of his life. His whole life, from birth to death, was one long passion walk. Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be,

“despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”

As you wonder about your own sufferings, consider Jesus’ life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that coming to earth was an act of supreme humiliation. Jesus, who is God Almighty,

“did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”

When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Not long after, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to flee his country and live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a town that some people despised (John 1:46). It is thought that his adopted father, Joseph, died when he was a young man, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21). When he came back to his hometown of Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). The scriptures say that for His whole life Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). Consider Luke 19 when Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look over the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him just burst into tears.

The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His friends and disciples were weak in faith and support, and often worked against him. The people around Him mostly only liked them for what they could get out of Him and then rejected Him when He wouldn’t perform. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He is alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweats blood (Luke 22:44). Then He faces trials, beatings, mocking, and torture in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.

All of this suffering, every bit, was totally undeserved. When we contemplate our own sufferings, we know that many of them are deserved, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We might complain or try to spread the blame, but deep down we know it was our own fault. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, and the sin of others, even if we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.

But Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And every time He was given the option to take the easy way out – by Satan or circumstance – whenever there was a way to avoid suffering, He almost never took it. Why?

Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. Suffer to bring God glory. Suffer to set an example for us. Suffer to pay for our sin debt. The perfect plan for Jesus’ life was to suffer. That was the best way for Him to bring glory to God and accomplish the mission the Father had given Him.

Hebrews 2:10 says,

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Hebrews 4:15–16 tells us that it is because of Jesus’ sufferings that we know that HE is on our side, that He understands what it’s like for us to go through tough times, and that allows us to know how compassionate He is towards us. It says,

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

But why would He do this? What did Jesus get out of it? Surely there was something He got out of it. Some payoff that made it worth all the misery, right? We feel this way, right? We’ll go through the suffering if it means that we’ll get something in the end – we get more stuff like Job, we get treasures in heaven, we get the adulation of others for being so strong, praise from our peers for facing such difficulty, more ministry opportunities because we’ve faced so much. We’re willing to suffer, but we want a payoff. What motivated Jesus?

Here’s the thing. He gained – nothing. Before His incarnation He had everything. He is God. Perfect relationship with the Father, the worship of angels, all power, all glory, everything was already His. So why suffer?

Turn to Isaiah 53:2-12.

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

This is why we sing “Amazing Grace”. Jesus gained nothing through His suffering. But it is through His suffering that we were saved. Romans 6:23 that

“the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Why did Jesus suffer? The Great Judge of the Universe demanded justice. Sinners must be punished. Now, this is something we all agree with. Even the most liberal person in the world agrees with this. If someone commits a crime, our God-given internal sense of justice demands that it be made right. And we inherently know that the punishment must fit the crime. If someone steals a candy bar from a corner store and the judge gives them the death penalty, something inside us cries out injustice. If someone rapes and murders and tortures a dozen families with young children – and the judge gives them a $5 fine and sends them on their way, that same feeling arises and we know that injustice has been done. If someone hurts us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. Why? Because we are creatures made in God’s image and we have an inherent need for justice.

Now, I ask you – having this sense of justice in you – what should the penalty be for breaking God’s law? Think about this for a moment.

Two people are brutally murdered. One of them is a terrible person. He’s been a thief, murderer, drug dealer, liar, and cheat for 70 years. He’s fathered a dozen children from a dozen women, and abused and neglect all of them. In his time he’s corrupted hundreds of people, destroyed the lives of hundreds more.

The other person is a 6-year-old girl, friend to everyone, her mother’s beloved only child, and the apple of her father’s eye. She’s smart, pretty, kind, generous, and sweet. Everyone who knows her loves her, and she lights up every room she’s in.

Now, if these two people – the terrible man and the little girl – were murdered in the same way, at the same time, should the murder receive the same punishment? Our inclination is to say no, right? The purity, innocence, loveliness, specialness, and potential of the little girl makes us want a greater penalty for her murder than the terrible man’s. Why?

Because something inside of us knows that the more special, beautiful, and innocent, something is – the more it should be protected, and the greater tragedy it is that it was taken.

Now I ask you – how much more does this matter when the offence is against a perfectly holy, perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly beautiful, perfectly majestic, God? If we believe the penalty for sin must be increased in proportion to the offence – then it only makes sense that rebelling against the Law of God, the Word of God, the Person of God, and the Presence of God, by squandering all that He offered us, preferring sin and self, and turning into His enemies – should require quite a punishment, right?

Seeing the devastation that sin has caused in our own lives and world, makes us angry. How much more wrath does God have against sin? Jesus took that wrath for you. Jesus faced that suffering for you. Galatians 3:13 says,

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”

I want you to contemplate this for a time this Lent. That suffering is part of God’s plan, and that it’s not the exception. The world hates this message. They refuse to believe that suffering has value and they run from it. They refuse to follow a suffering Saviour or listen to a God who tells them that the best plan for their life is one that includes suffering. That’s why 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is because of our faith in God’s perfect plan, which includes suffering, that Christians believe Romans 8:28 which 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.”

Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates and the Bible teaches that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will be forgotten or go to waste. They all have a purpose. God is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart. Just like us, He wanted escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how we feel. But what did He say? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) He turned His suffering over to the Father.

That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you. And I’ll keep going into your will. ” I think of the words of Job in 13:15,

“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”

These are the words of a faithful man. Regardless of suffering, my hope is in God. I’ll keep bringing all these things to Him, keep pouring my heart out, even arguing – but in the end, I will trust that God knows what He’s doing. He will punish those who have wronged me. He will restore all that was taken from me. He will see all the things I’ve done that others have overlooked. He will strengthen me when I’m weak and let me take another step and face another day. He will raise me if I’m humble, give wisdom when I need it, establish and hold me fast because He is my foundation. My suffering has value, and God is perfect in Justice. My salvation is assured, and I will wait for the Lord.

This is how it worked for Jesus, Paul and all the Apostles, and all those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Your suffering is not the exception – it’s the rule. Every step you take carrying that cross has value, though neither you nor anyone else may see it. And God has promised that He will use it for His Glory and your good. That’s a guarantee.

At this time of Lent, and in your daily suffering, look to Jesus and talk to Jesus.

Your Soul is Starving (Lent 2020)

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We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.

This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.

Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?

That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!

And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.

This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.

It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.

Starving for God

Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.

He says,

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)

He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.

Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.

There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,

“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.

If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.

1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,

“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”

1 John 2:15-17 says this,

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”

The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.

Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)

 Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,

“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”

At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.

“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)

Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,

“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”

As Jesus said,

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,

“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 and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)

This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.

Lent

It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.

The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.

Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.

Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.

But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.

What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.

I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.

“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)

How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.

Conclusion

But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.

Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Drag Your Sin Into the Light (Gospel of John Series)

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“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’” (John 3:1–21)

Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.

But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.

When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.

And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.

But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”

The Five Solas

Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”

This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.

This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.

The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”

And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]

And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.

Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,

“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”

Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”

And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.

But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.

And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.

Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.

Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.

And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.

Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)

I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”

That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.

 Conclusion

Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.

Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.

Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?

Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”

To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.

Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?

When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.

If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.

Isaiah 29:15 says,

“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”

In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,

“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)

I’m telling you the truth.

Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)

I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.

But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to

“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.

Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”

Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?

“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”

To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.

Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.

 

Stumbling Over the Simplicity of the Gospel (Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 3:1–21.

“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’”

What is a Pharisee?

If you recall, last week we covered the passage just before this one that acts as a sort of introduction to the next section of the Gospel. It’s a sort of paragraph header in the midst of the chapter division that comes through the sign miracles, meant to key us into seeing a change in perspective, but not really a change in theme or signs.

Jesus has taken the torch from His forerunner John the Baptist, has inaugurated His kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, and has cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover. While He was there, the Jews demanded a sign, but Jesus refused them – and went on to perform other signs for those around Jerusalem who weren’t demanding it of Him. It was a pretty substantial kickoff to His earthly ministry and we’ve talked a lot about it.

Last week John, the author of the gospel tells us that though a lot of people believed in Jesus, Jesus didn’t believe in them, because “he himself knew what was in man”. We covered that a lot last week, but we need to remember it as we enter into the story of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is introduced as a “man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” The Pharisees were known as the “separated ones”. Not that they isolated themselves from others, but that they were extremely zealous for ritual and religion and considered themselves better than everyone else. They followed the Mosaic Law to a ridiculous degree, even adding 613 of their own laws and regulations on top of it to make it even more stringent.

For example, God had written into the 10 Commandments that no one was supposed to break the Sabbath, right? Work 6 days, and then set aside the seventh day for rest and worship. The Pharisees heard this and came up with 39 extra rules so that no one would accidentally break the Sabbath – and Jesus broke them all the time. In John 5:10 Jesus heals a lame man and tells him to pick up his bed and walk home. The Pharisees were upset because they had made a law saying no one was allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath. In John 9:16 Jesus heals a blind man by mixing dirt and spit. This broke the Pharisaical law about not making mixtures. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a disabled woman who was bent-over for eighteen years. The Pharisees were angry because he had broken the law about not straightening a deformed person’s body – and maybe even the one where they weren’t allowed to untie knots.[1] And these rules got weird. For example, they were allowed to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath – but only if they killed the chicken who laid it the next day for violating the Sabbath.[2]

At the time, there were about 6000 Pharisees around. They were mostly middle-class people and had a great influence on the common people because the Pharisees not only made up these crazy laws but enforced them. If they saw you tie your shoe or even grab a bit of grain to eat as a snack, they would get you publically embarrassed, punished, and maybe even kicked out of your synagogue.

But Nicodemus wasn’t just a regular Pharisee, he was a “ruler of the Jews”. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, their 71 members “Supreme Court”. Rome had given them civil and criminal jurisdiction over people. They weren’t allowed to use capital punishment (as we learn from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion) but they were the most powerful group in the whole of Judaism.

You can begin to see why this man came to Jesus after dark. Jesus had been causing trouble in the Temple and defied the Sanhedrin, but had also shown Himself to be a powerful miracle worker and teacher. Nicodemus was curious but cautious. His whole life, and likely going back generations, he had known only the strictness of religion as the way to please God – and here stands a powerful Rabbi, teaching things that seem contradictory to everything he holds dear – but is also able to do amazing miracles. How could this be?

There are a lot of people like Nicodemus today. People who think they have it all figured out, who have worldly power and influence, who have (what they believe to be) a rock-solid understanding of reality, of spirituality, of how life works. Whether its atheism, deism, spiritualism, some other religion, or a version of Christianity that they grew up with or have created in their own head, their brain-cement is set. If you ask them the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” they’ll give you some kind of answer. It may be nihilism or some version of karma. It might be self-actualization or pseudo-spirituality. It might be traditionalism or moralism or humanism. Whatever it is, they’ve got it all figured out – right up until they hear about Jesus.

Many people here today either suffer from or have recovered from this. You have your own version of God. You have your own version of Jesus. You have your own version of how life, and work, and church works. You have your own rules about how marriage and family works. You may use the same words as people around you, but they have wildly different meanings.

Example: Submission

For example, if I said the word “submission”, it would conjure up a certain picture in your mind. What does it mean to be a submissive Christian? Who are Christians supposed to submit to? James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God.” Everyone is on board with that. But what about Ephesians 5:21 which says we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Does your definition of “submission” extend to submitting to the people around you today? What about the next verse in Ephesians 5:22 which says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Wives, does your submission to God, submission to Jesus, extend to humble submission to your husbands? Husbands, do you understand how to respond to that submission, by, as verse 25 says “lov[ing] your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”?

And further, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says Christians are to,

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”.

Does your submission to God extend to all the laws of the land and those who have been elected to government or positions of authority above you? Ephesians 6:5-8 tells us to submit to our employer and work for them as we would work for Jesus. Does your submission to God include humble submission to your boss?

And further, Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to,

“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Does your submission to God include humble submission to the church leadership and eldership?

Pretty much everyone here today says they believe the Bible and want to do what God says – but most people here also have a different interpretation of who God is, what God wants, what God said, and how far they are willing to go in that obedience.

Pretty much everyone here would say they agree that “submission” to God’s will is important to them. If I asked for a show of hands as to who is willing to submit their lives to God’s will and God’s word, I would see a lot of hands.

Here’s the thing: The Pharisee would have raised his hand. And every single person in our church, every single person in Jerusalem, would have said that there was no one better at submitting to God than Nicodemus – everyone except Jesus. Why? Because regardless of how confident he was, how popular he was, how much affirmation he received from other people, how deep his traditions went, and how powerful his influence was, his understanding of God’s will and priorities was totally out of whack. And his understanding of “submission” was radically different than God’s.

He prayed loudly in the streets, tithed with trumpets, and lorded his power over people to force them to be like him. But God wanted him to pray in his closets, give secretly, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him. (Matt 6; Mic 6:6-8) The Pharisees weren’t humbly submitting to God and holding up a high standard for God’s people to follow. They were proudly, arrogantly, willfully, though perhaps unwittingly, destroying their religion and driving a wedge between God and His people.

Consider Jesus’ woes in Matthew 23. One said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) Everyone they converted to their version of the faith wasn’t closer to God – they were closer to Hell. Jesus spent a lot of His ministry untying the knots the Pharisees had wrapped the people in.

Jesus Knows Nicodemus

The Pharisees had hundreds and hundreds of laws that were designed to please God and make them “separate” and better and holier than everyone else, and all kinds of people were patting Nicodemus on the back for how knowledgeable and spiritual he was. And all these laws did was “separate” Him from God. And I’m convinced that He felt it. I think that’s why he walked up to Jesus that night. Jesus had a connection to God that Nicodemus longed for, but had never been able to achieve through a lifetime of Pharisaism. It reminds me a lot of the story of Martin Luther.

As Nicodemus walks up to Jesus, Jesus knows exactly what’s on his heart. Jesus knows why Nicodemus came. He knows his past, his preconceptions, his confusion, and his greatest need. Remember, Jesus “[knows what is] in man” (2:25)

Nicodemus opens with “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (3:2) I don’t know who the “we” is but it could be either him invoking his position as a member of the Sanhedrin, or that he was perhaps sent by a few curious Pharisees to see what was so special about Jesus. He’s respectful, even acknowledging him as a Rabbi, a teacher, who is clearly connected to God. That’s what brought him out that night. How could Jesus, the one who overturned tables in the temple and drove out the money-changers, who defied the Sanhedrin and then scorned them with His words, teach and perform miracles with such obvious spiritual power. No one in the Jewish ruling class had this kind of power, and none of them taught with such conviction and authority. What made Jesus different? What gave Him this connection?

Jesus cuts to the chase. Nicodemus wants access to this kind of power, conviction, authority, and relationship with God. Jesus answers His question. You want to know what it takes? “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (3:3)

Have you ever sat in a conversation with two people who obviously knew way, way more than you about something, or who had spent a lot of time together, and the longer they talked, the more jargon they used, the more they finished each other’s sentences, the more shorthand and half-stories they mounted up, the less you understood – but you knew that they were 100% understanding one another?  That’s sort of what was happening here. They were using rabbinical shorthand.

Jesus cut to the chase and answered the question that Nicodemus hadn’t even asked yet. “Nicodemus, I know what you want – and you need to know that it requires a complete spiritual transformation, a total regeneration that can only come by the power of God. You need to reject everything you think you know about religion and God and the path to salvation – all of the outward things you think are right, all the hypocritical rules, all the grasping at power – everything you have been thinking up until this point needs to be dumped out and you need to realize that the change you are seeking, the power you are seeking, the connection to God you are seeking, the salvation from the wrath of God that you fear deep in your heart, only comes if you are “born again” (or “born from above”). It is only produced by God doing something inside of you – not by anything you can do yourself.”

Now, remember Nicodemus isn’t dumb. The question that he asks next sounds dumb, but it’s not. It’s how rabbis talked. Nicodemus totally gets what Jesus is saying and responds with, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). It’s not that Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying, it was that Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was saying but had no idea how he was supposed to start his whole life over again. Jesus had just told him that everything he thought he knew about God, all the ways he’d been trying to achieve holiness and salvation, all the good works and religion, all the self-denial, were utterly futile, and now he didn’t know what to do. What he was really saying is, “How can I possibly start over now? I’m old, set in my ways, a public figure, an important member of the Sanhedrin. Doing what you say would cost me – everything. My own group would turn against me. I would be removed from my own Synagogue and kicked out of the Temple. If I believe what you say, my life is over. How can I begin again now? I’d have to start from scratch, with nothing.”

Jesus’ response is to say, “Yes. It will cost you everything. You don’t have the power to do this. No one does. It must come from above.” “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5–8)

“You don’t know how to do this anymore than you can predict where the wind will blow next. All of the things you’ve been trying to do are human efforts, fleshly works. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that if you have a spiritual problem you need a spiritual solution. You’re powerless against sin, not connecting with God, can’t get rid of your guilt, can’t teach with power, totally misunderstand what God wants. How can you be surprised that no human effort can fix this? A spiritual problem need a spiritual solution! You cannot be fit for the Kingdom of God unless you are utterly changed from the inside out.

This reminds me of another of Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He says,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25–26)

The solution to your problems isn’t more work, more elbow grease, more good works, more rules – it’s submission to God’s Will, God’s Way, God’s Spirit, and allowing Him to do the work in your heart that you cannot.

When Jesus said, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knew Jesus was talking Ezekiel 36:25.

Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22 and let’s read the context. Notice that it is God who does the saving, and notice especially verse 25.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Who does the work? God. Who does the cleansing? God. Who does the saving? God. Who does the washing? God. Who removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a soft heart of flesh? God. Who gives the Spirit to convict, encourage, strengthen, and help His people obey these ever-so precious “rules” the Pharisees were so concerned about? God.

This world is ripe with self-help books and inspirational blogs and Instagram posts telling you how to fix your soul, life, marriage, family, finances, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, depression, work, and church. And they’re 99.99% wrong.

Jesus is so clear here. The only way to be saved is not through willpower, education, politics, religion or finding your own path to God – it is submitting to Jesus and asking the Spirit of God to fix your heart. The only way to have a good marriage is to submit to God and allowing the Spirit of God to change your heart and cause you to love your spouse with the love of Jesus. The only way to be a good citizen in a land as confused as ours is by wholly submitting to the Spirit of God for hope and guidance. The only way to be blessed through your work, and have your work be a blessing to others, is if you completely turn it over to God, submit every job to Jesus as your boss, and give your employer the respect God requires of you – even if you don’t feel like it.

The only way to be a godly church, grow into a godly church, reconcile our relationships, to see the schemes of the devil for what they are and be the church that Jesus wants us to be, is not to try to arrest control from Him for ourselves, or start up a zillion ministries, or to keep one foot out the door in case something goes wrong, or ignore problems, or tighten our financial fists – but to wholly submit ourselves, our church, our plans, our ministries, to God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Salvation has never been a “reward for human works”[3]. We must realize that whatever we do in the flesh is going to be of no account, and ultimately harmful, but whatever is done by the Spirit – by prayer, by study, by humility, by submission – will produce fruit.

Conclusion

Let’s close out this section of the story by turning back to John 3:9. What’s Nicodemus’ response?

“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’”

John MacArthur once wrote,

“People have always stumbled over the simplicity of salvation.”[4]

And I would add that people have always stumbled over the simplicity of the whole Christian life. We are forever trying to complicate things, when God keeps trying to simplify it.

We are presented with a problem – in our heart, in our relationships, in our work, or in our church – and we immediately make it complicated. We make calendars, plans, committees, appointments, lists and more lists. We run far and wide, googling our hearts out, amassing books and articles and videos and counsellors. We jump ahead with emails and phone calls and travel plans and requests for money. We take out loans and get credit cards.

Before it even crosses our mind to pray and seek God’s will, we’ve already done 40 things to help the situation – and then we hit our knees and tell God to bless what we’ve come up with.

That’s not how it works. It’s actually very simple.

Stop. Pray. Wait. Read scripture. Pray. Wait. Talk to a mature Christian. Pray. Wait. Go to church and worship and listen. Go to the prayer meeting and pray and listen. Go to small group and learn, and pray, and talk, and listen.

We’ve talked many times about “the ordinary means of grace”, about how unexciting, uncool, but how profoundly simple and effective they are. Prayer and Fasting to cleanse the soul and connect to God. Obediently attending church so you can hear the Word of God and connect to fellow believers. Being baptized and attending the baptisms of the people in your church so you can be mutually encouraged and show your commitment to Christ and one another. Take the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of what your salvation cost, how much Jesus loves you, and as a reminder to get right with those who you’ve sinned against or who have sinned against you. Meet in each other’s homes regularly for times of celebration and support, and visit the sick and needy. Meet with your spiritual elders for training and teaching and wisdom.

The Christian life isn’t complicated and so many of our spiritual problems are solved by submitting to these simple things regularly and obediently.

 

 

[1] http://thefeasts.org/blog/laws-god-made-man-made/

[2] The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur, Pg 53.

[3] The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.

[4] The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.

The Drug of Self-Deception (Gospel of John Series)

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**Sorry, no audio this week**

“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:18–25)

We talked last week about the cleansing of the temple and how important that event was – and how it’s connected to the miracle of water to wine during the wedding in Cana – but we never got to the response from the people. In John, the miracles of Jesus, whether it was water to wine, healing the sick, or raising the dead, are called “signs”. “Signs” are meant to point to something greater than themselves. So when Jesus does a miracle it’s never just about the thing He was doing – it’s a sign that points to more. We’ve talked about that a lot over the past few sermons, so I won’t belabour that further, but it is important to remember.

This whole section here is about how people are responding to the signs Jesus was giving them – the nature of their belief. After inaugurating His Kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, Jesus travels to Jerusalem with a few of his disciples and walks into the temple with a whip and starts flipping over tables, releasing the animals from their pens and cages, and telling people to stop turning His Father’s house, the place where the nations were to come and meet Him, into a shopping mall that exploits the pilgrims. It offends God on a deep level and Jesus demonstrates that in no uncertain terms.

“The Jews”, meaning the religious authorities like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin, were obviously offended by this because the whole shopping mall was their idea. So they demand that Jesus demonstrate His authority to tell people to take the things away and call the temple His “Father’s House” by showing them some kind of spectacular miracle that would convince them that He was a prophet. Jesus refuses. From the context, and the rest of the gospels, we know that it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Whenever Jesus did a miracle, the Jewish Authorities never responded with faith and humility, but instead more hatred and another plan to try to kill him.

His response, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” was a multifaceted answer that required a lot of digging and interpretation.

First, it was Jesus saying that He knew exactly what the Jews were planning to do with Him. He would spend the next couple years demonstrating in no uncertain terms that He was God in the flesh, and they would respond by murdering Him. They would never accept His authority.

Second, it was an indictment against their religious corruption, implying that the temple and their whole religious structure was so corrupt that it needed to be torn down completely and that He was the only one who could rebuild it the way God had intended it.

Third, it actually was a declaration of His power and authority. They demanded a sign that would prove He had the right to cleans the temple – He basically said that He doesn’t just have authority over matters like these, but in fact has authority over life and death itself.

Of course, the Jews didn’t want to hear any of that – they couldn’t hear any of that. Their hearts were so hard that the only thing they could hear was the absolute surface meaning of what Jesus had said. Sin had so overcome their hearts, their hearts had become so calcified through their false religion and hypocrisy, that the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words just bounced off without having any effect. Notice that later, Jesus’ true followers thought back to this moment and were able to begin to grasp the deeper meaning. But for the Jews, Jesus’ true meaning was impenetrable.

He Had No Faith in Their Faith

And that’s what this whole section is really about – especially from 23-25 – about how people perceived Jesus, what they believed, and the depth and substance of that belief. It’s a sort of summary of what had happened in Jerusalem over the course of Passover, and acts as an introduction to the stories that will come next.

The disciples see the sign of water to wine and believe. The Jews see Jesus cleanse the temple and refuse to believe. But Jesus performs some more signs among the people and many of them believe. But then, if you notice the next story, Jesus meets with the Pharisee Nicodemus – perhaps one of the men who had challenged Him at the temple, but certainly one who knew what Jesus had done there. Nicodemus is given a long teaching about the importance of being “born again”, of rejecting everything he thinks he knows about religion and instead of being utterly changed from the inside out by the power of God, and throughout the gospel, we see Nicodemus slowly coming to faith (7:50; 19:39). Then, in chapter 4, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, who is also given a long dialogue about who Jesus really is, the “living water” (4:10) who offers “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14)  and she and many fellow townspeople believed in Jesus as “saviour of the world” (4:42).

We go from the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus believing in Jesus, to the Samaritan Woman believing in Jesus, to the final story in this section in John 4:46-54, about a Gentile Centurion in the service of Herod, coming to Jesus for a miracle, and then believing in Jesus.

Jews, Samaritans, and Romans. Religious experts, ignorant sinners, and desperate pagans. Men and women, young and old, teachers and wives and government workers, all meeting Jesus and believing.

That’s what makes this section in 2:23-25 such an important transition. Jesus is at the very beginning of His earthly ministry and is standing in Jerusalem at Passover and every type of person is there. Jews, gentiles, men, women, young, old, believers, unbelievers, religious, atheist, pagan, all there in Jerusalem with many witnessing His signs and “believing”.

But the undercurrent of this section is that we need to be very careful about how we read the word “believe”. The disciples believe Nicodemus believes, some ordinary Jews believe, the Samaritans believe, the Roman official believes. But what is the substance of that belief?

Do these Jews at the Passover, and all the others from then on, after witnessing the signs, believe that Jesus Christ is the true Messiah, the Son of God, the saviour of their souls who would have to die on a cross for their sins to be atoned for? Had they given their lives to Him? Was He their Lord and Saviour? Would they follow Him to the end?

Look at what it says,

“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (2:23-25).

There’s a bit of wordplay here in this section. It basically says that even though people entrusted themselves to Him, He didn’t entrust Himself to them. They believed in Jesus, but He didn’t believe in them. He had no faith in their faith.

Why? Because as God, as our creator, as One with divine omniscience, He knew exactly what was going on inside of people’s heads and hearts – and knew how the story ended. He knew the Jews that demanded a sign weren’t going to believe it even if they saw it. He knew that Nicodemus didn’t really need a rabbinical debate about what Jesus did at the temple, but needed to be born again through faith in Him. He knew that the Samaritan woman at the well didn’t just need water, but needed acceptance and compassion and conviction and hope – and when she tried to dodge Him confronting her sins and struggles, He didn’t fall for it. He knows people’s hearts and knows exactly how to clear away the smokescreen to get to their true needs.

Jesus isn’t fooled by us. He knows all our secrets, motives, reasons, and excuses. He knows how fickle we are and how easily we can deceive ourselves. He knows how squirmy we can be when confronted with our sin, or told to submit to His will, and knows how great we are at denial and self-deception. He wrote Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Not us! Only Jesus understands it.

Self-Deception

We should be very thankful for this. No one is better at lying to us than we are. Self-deception is a hallmark of what it means to be human. And couple that with our natural tendencies toward believing whatever we want to believe regardless of the truth and rejecting authority even if they’re right, and we’ve got a recipe for trouble.

Consider yourself for a moment, and how many times you have lied to yourself or winningly believed a lie because it’s easier. I googled examples of ways that we lie to ourselves and found a really interesting article on Psychology Today that outlined a few of them. See if any of these apply to you.

The first way that we lie to ourselves is to convince ourselves that “ignorance is bliss”. “Strategic ignorance” for the sake of not getting burdened with reality. Doing things like avoiding information sources that give differing opinions or refusing to study something too much because you’re worried you’ll learn something you don’t like. Do you do that? Only listen to news sources and podcasts you agree with? Only read books that tell you what you want to hear? Only hang around people that share your worldview? Have you ever refused to learn more about something, even something theological or mechanical or personal, because learning more means more responsibility, so you prefer not to know? “Don’t tell me how to add washer fluid to my car because then I’ll have to do it!”

The second was called “reality denial”. And it simply means rejecting information you don’t like so you can build a false sense of security. Someone gives you bad news and you just ignore it. An addict insisting they don’t have problem and can stop anytime. An abuser telling themselves that it’s the fault of the person their abusing. Ignoring your bank and credit card balance and heading to the store, hoping that the debit machine will work.

Another way we lie to ourselves is “overconfidence”, believing we are stronger than we really are – while another was the opposite, called “self-handicapping”, where we are afraid to see what we’re really capable of, or are afraid to fail, so we never really try.

Other ways were doing things like, excusing our own faults while judging others harshly for the same ones. Or “cherry-picking data” that supports our own preconceived beliefs. Another was our tendency towards “sour grapes” where we see something we want, but when we find out we can’t have it, say that it wasn’t probably that good after all.

The quote at the bottom of the article was really interesting. It said,

“Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from harsh reality…”

This was a secular article – but how much more should Christians, who know that “the heart is deceitful… and desperately sick”, understand our human tendency towards self-deception? And yet we keep falling for it. Take a moment to consider how many times you’ve lied to yourself, just this week!

Or if that’s too uncomfortable, consider how many times you’ve tried to convince someone else of the truth but they simply wouldn’t hear it. You could get the Bible, the dictionary, the encyclopedia, three peer-reviewed studies, and ten testimonies that all agree with what you’re saying – but if they don’t want to believe it, they just won’t. Instead, they react with argument, anger, rejection, running away. Why? They want to believe the lie because the truth is too inconvenient or difficult. They prefer the drug of self-deception. That’s human nature, and that’s what Jesus knew.

He knew that almost every single one of the people that claimed belief in Him, from the disciples who travelled with Him to the desperate Jews looking for a saviour from the Romans, to all the variety of gentiles, would reject Him in the end. Jesus’ could not count on them to carry Him through to the end of His mission. It was not He who needed them to surround Him with love and support and help – it was they who needed His love, support, and help. They were the walking dead, He is the life bringer. They are those trapped in darkness, He is the source of light. They were the ones who had fallen to temptation, He was the One who proved He never would. They were the blind fools, He was the only one with His eyes open, and who had the power to make them see. Jesus is the doctor, we are the sick. Jesus is the righteous one, we are the unrighteous. Jesus is the curse-breaker, we are the cursed. Jesus doesn’t need to believe in us – we need to believe in Jesus.

Conclusion

What conclusion can we draw from this section of scripture? I supposed it is twofold.

First, that we recognize our tendency towards self-deception, toward believing what we want to believe, toward rejecting truth because it’s difficult or requires us to humble ourselves and say we were wrong. If we can recognize that we are capable of being deceived, that not everything we think is right, that not all our feelings are accurate, that not everything we think about ourselves and others is true – we go a long way towards having a teachable spirit that God can infuse with truth and light. So long as we believe everything we think and feel is right we make ourselves an easy target for the enemy because He traffics in lies and is happy to tell us whatever we want to hear so we will remain steeped in sin and error. Then He can manipulate us into hurting ourselves and others – and we’ll think we’re right for doing it! Satan wants us to continue to believe lies because when we live in lies, we reject God – because God only speaks truth (John 17:17).

And second, once we humble ourselves to realize that we are easily deceived, that we need to pursue truth. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17,

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

He wants us steeped in truth because the more we know the truth, love the truth, and learn the truth, the more we will be free from evil and live in the presence of God.

This is why God’s word says things like, if you have something against someone, go and talk to them, and seek truth and reconciliation (Matt 5:23; 18:15-20). Satan wants us sitting at home concocting stories and having imaginary arguments. God says, “Go and seek the truth.”

This is why Jesus says in John 8:31–32,

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Keep reading my word, stay in it every day, study it, listen to it read and preached and taught, because then you won’t be deceived. Satan wants you to read a verse or two and then come up with your own ideas, your own interpretations, your own conclusions about God and His will. He wants you captive to guessing and uncertainty and confusion and fighting with others based on your confident ignorance. God wants you to know the truth, because ignorance and self-deception is a prison, and truth is the path to freedom. Doing this takes work and humility though…

This is why God says go to church and submit to those more mature than you – those who are more steeped in the truth. Consider what it says in Ephesians 4,

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:11-14)

We keep ourselves from being tossed around by lies by submitting to Christians that are more mature than us.

And this is why God warns us over and over not to trust our own feelings. says,

“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26)

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs. 3:5)

Turn to Romans 7:15–25 and see what the Apostle Paul, a godly man who loved Jesus, said.

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Jesus is Always Faithful (Even When We’re Not)

And so what is the ultimate conclusion – to realize our weakness, that God doesn’t need us, that Jesus doesn’t “count on us” or “believe in us”, but loves us anyway.

It should amaze us that Jesus knows the wickedness of our hearts and loves us anyway. When we are unfaithful, He is faithful. Consider the words of 2 Timothy 2:11–13,

“The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”

What an amazing saviour! That even when we are “faithless”, even when we have a momentary lapse in trusting Jesus, a momentary fall into temptation, Jesus doesn’t reject us. He remains faithful because He has so totally identified with us, has so completely saved us, has so totally changed us, that we become like Himself. He found us when we were lost, forgave us when we were enemies, and adopted us when we had completely rejected Him. That’s the miracle of the cross – our sin exchanged for His holiness, our imperfection exchanged for His imperfection, which has allowed us to become brothers and sisters to Christ and children of God. We never lose our salvation – not because we are so faithful – but because Jesus is faithful to us.

He’s faithful even though He knows what’s in our hearts. Even though we keep failing, keep falling, keep fighting, keep sinning, keep trying to wrestle power back from Him – He remains faithful to us anyway. That’s one, big reason that we love Jesus so much and try to live in the light of His truth. We are easily deceived, but He is not. And therefore, we need His light, His life, His word, His Spirit, His mind, to overtake our own so we can rightly perceive the truth and by that truth know Jesus and be set free.

The Greater Meanings of Jesus Turning Water to Wine (Gospel of John Series)

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Please turn to John 2:1–12 and let’s read it together.

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.”

The First Sign Ripples Out

This is the very first “sign” of the seven miraculous signs of the Gospel of John. John calls them “signs” because they are not meant to stand alone, but to point to something greater. Like a road sign that points to a city or a store, the miracles of Jesus aren’t singular events for one person at one time but are meant to be a big arrow pointing us to something special about Jesus, His mission, His character, and His person.

When you’re reading the Gospel of John it’s quite helpful to use these miracles as sort of chapter divisions. As I’ve said before, there are more ways to divide up the book because it’s such an intricate tapestry of stories and themes, but using the signs is perhaps the most straightforward. Let me tell you what I mean:

This first sign, the first miracle Jesus ever performed, was Jesus turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. It’s rich with symbolism. It is an inaugural miracle not only displaying God’s mercy to the people who ran out of wine but as a way for Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth and tell us something special about Himself.

Two key phrases to look at here are when Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” and at the end when it says Jesus “manifested his glory” and his “disciples believed”.

In the Gospel of John, the “hour” always refers to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and glorification when he would receive his true position and sit at God’s right hand. The hour where He accomplishes His greatest work in being an atoning death for all who believe, conquering death by resurrection, and then claiming victory in His ascension and giving of the Holy Spirit. But at this point in His ministry, especially since most people didn’t understand what the Messiah was really going to be like, it wasn’t the right time for Him to reveal Himself openly as Israel’s Messiah. He was telling His mother in no uncertain terms that her timeline was not His, that she didn’t have the right to demand things of Him, and that He was going about His heavenly Father’s business, not hers. Her response is to give control of the situation over to Him, “Do whatever He tells you.” and to step back.

After all, this was only the “third day” of His ministry. He’d gone about 10 Kilometers out of Nazareth, had just gotten the baton from John the Baptist, hadn’t gathered all the apostles yet, and had some things to do. But there He stands, His mother having requested help, the servants waiting for a command, the wedding party embarrassed… and He acts out of grace. But he takes that seemingly small miracle and makes it something huge. At that moment, by God’s appointment and His power, He uses that miracle to inaugurate His Kingdom in a very special way.

And that first sign ripples out all the way to chapter 4:42 – because in this first sign Jesus “manifested His glory” or “displayed” or “showed who He really is by demonstrating His sovereignty over the whole of the material universe and nature itself.” And that power, that demonstration, ripples out. Because Jesus didn’t just make wine – He showed people a “sign” of who He really is.

Wine is a powerful biblical symbol representing things like joy, happiness, conversion, and life itself. It was used in Jewish worship rituals and given as a sacrificial offering to God. It represented God’s covenant with Israel, which He would withhold for disobedience. It was served at times of celebration and to cheer hearts, and given to help the weak and sick as a source of healing and life.[1]

Israel at the time of Jesus was, in a sense, all out of wine and only had dirty water[2] left over. There was no celebration in the land because they were under great oppression from Rome and their religion had been almost thoroughly corrupted by the oppression of the Pharisees and the rest of the wicked Sanhedrin. For Israel, just like the wedding guests, the wine had run out, and all they were left with was dirty water. They needed a miracle.

And so, in this first miracle, Jesus inaugurates the His kingdom, declares his intention, and shows His power, by making wine. He is the wine-giver, the celebration maker, the life bringer, the healer of bodies and souls. But, in a way very typical of Jesus, this multidimensional, world-changing miracle was done in a very small place with very few people. He’s in the town of Cana, at a private party, and only a few disciples. It was a small inauguration but it rippled out.

Consider that Jesus’ next act was to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. From little Cana to big Jerusalem. Jesus has just inaugurated His Kingdom, turned dirty water into choice wine, and comes into the temple as a warrior prince, defending His father’s castle, demanding they remove the corruption from His kingdom. Just as He had miraculously turned a bunch of dirty washbasins into the best wine anyone had ever tasted, He would also miraculously remove the corruption of sin from people’s hearts and flood it with His own presence and power, so everyone could see what real prayer, real worship, real faith looks like. Just as He purified the water, so He would purify His People and their worship.

Then in chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher of Israel, and says that the only way people can be part of His newly inaugurated Kingdom is to be miraculously born again. The Pharisee thought it had to do with obedience and strictness to the law – and Jesus says that’s impossible – and that the change must be far more dramatic. More than simply going through religious motions, a person’s whole being must be radically transformed. He says, “The only way to please God, the only way to enter His Kingdom is if you are completely renewed, reborn, changed from within, born of water and the spirit.”

Just as Jesus turned ordinary water into the best of wine, miraculously overcoming the laws of nature, so He would use His power to cause people to be reborn from worldly beings into spiritual beings. He would make the impossible possible. Just as it’s impossible to convince people that dirty water is amazing wine, so it is impossible for a dirty, corrupt soul to please God. No matter how much you stir or heat or cool or add to that dirty water – it’s going to taste like dirty water. No matter how many good deeds or religious actions you do, no matter how many donations you make or volunteer hours you work, no matter how bad you feel about your wrong or how much you try to ignore it, you’ll never make your soul palatable to God. You need a miracle of transformation.

And so, just like Jesus made dirty water into the best wine, so He takes dead spirits and corrupt souls, and makes them alive, and good, and holy, and acceptable to God. He takes sinners and makes them saints. How? It says at the end of the story with Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that any of the cursed people who looked upon it would be saved from the poisonous snakes, so anyone who would look upon the Christ who was lifted on the cross for their salvation would be saved. They would turn from water to wine the moment they looked to Christ for salvation.

Then, in 3:22-36 the miracle ripples from Cana to Jerusalem to all of Judea. Jesus is on the Judean countryside John the Baptist declares Jesus to be the source of eternal life. Just as the wine was used for ceremony and sacrifice, celebration and healing, and became a symbol of a good and blessed life – so Jesus would show Himself to be the perfected source of sacrifice, celebration, healing, and eternal life. Jesus was the life-giving wine-maker.

Then the ripples of the first miracle move out further, from the town of Cana in Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, to the whole of the province of Judea, to world of unbelievers as represented by Samaria. And the similarities of the story of the woman at the well and the wedding in Cana are too obvious not to be a thematic echo of the first story.

Consider that both stories start with needing a drink and have water in jars. The first takes place at a wedding, the other is about a woman with many weddings and was currently living with someone out of wedlock. For those at the wedding Jesus provides wine, showing He is the life-giver, and for the Samaritan woman who came for water at the well, He says He is Living Water. At the wedding, He says, “My hour has not yet come” and then inaugurates His Kingdom but to the woman at the well He fully declares Himself to be the Messiah. At the wedding the disciples see the sign and believe, at the well, the Samaritans hear the gospel and believe.

The first four chapters of the Gospel of John all point back to that first sign, and use story after story, interaction after interaction to show Jesus declaring Himself to be the saviour, showing His power, inaugurating the coming of the kingdom of God, and then spreading that kingdom from a few people to the city, to the province, to the world. From insiders, like the few disciples and Jesus’ mother, to the outsiders like Pharisees and Samaritans.

So many people get caught up in arguments about what kind of wine Jesus made and how alcoholic it was (or wasn’t). They get caught up on Jesus calling his mother “woman” and wondering if Jesus was being rude to her or not – He wasn’t.  They get caught up on these minor details that they completely miss what the “sign”, the “miracle” was pointing to! That Jesus is the King, Healer, Life-Giver, Reason for Celebration, and Lamb of God who’s precious blood will be poured out as a sacrifice for people who wouldn’t understand, consumed by people who don’t deserve it, just as that unique and amazing wine Jesus made was poured out to the unsuspecting wedding guests in an act of grace.

Conclusion

There are two points I would like to pull out of this story as an application today.

The first is that things like this are why you need to study your bible. Not just read it devotionally, not just pick out favourite verses, not stick in your favourite books, but to actually study your Bibles. Stories like this one are like onions where you see the first layer and think you understand what’s going on – but then as you connect the story to the Old Testament, the sacrificial system, the imagery of wine, the timing of the story, the locations within, the author’s intention and themes – then the story really comes to life and starts to teach you about Jesus.

It’s one thing to know that Jesus is gracious enough to provide wine to people who needed it, it’s another to understand that this whole section is about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the promise of Eternal Life, of the picture of Jesus as not only the wine-giver but the sacrificial wine itself. Of watching that miracle rippling out from town to city to province to the world, and thereby seeing that Jesus’ love isn’t merely for the individuals at the party, or the few disciples that saw and believed – but his love extends to those who do not understand what He did, who drank the best wine not knowing where it came from. It extends to the Jewish people who rejected Him, to the Pharisees who kept challenging Him and made themselves His enemies, and then that to every other person in the world.

He gave His new-wine, His blood, His gift of eternal life to ordinary tradesmen, to his neighbours and friends, to the self-righteous hypocrites, the social rejects, the ones who worship wrong and reject His laws, those steeped in sexual-immorality, the abused, the anguished, the ones who don’t even understand how God or love or sacrifice works. He gives that wine, that grace, that love, that living water, the fruits of His sacrifice, to everyone.

But you can’t see all that unless you study!

Second, I want you to notice that this story speaks to us today.

Consider how this story should inspire us to celebrate our connection to Jesus and His love for us. Dirty water to wine, Repentance to Faith, being confronted by our sin and then offered forgiveness and eternal life from the hands of Jesus, should cause us to celebrate. When life is dark or difficult, the knowledge being part of Jesus’ Kingdom because He chose you from the beginning of time, is something to be thankful for. Knowing He is victorious and has destroyed death is always and ever something to motivate worship. When you are down or sad or afraid, take a minute to consider this story from John.

Jesus loved the disciples enough to show them His glory. Has Jesus shown you His glory? In your life have you witnessed His power?

Jesus loved the wedding guests by providing that which they did not deserve at a quality that astounded them. Have you seen Jesus’ hand of provision giving you undeserved grace? Have you ever gotten something from Jesus that was of such quality, such a gift, that you know it was a miracle? During difficult times, it’s helpful to recall the list of things Jesus has done in the past – for His people and for you.

Jesus loved His mother by reminding her that everything happens by His will and on His timeline. Has Jesus ever set you straight and told you to be patient? Have you ever jumped the gun on His will and ended up regretting it? Sometimes the love of God is shown in making us wait, or sternly reminding us to trust His will.

Jesus loved the Pharisee who kept making excuses and arguments by telling Him the truth and refusing to compromise. Jesus is the way, truth, and life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. The Pharisee made excuses, and Jesus told him there was only one way. Have you been trying to argue with Jesus about how you should get into heaven, how He should operate in this world, how the church should go, how your future should be? Is He loving you right now by reminding you that He is Lord, He is the Way, He is the wine-maker, the life-giver, the living-water, and you are not? Is He showing you love by demanding you submit to Him and Him alone?

Jesus loved the woman at the well by – well, everything. He spoke to her when custom said not to. He indulged her arguments. He gently confronted her sin. He acknowledged her pain and fear. He worked with her wrong religious beliefs. He gave her forgiveness when, maybe, the whole community, and certainly a Jewish rabbi, wouldn’t. Then He used her, the social reject, as His vessel to carry his Living Water, His New Wine, to a whole bunch of people from her neighbourhood, changing their lives forever. All in the span of a few hours!

Has Jesus been confronting your sin, your wrong beliefs, your pain, and telling you to submit to Him as saviour and Lord, to forgive and be forgiven? Has He been gently reminding you of His love, entering into your pain, sitting through your arguments, telling you the truth, and then inviting you to give it all to Him? Has He shown you grace and is now offering to use you, one who went from dirty water to new wine, to help carry His gospel to your friends?

There’s a lot going on in this story – but it doesn’t just stay on the page. How is Jesus using this story in your life today? He’s still the wine-maker, the living-water, the grace-giver, for you today. My prayer is that you would discover Him in His word, in your prayers, and in your service to His Kingdom.

 

[1] https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/3831/Wine-Symbolism-of-.htm

Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Cana. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 405). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

[2] https://drivethruhistoryadventures.com/stone-jars-ritual-washing-water-wine-miracle-cana/

What Do You Seek? (Gospel of John Series)

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“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘’You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).’

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (John 1:35–51)

We’re back into our study of the Gospel of John and have come to a transitional moment where Jesus begins calling his first disciples. It will help you to recall what we have studied already because we’re going to keep noticing important themes throughout the whole book.

What Are You Seeking?

John is obviously fast-forwarding the story a bit, but there is some really key phrasing to see here. For example, notice the theme of “seeing”. The whole passage starts with Jesus walking by John the Baptist and him saying, “Behold!” to his disciples. “Behold!” is the same word as “See!” The two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John, leave to go walk behind Jesus.

Jesus hears them coming behind Him, turns and says His first words of the whole book, “What are you seeking?” or “What are you looking for?”, another reference to “seeing” used all over the New Testament for people who are looking for something or someone.

Considering how important the themes of light and seeing are in the Gospel of John, we shouldn’t pass by this too quickly – especially since that question and theme dominates the rest of this section.

John and Andrew dodge the question by saying, “Where are you staying?”, meaning “Our rabbi just told us that you’re the Lamb of God, one like the Passover lamb, through whom deliverance from death will come by the shedding of their own blood. And we would like to spend some time with you.”

Jesus’ answer? “Come and you will see.” Now, I promise that when Jesus, the One who created light, the One called the light of the world, says, “Come and you will see.” He doesn’t just mean “Come and see where I’m staying tonight.” He means, “I’m about to open your eyes wider than you could ever imagine.” And then, He does.

And that light shines from John and Andrew to Peter. What was Jesus’ first question? “What are you seeking?” What does Andrew say to Peter? “We have found the Messiah?” Can’t find something without seeing it, right? Seeking and finding. John says, “See!”, then Jesus says, “Come and you’ll see!” and then they say, “Peter, come and see!”

Now, look at verse 43 and we see something interesting. Who does the “finding” now? Jesus does. John and Andrew “found” Jesus. Jesus “found” Philip. Jesus looks for Philip, finds Him, and calls Him.

Excurses: Varied Responses

Pause for a moment and marvel at the different responses to Jesus here. First, notice that Jesus is always the first one to say or do something, but the responses are so varied!

John and Andrew leave their rabbi and Jesus turns and asks them a direct question, but they respond by wanting to spend the whole day talking to him. Jesus is presented to them as the “Lamb of God”,  the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, they call him “rabbi” or “teacher” and then spend the day working that out. It seems studious, careful, theological.

Jesus and Peter are different. Peter is introduced to Jesus as “The Messiah”, the “Christ” the “Anointed One”, the Great King and Saviour in the Line of David. Jesus is still the first one to speak, but it’s bold and direct – like a King. Bold and direct like Peter. “This is who you are, Peter. And this is who I will make you.” Peter’s response is to obey and follow, seemingly without a word.

Everyone up to this point is either sent or brought to Jesus, but Philip is different. Jesus seeks Philip out. How does Philip describe Jesus? He uses biblical language, describing Him as the one the scriptures spoke about, but then uses Jesus’ name and address! “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip, at this point, sees Jesus as the man sent by God. That definition will very soon be changed to see Jesus not merely as a man sent by God, but as God become man.

And now, in verse 44 we see another, completely different response to Jesus. What’s really neat here, if you look at verse 45, is that when Philip goes to Nathanael he uses the words “we have found” meaning that John, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael might have been close friends. Nathanael probably already knew who the “we” was; studious Philip, passionate John and Andrew, headstrong Peter. They had all had some kind of radical experience over the past day or two and wanted to share it with Nathanael. But Nathanael wasn’t an easy sell.

The whole crowd is headed off to follow Jesus, but Nathanael is a sceptic. He knows his Bible. Nathanael being “under the fig tree” may be pointing to the custom where scholars and rabbis would study under vines, fig and olive trees. It meant that Nathanael, a serious student of the Bible, had probably been studying when Philip found him, knew his stuff, and was absolutely committed to God’s word. But here’s the thing. He knows what Moses and the prophets wrote, and there’s nothing in there about Nazareth. Plus, he lived just a few miles away and knew it wasn’t a nice place. The Roman army garrison that lived there gave the town a pretty poor reputation for immorality and lack of commitment to God. Nathanael did the mental math and realized that there is zero chance he will follow any Nazarene as the Messiah.

What does Philip respond with? “Come and see.” There’s our theme again. There was zero point in Philip arguing with Nathanael. He’d probably lose anyway! So Philip says the only thing that would work: “Hey man, you’re smart enough to decide for yourself, but you gotta come and see. I’m convinced. John, Andrew, Peter are convinced. Just come and meet Jesus and you’ll see what we see.”

And to his credit, despite thinking he knows better, despite his prejudice against Nazarites, despite all the scriptures and stereotypes flowing through his mind that said, “This is dumb. Your friends are dumb. I’m not dumb.” he followed his friend anyway. Imagine if he’d been stubborn, stuck to his doubts, thought himself smarter than everyone else, and just stayed by the fig tree. He would have missed Jesus! But, for whatever reason – out of love and trust for his friends, or curiosity, boredom, or to save his friends from throwing their lives away, he went. He would go and “see” for himself.

He went and what does Jesus say? “Behold!” There’s that word again! John the Baptist said it of Jesus, now Jesus says it of Nathanael, “See! Look! Behold! A true Israelite, a man who loves the Word of God, a man in whom there is no deceit, no guile, no trickery, nothing shady. He’s 100% a straight-shooter. This man only cares about one thing: truth. You can’t fool this guy.” It’s an even more complex compliment, because, if you recall where the name “Israelite” comes from, you’ll remember that it was when Jacob, the usurper, the trickster, the one who got his way through deceit and guile and trickery, was wrestling with God. Jacob means “one who wrestles or struggles with God”. That’s how all of Israel related to God. They questioned Him, debated Him, dialogued with Him, tested Him, even aggressively confronted Him. And when they obeyed God, it was with ferocious obedience. [1]

That’s probably the kind of man Nathanael was. He didn’t just accept anyone’s word, even God’s. Instead, he wrestled and studied and made sure that when he believed something it was 100% true – and no one, like no one, was would have an easy time change his mind.

That sort of personality is a double-edged sword. How does one breakthrough to that kind of person? With a hard that stiff, eyes that focused, and a mind that skeptical, what can God do to breakthrough? Argument won’t help. No amount of conversation is going to change Nathanael’s mind at this point. How is Jesus going to shine light into Nathanael’s soul? Nathanael doesn’t need to hear something about the light – he needs to “see” it.

So Jesus performs a miracle of omniscience. He identifies himself as Messiah by displaying supernatural knowledge. Super-natural knowledge. Knowing things beyond the ability of normal, natural people. And more specifically, not just super-natural knowledge – super-Nathanael knowledge. Jesus demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that He knows more, sees more, and understand more than Nathanael ever has or could. And Nathanael gets it immediately!

Evidence confirmed, mind changed, allegiance given, 100% absolute commitment to Jesus as his new “Rabbi”, the “Son of God” and His “King”. He says, in effect – “You are now my teacher, my mind is yours to shape. You are now my saviour, my destiny is yours to control. You are now my King, my life is yours to command.”

And then, in an act of grace, Jesus says, “If you’re willing to believe because of one piece of evidence – just wait until you see the rest!” And tells Nathanael, the “true Israelite”, to recall another story about Jacob, often called Jacob’s Ladder – the vision of God’s heaven being connected to Jacob’s earth. Jesus was saying, “Nathanael, you call me Rabbi, and Son of God, and King, but there’s so much more. I’m Jacob’s Ladder, the one who connects heaven and earth – I’m the one you’ve been looking for, Nathanael. The one who will connect everything that you’ve been studying, and thinking, and pondering, and wondering, and wrestling with for your whole life with, together.

Conclusion

There are four things in this story that I want to connect together as some practical applications today.

First, I want you to go back to the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “What are you seeking?” This is the single most important question you can ask yourself in life and when talking about Jesus. What do you want out of life? What is the most important thing for you right now? What do you desire? Do you know what that is? I promise you it’s not money, or fame, or education, or food, or a mate, or a better job, or more stuff. All that is merely a means to an end. You might think you want freedom from pain, money in the bank, a healthy body, lots of friends, a perfect spouse, and lots of fun – but you don’t. Those are all too small. We’ve been talking about this over Christmas, but it applies today too. What you really want is love, hope, peace, and joy. You want to know you are loved no matter where you are or what you’ve done. You want to have the hope that no matter what happens in this world, it will all work out for your good. You want to have your life built on a foundation so strong that no matter what storms occur outside of you, you will not be shaken, but will always be at peace. And you want to know a joy that can never be taken away. Joy that goes beyond feelings, beyond fun, beyond momentary stimuli, beyond distraction, but comes from a spring deep, deep down in your heart that never seems to stop – even when things around you feel sad. Joy that destroys feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. That’s what you really want.

And so, when you come to Jesus, He’s going to ask you, “What are you seeking?” and if the answer is, “More money. No sickness. Something more interesting to do. A place where I can feel important. Some religion that makes me think I’m better than others because I’ve earned God’s love. To keep everyone I love happy and safe.” He’ll simply say, “No.”

But if you want True Love, Abiding Hope, Peace that passes understanding, and Joy that never fails – then come to Jesus and He will say, “That’s what I offer. But you must submit to me giving it to you the way that I deem best. Let me be your Saviour, Rabbi, God, Master, Lord, and King, and I will give you what your heart truly desires.”

The second thing I want you to notice is that everyone who comes to Jesus has the same story but different. Jesus always approaches first, confronts the person with their need, and presents Himself as the solution to that great need – but the responses and story that is written from that point are often very unique and special. Jesus is a real person, someone you can get to know, who listens and speaks and relates to us not only on a corporate level as humanity but on an individual level too. Everyone connects to Jesus in similar and different ways, not because we get to make up our own version of Jesus, but because Jesus meets us where we’re at and treats us like real, unique, special, people.

I personally resonate with Nathanael’s story. In fact, John 1:47 has made itself my “life-verse” because I want to be a man within whom there is no guile, no trickery, no deceit. If you know me, then you’ll know I don’t do secrets and sneakiness well. I have a skeptical mind that tends toward lots of arguments and trying to see lots of sides to things – and I can get trapped in arguments with myself, with God, with others, all in the pursuit of clarity and truth. I love truth, hate lies, and feel like I’m not easily swayed by opinions. Jesus meets me in a very Nathanael way: I study His Word, wrestle with obedience and understanding, and then Jesus shows His power and authority in my life with unquestioning clarity, proving Himself to know more than me.

And I’m sure many here have a similar relationship with Jesus and maybe relate to one of these stories yourself. Everyone does, and that’s ok. I shouldn’t measure your relationship with God by my standards, and vice-versa. Instead, I should share my special relationship with God with you, and you with me, so that we can see an even larger picture of who Jesus is.

Third, I want you to notice that no one really finds Jesus. Sometimes people use the phrase “I found Jesus.”, but it is always Jesus who found them first. Jesus is never lost. He’s the shepherd who finds the sheep. In Luke 19 he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is never lost. He is the way, the truth and the life, and is the only way to be found. He invites you to seek Him and says anyone who does seek will find (Matthew 7:7-8), but it’s not like He’s hiding. He’s there, ready, available, open, willing to listen at all times. If you feel a tug on your heart, He’s found you. The only question is, are you willing to be found or do you want to stay lost?

And fourth, I want you to notice that a living relationship with Jesus Christ is one that naturally leads to being shared. Being excited about Jesus, who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing, what He’s been teaching you, how you’ve been learning, and all the things He is doing through you should naturally lead us to be sharing it with people who either don’t know Him or who have forgotten.

I’ve used this example many times. If you find a great product, like a super good razer that shaves like nothing else, or a restaurant with amazing food, or a book that really impacted your life, or a new habit that has helped you sleep better than ever – it is your natural inclination to share it because you want the people you care about to have a better life too. You want them to celebrate what you’ve found, and you want them to experience the same thing.

Why is our relationship with Jesus any different? It’s because there is no spiritual enemy constantly telling us to be afraid to share how great our razer. I’m not saying that we share Jesus as the answer to everyone’s problems – because we all know that committing to Jesus doesn’t mean everything in this world gets easier, in fact, it often gets harder. I’m saying that once we’ve experienced the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy that Jesus has given us – it should be natural for us to tell people where it came from. But Satan hates that, and so he makes us afraid to speak, afraid to share, afraid we’ll lose a friend, afraid we’ll embarrass ourselves, afraid we won’t use the right words, afraid we won’t be able to answer all the questions…

But that’s the thing. There is no right way to share. We just share our own stories in our own way. And Jesus has promised that when we speak He’ll be there to help us. And if we come up against a Nathanael we don’t need to argue. We just simply say, “Hey, why don’t you ‘come and see’? See my life before and after Jesus. Come see some people I know who have met Jesus. And, why not just talk to Jesus yourself? Ask Him to show Himself to you because you want to meet Him. He’s no performing monkey who is going to do magic tricks for you – but if you want to meet the real Jesus, just ask Him. He’ll respond. Talk to me, come to church, and then talk to Jesus yourself. Just be ready because this is no small thing to do.”

Let Jesus do the hard work of shining the light in their dark souls and converting them. All you need to do is introduce them to Him by sharing what He’s done in your life and then inviting them to “come and see”.

[1] (Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, pp. 147–148). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)

Anger, Personality, Gifts, Limitations, Gossip & an Apology

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I’ve been encouraged by the Church Board, the Leadership Team, to take some time to clear the air and confront an issue that has been percolating in the background of the church for some time now. It’s a difficult issue to pin down though, which makes it difficult to address. The Board, for the last month or so, has taken the time to come to many of you to try to root out what seems to be troubling the church. They’ve heard a lot of things, but after listening to them it seems to come down to this: “Pastor Al is angry with the congregation and has offended people in that anger.”

I’ve asked on multiple occasions – in the pulpit, to the board, and to individuals in the church – if anyone has any “personal offence” with me that I need to pursue reconciliation for, but I’ve been told that no one has accused me of anything personal. The issue is a corporate one and so I want to address it corporately. So, I want to spend a little time today presenting a couple biblical points and then address the issue.

Anger in the Bible

First, I think it’s important that we briefly talk about the Biblical view of anger. The first thing to know is that anger is not a sin. God gets angry. “Wrath” and “Anger” are part of God’s personality. God was angry when the Israelites fashioned and worshiped a golden calf right at the foot of Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:8 says that Israel

“provoked the Lord to wrath, and the Lord was so angry with [them] that He would have destroyed [them].”

And let me read Mark 3:1-6. It says,

“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come here.’ And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Why was Jesus angry? Because when he asked this painfully obvious question to the leaders and teachers of Israel, their hearts were so hard that they refused to answer. Of course the answer is “to do good”, right? But their hearts were so hard, their stubbornness so complete, that they wouldn’t even acknowledge that the man had a need and be able to rejoice in His healing. After asking the question, His eyes swept the room and he saw hypocrite after hypocrite, men who had already decided to “destroy Him” even though He had only done “good”.

But that anger was tempered by grief. We see divine wrath mixed with divine love. Anger is not a sin, but what we do with our anger can be sinful. Paul says in Ephesians 4:26-27,

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.”

In other words, anger is not a sin. There are things that we should be angry about – but anger out of God’s control can lead to sin. Unrighteous anger, misplaced anger, anger that sits and festers for a long time, or even doing wrong things because of something you should be angry at, can give an opportunity for the devil to cause a lot of grief. That’s why Paul says, “be angry and do not sin” and then follows it up quickly with “deal with that anger quickly” because anger that sits and festers can be like a caustic acid to the soul, eating away, and giving the devil a foothold.

This is why Jesus takes anger very seriously. Turn to Matthew 5:21-26. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says this,

“‘You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.’”

Jesus uses a common form of poetic exaggeration by stacking three similar phrases on top of one another to shows how serious this issue is. But what’s going on here? Some people think Jesus is saying that being angry is the same as murdering someone. That anger condemns people to hell. But clearly, if God gets angry and Jesus gets angry, that’s not what it means.

So, what Jesus is saying here, and what we see a lot of other places in scripture is that strong emotions, like anger, will show what’s really going on inside someone. (Pro 29:22, Gal 5:20; Eph 4:31). As he says in Matthew 12:24, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

What Jesus talking about here is someone whose anger is out of control. Their anger leads them to hatred and insults and the desire to harm the other person in some way. In other words, they may not physically stab the person, but their hearts are full of terrible thoughts about them and bad things they wish they could do to them. They may never say it out loud, but they harm and murder people in their heart and God see that as the same thing.

But Jesus goes even farther to show that anger doesn’t just stay in the heart. It leads to insults and division and accusations and court and all kinds of terrible things.

And so Jesus teaches us how to deal with this kind of anger. If you know someone has something against you, if you know they are angry with you – or if you are angry with them and have something festering in your heart – Jesus commands us,

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

I want you to consider for a moment how serious that is. Jesus is looking at a sea of Jewish people who have been commanded by God’s Law to bring gifts and sacrifices to God’s temple, to the altar, as an act of worship, of obedience, and so they can be reconciled to Him. Jesus says, “God doesn’t want your worship, your sacrifices, your religious actions, your songs, your tithes and offerings, or anything else from you – until your heart is right with your brothers and sisters of the faith.” This echos throughout scripture, in Old Testament and New. God is more interested in what is going on in our hearts than in our religious activities. There are a tonne of places in the Old Testament where God rejects people’s offerings because there are human relationship problems (Isaiah 1; Proverbs 15:8; Jeremiah 6:20; Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 66:3; 1 Samuel 15:22).

Consider Micah 6:6-8, for example,

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

God’s priority is not merely our relationship with Him. God doesn’t want a bunch of religious activity. God cares deeply about our relationships with those around us. And if there’s something wrong with our horizontal relationships, then our vertical relationship is affected too. And so Jesus says, “Go quickly, get right with whoever you must, and then come to worship.”

Seeking Reconciliation

This has been part of the issue with me of late. I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about people being upset with me, but it’s all very unspecific. I don’t know who is offended, so I can’t go to them. And I don’t know the actual offence, so I don’t know what to do to make it right.

I know in my heart that I am not angry with any of you. I promise you I’m not. I’ve been frustrated at times, even hurt, but I’m not angry. And certainly, not anything like Jesus is describing here. I deeply want you to understand that I love this church, only want the best for you, and want to be in a good relationship with you.

You can ask the members of the board how many times I’ve asked who has a problem, what the specific issues or accusations are, and have promised to make myself available anytime for anyone so that I can be reconciled with them. I take Jesus’ words very seriously and try to keep very short accounts with people. I know I’m not perfect and want to know what I need to do in order to be a better Christian and pastor. It is terrifying to me that God would refuse my worship and withhold His blessing from me or this church because I haven’t pursued reconciliation with someone. It’s a very serious thing, and I take it seriously.

When I was a younger pastor I didn’t do well at this. If I heard someone had a problem, I would often just wait to see what would happen. I’d let them come to me. I’d hope the problem would just go away or resolve itself. But it usually didn’t. So I’ve learned that if I hear anything about anyone having any kind of issue to just obey Jesus, make the call, set up a meeting, and go and talk to them. And if they’re not comfortable with just me, I ask if they want someone else to be there. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun, but it’s what Jesus wants, and it’s what’s best for the church and my soul.

But this current issue, this question about me being angry at the congregation, has not revealed any individuals I can deal with. I’ve begged the Board for names so I can come and talk about what has happened, to ask forgiveness if necessary, to fix it if I can, and to seek reconciliation so we can move on. But there have been no names. And so, I’ve been told to take some time today to talk about it. The idea was for me to tack a message on to the end of a sermon, but I didn’t feel right about that, so that’s what you’re getting today.

Gifts, Limitations, and Personality

But before I do get personal, there is one more place I want you to turn. Please open up with me to Romans 12:1-8 and let’s read together.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

This section is about our spiritual giftedness and our human limitations. The right response to all the grace that God has given to us, especially the sacrifice of His Son, is to return to give him our whole lives as an act of worship. Not a one-time, big sacrifice, but just as God gives us grace every day in every way, we return worship to Him every day in every way.

But we live in a sinful world and that’s going to be difficult. The world is going to try to reclaim us, to manipulate us, to conform us back to itself, to draw us back into sin with a myriad of temptations. How do we combat those temptations? By “testing” to “discern” the will of God to see what is “good and acceptable and perfect” to Him – and consequently, best for us.

The word “testing” there is an important one, because it is an active word. It means to actively seek out the will of God in prayer and study, actively pursue the will of God in training and counsel, actively obey the will of God in service and obedience.

Which is why the first word in verse 3 is “for”. It’s a transition word meant to show us what a Christian community will look like when it is actively seeking, testing, discerning the will of God, so they can make their whole lives an act of spiritual worship. What does that look like?

There are three things that a Christian needs to do in order to actively participate in seeking God’s will and worship. First, in verse 3, we see we need to have humility. Second, in verse 4-5, we need to recognize our function. And third, in verse 6, we need to do what God designed us to do.

Notice verse 3. It says,

“I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

In other words, no one person has everything a church needs. No pastor, no teacher, no missionary, no singer, no evangelist, no matter how talented, is an island to themselves. No one has all the spiritual gifts. No one is all talented. No one has enough resources. No one is wise enough. No one is perfect. Part of having “sober judgement” about yourself and others is knowing that everyone has limitations. Even in the arena of “faith”. Some people have strong faith, others have weak faith (Rom 14:1-15:3). The first point here is to remember that you and I, as individuals, have God-given flaws and weaknesses – and so does everyone else. Therefore we need to help one another and cut each other some slack.

Which leads to verses 4-5,

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”

We are told here that the body of Christ, meaning individual churches and the global church, is made up of individuals who “do not have the same function” but are all important. God saves us unto Himself, and then gives us a new Christian family called the church, and then gifts us to serve our new family, and says that by serving them we are serving Him. That’s what Jesus says over and over, right (Matt. 10:40; 25:31-46)? You, if you are saved, regardless of your level of maturity, have a special place in service to the church.

And then third, in verse 6, we are told,

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…”

We are not saved by our good works, but we are saved unto good works that God expects us to do (Eph 2:10). And most of those good works are meant to be done for the church. That’s why there are so many “one anothers” in scripture.

So what do we see here? That God saves us, God gives us gifts, God gives us limitations, God designs what our function in the body of Christ will be, and then God tells us to use them. And that use is limited to our function.

It says that if God has given you the gift of prophecy, meaning that you are one who preaches the word of God, then do that at whatever level the Holy Spirit is working in you – but nothing more than that in an attempt to impress people or look clever. Just tell them what God has said in whatever “proportion” God gives you.

But not everyone is a preacher. Some have the gift of service and they are meant to find a ministry and serve in it. Servants don’t lead the ministry, and they’re not supposed to volunteer for all the ministries, but are meant to humbly serve in whatever capacity you can.

If God has gifted you to be a teacher (and teaching and preaching are different in scripture), then you ought to be teaching people about God and His Word. If you are “one who exhorts”, meaning you are specially gifted to encourage and spur believers on to living godly lives, then you’d better be doing that because you can do it like no one else – and your exhortations will be spiritually empowered to have an effect like no one else. If God has gifted you with the ability to make money and gather material wealth, then you ought to be using it to help people in need and further God’s kingdom through generous giving. If you’re a gifted leader, do so with zeal. If you’re especially gifted to be merciful, meaning you have the heart of the Good Samaritan, a Christian social worker, caring for the sick, dying, or imprisoned – then go do so with cheerfulness, because you are being sent as a light to a dark place.

What I want you to notice here is that not only are we all called to different forms of service but that that we are not all meant to serve the same way. God wants us to do what we’re called to do, not what He called someone else to do.

Consider the contrast between the person gifted with mercy and the one gifted with generosity. The merciful person is usually a volunteer or working way too many hours, for a lower wage than they deserve, in a very difficult job that no one else wants. But they are glad to be there to bring mercy to those who need it. Meanwhile, the generous person is usually busy at work, making money, diversifying their portfolio, maybe even missing some services and unable to volunteer much because they are so financially successful.

Part of what is being said here is that we shouldn’t be guilt-tripping the merciful person into giving up their little bit of wage for the sake of their mission – nor should the merciful person feel bad for not being able to contribute more. That’s the generous person’s job. And conversely, we should be guilt-tripping the generous person into giving up making money so they can volunteer more. Nor should they feel guilty about being able to make money. We should be thankful that God gave them to the church so the money they make can financially sustain the work of the merciful person. It’s teamwork. That’s how the body of Christ works.

Conclusion

Which brings me to my conclusion, and the thing I’ve been building to for this whole message. I needed you to hear what the scriptures say before you heard what I say because I hope that in hearing both you will hear my heart.

I want you to know that when I hear reports that people believe that I am angry with you that it makes me sad. Not because of the accusation, but because it means that I have polluted the church and the preaching of God’s word with my own sin.

A few weeks ago I stepped to the side of the pulpit and gave a five-minute chastisement about not coming to Bible study. I’ve gone back and listened to it again and though I believe all the words were right, and I believe my motives were good, it seems that my personality, my countenance, and whatever baggage is in my heart clouded the message, caused some of you offence, and made you to think I’m angry with you.

I said last week that “A servant is just a delivery system for someone else’s greatness. Their whole job is simply not to forget it, drop it, or change it.” and I cannot escape the fact that in my delivery I dropped and changed the message. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. But my sinful nature came through, my personal junk garbled up the message, and I offended some of you with how I spoke. Not necessarily what I said, but how I spoke.

Ephesians 4:15 says to “speak the truth in love”. Colossians 3:12–14 says,

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

I missed the mark on these. I was not loving enough, compassionate enough, kind enough, or patient enough – and I want to ask you for forgiveness. Please forgive me for not being more careful with my words. If I had a do-over would I say it again? Maybe. But I would take more time to pray about it, study about it, write it down, and not speak off the cuff. You all deserve better than that and I’m very sorry that my personality and sin clouded and marred what God wanted to say.

I also want to ask you for your patience and to recognize my limitations, as I will try to be patient with you and recognize yours. I told you last week that I know who I am. I’m the prophet and teacher that Romans 12 is talking about, and that means I have certain gifts, but it also means I have a lot of weaknesses. I don’t say this to make an excuse for bad behaviour, I simply ask you to realize that I have personality quirks and flaws just like anyone. I’ve been working on them for a long time, but they still come up.

I’m not ashamed of my personality. God gave it to me from my genetics, parents, and experiences. To be ashamed of who God made me is a sin. However, I am ashamed when my personality flaws, the other edge of the double-edged sword that is personality, corrupt my ministry or hurt the people I care about. I’m sure you know what I mean. Our personality strengths are also our greatest weaknesses.

One quote I read this week, from an 18th-century missionary said,

“Every man is unique, both in mind and experience. Every man, therefore, has his own way: and is natural and graceful only in that way. But it is a great error to think there is no danger peculiar to him. Every man has his peculiar danger, as well as his peculiar forte. A wise man will remember this, and guard.” (Josiah Pratt)

And so my request to you is fourfold – and these are things I will try to do for you as well – and hope that you will do for everyone. I’m sure these are things that all of us have had to ask for at one time or another:

First, please, as I’ve said, forgive me.

Second, please, bear with me. Ephesians 4:2–3 says we should be

“…bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

I’m still a work in progress and always will be. I hope that you will “bear with” my weaknesses, seeking to understand me as an individual, as I try to “bear with” your weaknesses trying to understand the unique person God created you to be.

And third, please don’t listen to or spread gossip about me, as I also promise not to listen to or spread gossip about you.

There have apparently been some very slippery, slimy, malicious things shared about me through private conversations and e-mail about me – but none of them are being brought to me. It’s all behind the scenes stuff that does not honour or obey God’s word.

When you hear these things, consider these scriptures:

  • James 1:26, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
  • Proverbs 18:17, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
  • Proverbs 16:28, “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.”
  • Proverbs 26:20-22, “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.”

If you hear someone talking about me, or anyone else for that matter, don’t treat it like a “choice morsel”, but instead say, “Have you talked to them about this?” Realize that Satan is working hard to divide our church and he’s a very sneaky, slippery foe. If you have any specific issues or accusations against me, you need to bring them to me directly or to Jason Proud. How can I grow more Christlike and work on my problems – or pursue reconciliation – if people don’t come to me? I promise I will do whatever I can to either explain or ask forgiveness and make things right.

 

Why Loneliness Hurts So Much

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“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

This is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is lamenting, or complaining, that he is alone. He feels forgotten. That even God is hiding on him. He’s been attacked by his enemies, has run away in defeat, and is now left alone with only his own resources to work with and only his own terrible, inner thoughts as company. And, it seems, he’s been there for a while. It feels like he’s been forgotten “forever”. (Psalm 13)

Loneliness at Christmas

There are a lot of people these days who know how this psalmist feels. Christmas is only a few days away and a lot of people are in the full swing of the holiday season. Trees and decorations are all up, the radio is playing holiday music, the TV is playing Christmas movies, the Nativity Play is tonight, Christmas Eve service is around the corner. It’s at this time of year you get to ask people the very weird question, “How many turkey dinners have you had so far?” and for a lot of people here the answer is usually more than two.

When you ask people on the street their favourite part of Christmas, or even just “what is Christmas all about”, you’ll usually get the answer, “Time with my loved ones.” Most of society doesn’t recognize the “Christ” part of Christmas anymore, but they’ve certainly been conditioned that this time of year – usually from about Thanksgiving to New Years – is about making excuses to spend time with family and friends doing something special.

But it’s not like that for everyone. While many people are taking time off and flying and driving all over North America to be with their families and friends, others are not so blessed. Part of the problem with making the holidays all about family is that those without family are often lost in the shuffle, forgotten, and their feelings of loneliness can get very intense.

I saw a heartbreaking post that went viral online a couple weeks ago. There was a woman in Tulsa who posted this to Craigslist under the heading “Anybody need a grandma for Christmas”: “I have nobody and would really like to be part of a family. I cook and I can cook dinner. I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts! Let me be part of your family.”

That’s sad, but the response to her plea was even sadder. She had to quickly take down the post because many of the responses she got were very negative. She was accused of trying to trick people, others calling her a “parasite” trying to prey on a generous family, and one person told her to go kill herself. Such is the risk we take when sharing our feelings online – and such is the nature of how toxic the internet can be.

One article about the post this week said how this is a reminder of the “loneliness and social isolation acutely felt during the holidays, particularly among [those] who have no family or have become isolated from relatives.”[1]  This problem is increasing as fatherlessness and divorce are common, children move farther away for school and work, life has gotten so much busier, and fewer people are having children at all. According to the article, fewer and fewer people are even feeling the need to visit their relatives anymore.

It’s quite well known by now that some governments around the world have said we are having a loneliness public health crisis. Australia and the US have official government agencies dedicated to ending social isolation. And the UK, after doing a yearlong study on the problem even created a government position known as the “Minister of Loneliness” to try to help their nine million citizens (14% of the population) who suffer from loneliness.[2]

A Universal Problem

Bringing the problem closer to home, I saw another article in the Ottawa citizen about the “Cost of Loneliness”[3]. The gist of the article is that if we can solve the loneliness problem, we’ll save a lot of tax-money because loneliness has connections to things like early death, heart disease, dementia, depression, and suicide. One shocking statistic I read is that according to the 2016 census “for the first time in recorded Canadian history, one-person households are the most common household type in the country.” Another amazing statistic was that “being disconnected is just as dangerous to good health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” A 2008 study apparently said that “loneliness is contagious”. It said that “every additional day of loneliness per week led to about an extra day of loneliness per month for those in the social network.”

Of course, this all costs tax-payer money in a country with public health care, but it also costs businesses money too. Everyone, in the western world anyway it seems, is trying to fight a “war on loneliness” with everything from prescription drugs, free bus service for seniors to go do things, an international summit’s on isolation, encouraging people to play online video games, asking doctors and social workers to give people a ‘social prescription’ to take dance lessons, and giving them companion animals or even companion robots to keep them company. They’re throwing everything they can at the problem to try to ward off the crippling despair that seems to be growing in the nation.

Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, may experience the problem differently but there’s no segment of the population that doesn’t feel it. Seniors seem to feel it worse than the rest, but teens have some deep feelings of isolation too – even as they are surrounded by friends or family.

Pastors aren’t immune to this either. You’d think that a group of men dedicated to Jesus and His people wouldn’t feel lonely. But that’s not the case. You might think that if you just went to church more, served the community more, kept busier with work, or just invited more people out, that you’d never be lonely – but that’s not true. The busiest, most diligent, friendliest, most godly men I know are also some of the loneliest.

Why Loneliness Hurts

The North American world has tried almost everything to combat this epidemic of loneliness in society, but it’s only getting worse. I don’t want to speculate as to the myriad of causes because I’m sure you can all come up with a dozen off the top of your head. But I want you to consider for a moment the danger of loneliness and the root causes of it. And, clearly, it’s far more than just being sad or bored. It’s a far deeper issue – so much so that it affects every part of life. We just talked about how it’s linked to depression and suicide and even has the power to infect others. That’s a powerful influence.

And I think it comes down to three things: Loneliness isn’t an end in itself. Loneliness leads to three even more powerful problems: Lovelessness, Joylessness, and Hopelessness.

There’s a big difference between being alone, being isolated, and being lonely. One can be alone and still feel loved, joyful and hopeful. If you’ve ever had the flu or a bad cold and have been stuck in your bed, even sent away from the family so they don’t catch it too, you know what it’s like to be alone, or isolated, but not feel lonely. People are avoiding you, but not because they don’t love you. You lie there miserable, but you still know you’re loved, feel joy that they’re around you and not sick themselves, and have hope of feeling better to join them.

Being lonely is different. You can feel lonely while in a crowd. You can feel lonely while smiling and serving people. You can feel lonely while sitting across from someone you love. Loneliness can be like an infection, a disease that latches onto your soul and won’t let go. For some people, loneliness is like a wave that crests on them out of nowhere. While for others it’s an enemy that crouches in the corner of every room just waiting for a moment of silence, a distraction-free moment, to strike and cripple – which is why they are always listening or watching or doing something.

I think that’s what the psalmist means when he says, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” He’s tired of listening to his own bad thoughts – and back then he didn’t have an iPod to plug in or a radio to turn up.

He doesn’t feel love because his enemies have overcome him. He doesn’t feel joy because everything’s gone wrong and there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix it. No one has come to help – not even God – and that is leading him into a very dangerous place: hopelessness. You see, loneliness doesn’t end with feeling lonely. Once you feel lonely, it’s not a far journey to believing that no one loves you… which means you think you’ll never feel joy… which means life is only pain… which, if that thought process isn’t interrupted, if there is no other “counsel” for their “soul”, it will ultimately lead to the feeling of utter hopelessness.

Hal Lindsey once said, “Human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.” That’s why loneliness hurts so much.

But why is loneliness so powerful? I want you to consider Genesis 2:18. It’s the verse where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” I’ve mentioned this many times, but remember that God said this before the Fall of Man. The world was perfect. No sin, no problems, no bad weather, no bad news. Adam is standing in the Garden of Eden, has been given a meaningful job and an abundance of resources, and is standing in the direct presence, in the very glory of God Himself – and God says, “There’s something wrong.” “It is not good that the man should be alone…”

That reveals something. The fact that the presence of God Himself and the perfect environment of Eden wasn’t enough to combat loneliness tells us something very meaningful about the power and danger of loneliness.

What’s the Solution?

I think secular society is starting to figure this out, which is why they are trying to fix the problem. But they simply do not have the resources – because loneliness cannot be fixed by giving someone a dog, making them go to a community centre lunch, medicating away bad feelings, or giving them access to the internet so they can post on social media or play video games online. That’s like trying to treat cancer with a Band-Aid. The problem is deep, and so the treatment must be deep.

Humans were not designed to be alone. And that loneliness isn’t merely a sociological problem – it’s an existential one, a spiritual one. Our greatest problem is not a physical or sociological problem and therefore it cannot be solved by man-made ingenuity. Our greatest enemy is not economic or political or familial or even mental or emotional. Our great enemy is the spiritual problem of sin and our spiritual enemy called Satan. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pe 5:8), and just like a lion he doesn’t take on the strongest member of the pack, instead, he chases the herd until the weakest fall behind, until the ones who cannot run well, or who are immature, or injured, get left behind, become isolated, alone, and then feeds on them. Loneliness isn’t just miserable, it’s deeply dangerous.

And therefore, since the problem is spiritual, the only solution must be spiritual. And our spiritual solutions are found in Jesus.

We’ve been lighting advent candles for the past month and doing readings about those candles. Do you remember what they stand for? Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope – all surrounding the Christ Candle. Why? Because having Christ at the centre of our lives is the only way to solve our greatest problems. Jesus’ greatest gift to us is not to solve our worldly problems. When He inaugurated His kingdom He didn’t save us financially, politically, or physiologically. If Jesus would have come to give everyone health, wealth, and worldly peace – a lot of people would have been happy. But they would have still been suffering from the effects of sin – broken relationships with God and each other, a spirit that longs for wrong things, and ultimately death and judgement before a holy, wrathful God who would send us to Hell. We should be very thankful that Jesus’ solutions weren’t worldly ones, but spiritual ones – because our greatest issues are not physical, but spiritual.

I want to show you something from another Pastor named Paul Tripp for a moment because in an advent message he gave recently he absolutely hits the nail on the head.

Come back to Psalm 13. Look at how this lonely man responds. Start at verse 3,

“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.” He turns to God and says, “God, look at me, listen to me, and please answer me. You are my Lord and my God and I know that you’re the only one that can keep this loneliness from dragging me into death, the only one who is going to keep the enemy from claiming victory.”

And certainly here Christians can say the same thing about our spiritual enemy.

He says to God, “Light up my eyes!” Another translation says, “Make my eyes clear!” He’s saying what we’ve been saying about Jesus in our study of the gospel of John. He is the source of light and the only one who can bring light in the darkness, who can restore sight to the blind. Psalm 19:8 says,

“…the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”

In his moment of weakness, he’s turning to the word and promises and person of God.

Listen to Ephesians 1:15–21,

“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

What is Paul’s prayer? That the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened by knowing the hope that is found in Jesus. Hope comes from knowing our souls are secure in Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus as saviour and friend. Peace comes from knowing that Jesus is victorious over our enemies. And love comes from knowing that God loved us while we were unloveable. As Romans 5:8 says,

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

This is why we come to God and says, “O Lord my God, light up my eyes…”

Look back at our passage in Psalm 13. What is his conclusion? How does the Psalm end? At the beginning of this short psalm, this man is almost overwhelmed with loneliness and grief. He’s almost lost hope. But he turns to God and asks for light in the darkness. What happens in verses 5-6?

“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

What we see here is that God has answered his prayer. What did God do? Send friends? Conquer his enemies? Give him abundance of wealth and health and power? No. This man’s problem was a spiritual problem, and God solved it with spiritual power.

God shone a light in the darkness and said, “Here. See the truth.” And in that moment this lonely, hopeless man says, “Wait. What am I saying. I’m not alone. God is here. And God is trustworthy. And God’s love never fails. I know that. I’ve seen it. I’m sitting here right now alive because He saved me. Sure, I got pounded, but I’m still here, and God is still good. The story isn’t over. God is always victorious and His people always win in the end. And when I think of all the ways that I’ve been saved and blessed up to this point I can see that I’m not at the end of my rope – in fact, I can see a lot of ways that God has “dealt bountifully with me.”

It reminds me of another passage we studied recently that said,

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (1 Cor 4:7-9)

In verse 6 we read something amazing. He says, “I will sing to the Lord…” From loneliness and hopelessness and joylessness and fear and feeling forgotten and unloved – to “I will sing.” How does that happen? Did his circumstances change? No. Did his enemies get conquered? No. Did he get a windfall of money or some new weapon? No. What changed? What takes a person from “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” to “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”?

There is only one thing. God answered the prayer for Him to “light up his eyes.”

Let’s turn to one more place in scripture; to Isaiah 9:2-6, a passage we read every Christmas because it’s a prophecy about the birth of Jesus and what He would do. Ever wonder why baby Jesus is usually glowing in nativity pictures? Isaiah 9 is why.

 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”

What is that light? It’s Jesus.

“You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Conclusion

In this room, right now, there are people who know this truth, have seen this light, and have met the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace”. There are people here who have lived on both sides of this psalm – and who still struggle on both sides. I can tell you today that the solution to your problem of fear, sadness, hopelessness, joylessness, and loneliness is not a worldly solution. I think, deep down, you know this because you’ve tried it.

You’ve tried to distract it away with work and entertainment. You’ve tried to control it with schedules and exercise and rules. You’ve tried to medicate it away with pills and food and porn and alcohol. You’ve tried to ward it off by serving people, going to parties, staying busy. You’ve tried to find your solution in another person – a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend – and whether they’ve let you down or they continue to try, they are simply not enough, which is why you blame them or push them away or cling to them so hard that you suffocate them.

It doesn’t work because the only solution to your loneliness is to have God Himself light up your eyes, to restore you to Himself through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to go from hopeless and lonely to singing about “steadfast love” is to, like the advent wreath, have the light of Christ at the centre of your life.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/19/us/grandma-for-christmas.html

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-launches-governments-first-loneliness-strategy

[3] https://ottawacitizen.com/health/seniors/doesl-one-loneliness-kill

A Firm Foundation for the New Year

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There seems to be a feeling of flux right now in the world. I’m sure you’ve felt it. A feeling of instability in our hearts, community, country, and world. There are people going through relationship transitions as the dynamics of their marriage, friendships, partnerships and workplace change around them. Some are facing personal transitions as their body changes with age. Some are making decisions that will bring about a new season of life and the lives around them. On top of that, we have all the environmental changes happening around the globe, wars and rumours of wars, and of course the recent elections in our own nation, the one coming in the US, and political instability around the world. Sometimes, with all this uncertainty, it can feel like the ground beneath our feet is shifting. The question comes, then, what can we do to ensure that while the world around us shifts and moves, we are on solid ground?

Please open to Luke 6:46–49,

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

The Fruit of Obedience

What we have just read is the end of one of Jesus’ sermons, called The Sermon on the Plain. We know that Jesus didn’t just speak a message once and then never repeat it again, so this is likely a second telling, and summarized version, of the longer Sermon on the Mount from Matthew where He described what life in the Kingdom of God is like –the laws of the Kingdom, the attitudes and character of His people, and how they will relate to God and live in this world. I want you to notice that at the end of this message, He concludes with a question and a story:

The question was:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”

and it is just as sharp today as it was the day He spoke it. He contrasts the difference between hearing and doing, confession and obedience. If you look at the previous verses you’ll see Jesus tell the parable of “The Tree and its Fruit”,

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43–45)

This whole section is talking about hypocrisy: saying one thing (“Yes, Jesus is my Lord, I got saved, I’m a Christian, I go to church, blah, blah, blah…”) but not having a life that reflects it. How can you tell a good tree from a bad tree? They might look the same on the surface, but the real test of a tree is whether it produces good fruit and seeds and offspring. In the same way, the definition of a disciple is not simply someone that calls Jesus “Lord, Lord”, it is someone who produces spiritual fruit.

What is spiritual fruit? Let me give you a couple of verses for that so we know what we’re talking about.

  • Think of John 15 where God is presented as the Gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
  • Philippians 1:11 and Hebrews 12:11 speak of the “fruit of righteousness”.
  • Colossians 1:10 speaks of believers, “bearing fruit in every good work”.

But flip over to Galatians 5:16–25 and we get to see a much clearer picture,

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

Does this mean that we are saved by doing good deeds or having a good attitude? No. The New Testament is very clear that we are not saved by good works, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus isn’t talking about how He wants us to perform good works to earn our salvation, but instead is being clear that anyone who believes in Him, who is reborn as a Christian, who has had the curse of sin lifted and is now a new creation in Christ, will demonstrate that by leading a changed life. Will it be a perfect life? No. We still suffer from the effects of sin in our bodies and are surrounded by temptations – but will we hate sin, want to be free from it, and seek to do good works? Yes.

Consider James 2:14–19,

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

Believe it or not, the demons have better theology than you do. They know Jesus, the Bible, the plan of salvation, and have seen everything from the beginning to the end. They believe in Jesus. They know Jesus is the Saviour of the World. They fear Him as God and shudder at His name. Knowing about God isn’t enough. What matters is faith that leads to repentance which leads to obedience. Knowing you are a sinner that cannot save yourself, knowing that Jesus is the only way of salvation, isn’t enough. You must believe in Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord, and demonstrate that belief by turning away from sin and self and obeying Jesus. That’s what the demons won’t do. They believe all the right things – but they won’t submit to Jesus as Lord.

God hates hypocrisy. He often warns about people who look and sound like believers but are not.

  • He calls them “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15)
  • or “rocky and thorny ground” (Mark 4:10-20).
  • The Apostle Paul warned of “false apostles [and] deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” Saying, “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Cor 11:13-15)

How can we tell the difference between good trees and bad, good soil and bad, someone that claims to be a Christian but isn’t and a true believer? How can you tell within yourself whether or not you are a real Christian or merely a “cultural Christian” or just going along with what your family says? The answer Jesus gives is simple: Do you call Jesus Lord and then do what He says? Does your life bear the fruit of obedience to Jesus? Have you ever asked yourself, “Do I really love Jesus? How do I know if I really love Jesus? I feel like a sinner. I feel guilty and shameful. I don’t feel like I love Jesus enough.”

Listen to Jesus words in

  • John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
  • John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
  • John 15:10, “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.”

Believers turn away from sin and towards Jesus. Ask yourself: Do you want to obey Jesus? In your heart of hearts, does Jesus get the last word in your life? Is He your highest authority? When you slip up, fall to temptation, sin against Him, is He the first person you turn to in order to ask forgiveness – because you know that your sin, guilt, shame, and all the mess that came from it, was because you didn’t obey Him? Do you readily accept His discipline because you know that even though it’s painful at the time, you know that He’s trying to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” in your life (Hebrews 12:7-11)

Turn to and listen to the words of 1 John 5:1–5,

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

A true believer knows that the commands of God are “not burdensome”, which is why we readily and joyfully and eagerly obey them.

For example, say someone has seriously wronged you. What does the world tell you to do? What does your sinful flesh tell you to do? It wants you to blame, and get bitter, and stay angry, and punish them, gossip so their reputation is ruined, seek revenge, avoid people because they might hurt you again, get angry at the world because you were wronged, hang around other bitter people, make that pain your entire identity, have it colour every relationship and decision you make for your whole life. Right? And how does that all feel? Awful.

What does Jesus want us to do? Forgive the person. See them as a fellow sinner. Grieve, share, pray, and then let God mete out the punishment – either on that person in Hell or on Jesus on the cross. To see that Jesus weeps with you, and will one day rescue you from all that pain. That one day it will be forgotten. And further, God wants you to even recognize that He is bigger than the pain and can even cause it to produce fruit in your life. That He can allow you to become a source of help, inspiration, and healing for others because you are now equipped in a way no one else is.

Now, which is more “burdensome”? The world’s way or God’s?

It’s the same with so many things. The world says, “Use alcohol, chemicals, and porn to make yourself feel better.” God says, “Practice self-control, turn your burdens over to me, and openly share your weaknesses with others so they can help you.” Which one is more burdensome?

The world says, “Hoard your money because the future is uncertain. Gather up possessions because having stuff will make you feel good. Don’t share with anyone because no one can be trusted. Don’t lend your stuff because it might get broken.” God says, “Trust that God will provide what you need when you need it, so be generous with each other. Love people instead of things because all the stuff is going to rust and break anyway. Hold all your things in a loose hand and share generously because it’s not yours anyway, you get to feel the joy of giving, you won’t get upset when something breaks, and more people will be blessed.” Which one is more burdensome? Greed or Generosity?

Christians know that trusting God, following God, loving God, turning from sin and self to obeying God, isn’t just a bunch of religious rules to try to get heaven points – it’s literally a path to freedom laid out by Jesus Himself.

And so, God treats us like fruit trees or vines. Because He wants us free from the burden of sin and the world, and to bear fruit that leads to an abundant life, He prunes us. God doesn’t have much interest in fruitless branches. And then tells us that the difference between a good tree and bad, a good branch and bad, a true believer and a hypocrite – is fruit.

Jesus doesn’t care about the number of people that call Him “Lord”. But He does care very much about producing fruit. Jesus isn’t planting a forest. He’s cultivating an orchard.

The Struggle of Obedience

And so, at the end of this sermon, Jesus looks at the crowd – and to us – and says,

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”

We all struggle with this, don’t we? We pray, “Dear Lord, God…” and then almost immediately disobey Him. We read a scripture, hear a sermon, feel a conviction in our heart from the Holy Spirit, and we absolutely know that our Lord God, Creator of the Universe, has just told us to do something – and then we don’t do it.

God says, “Forgive that person. Be reconciled to your brother or sister. Stop pursuing worldly gain and start looking after your spirit, your family, and your church. Go be a peacemaker to that troubled situation. Go tell those people about me. Get rid of that unrighteous anger. Stop lusting after people that you’re not married to. Stay married to your spouse and do everything you can to love them. Quit lying and breaking your promises. Show love to your enemy. Be generous with the needy. Read your Bible and talk to me every day. Take time to rest and fast. Smash the idols you have in your life. Stop worrying about things and trust me. Show humility and stop putting yourselves above others. Obey your parents, teachers, and elders. Submit to God in all things.” And then says, “Will you do what I tell you?”

That’s the Sermon on the Mount and on the Plain in a nutshell. And at the end of that incredible list, Jesus asks us to evaluate our hearing and our doing, our confession and our obedience, our talk and our walk. He wants us to check to see if they line up.

Why? Because, as we live in this world, we are going to face a lot of storms and He wants to make sure that we’re safe. It’s an act of love! He knows that until He comes again, this life is going to be filled with difficulty, uncertainty, and temptation. There are liars and cheats that want to manipulate us, charlatans who pretend to love us but don’t, huge decisions all the time, pain and sorrow beyond our ability to handle, immense temptations, and our enemy, the devil, prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pe. 5:8). Jesus wants us secure in Him so we’re not overwhelmed by the storms of life. He knows that if we do what He says, we’ll be safe.

It’s kind of like a parent sending your teen off on a road trip. We tell them, “Ok, be careful. Do you have your itinerary? Did you check the oil in the car? Do you have gas? Washer fluid if it rains? Don’t do anything stupid while driving. And when you get there, call me. Your hotel room is going to be full of temptations, so how are you going to handle that? Your friends are going to ask you to do dumb stuff. How dumb are you planning on getting? I know you’re going to want to live on pizza and pop, but please eat a vegetable and drink some water. And remember, if you need anything, or you get in trouble, just call me!”

We’re not doing that because we’re mad, or we want our kid to obey us to prove something, or that we’re trying to load them with burdens. Why do we do this? Because we love them and want them safe! Jesus’ sermon isn’t about rules – it’s about love!

The Builders

I want to close by asking you to consider the story Jesus tells about the two builders for a moment.

First, notice that both of them hear the message. One “hears… and does” while the other “hears and does not”. We’re not talking about people who have not heard the message of the Gospel and the teachings of scripture. Jesus is talking about people who have heard what God wants and expects from them but doesn’t do it.

Second, notice that both of them build. In the story, the house represents a person’s life. Everyone builds a life. Both builders are placed in the world, both are given the materials they need to for a good house. Both builders use their skills and abilities and God-given resources to build.

Third, notice that they both build near the stream. They are neighbours. Similar materials, similar environments, similar issues. We all, for the most part, are working with the same stuff. Yes, we all have our own uniqueness –physical or mental advantages, more or less money, some more prone toward certain temptations, some differences in upbringing or personal baggage. We all have things that make us us, and God has certainly gifted each one of us with a special purpose, but our similarities vastly outweigh our differences. We all live by the same stream. We all have skills and abilities, we all face temptation, fear, grief, and pain.

Which leads us to the fourth similarity between the builders: they both experienced a flood. The flood represents the troubles of this world and the final judgement before God. In other words, immediate consequences and eternal consequences.

What’s the difference? Both hear the message, both build a house. On the outside, to anyone else, they look identical. As the two trees from the parable, they look the same for most of the year. The difference is only shown during the storm. And it’s something unseen, something under the house. Something neither builder built. The foundation.

One dug deep and built on the rock. He did the work. He put it into practice. It took time and effort to dig a hole the size of a house in the sandy land by the stream until he hit bedrock. He had to put off building his house. He didn’t do the fun stuff first. He dug down, down, down, until he found the solid bedrock near that stream and then built on that.

Hearing is easy. Obedience takes work. Getting saved is a free gift from Jesus, living with Jesus as Lord requires sacrifice. It might mean putting off things like career advancement, certain relationships, or things you enjoy – so you can dig into God’s word and practice obedience, removing the shifting sand from beneath your house, one shovelful at a time, knowing that leaving it there will cause problems later.

It might mean removing some things you go to for comfort or getting rid of things that distract you from your relationship with Jesus. I remember as a college student destroying over a hundred CDs in my music collection because – at the time – they were a stumbling block between me and Jesus. It hurt, but it had to go – there have been many more since.

It might mean removing things from your schedule so you can pray, read scripture, attend church each week, and have a Sabbath rest. It might mean changing your finances so you can live a generous lifestyle. It might mean throwing out or selling something you enjoy because it causes you to sin.

Each shovelful of sand you remove that separates you from the foundation hurts a little at first, but obeying God in these ways actually removes burdens. There goes my pride. There goes my selfishness. There goes my Sunday morning sleep. There goes that TV show I like. There goes my favourite addiction. There go my internet privileges. There goes my gossip group. There goes my vacation. There go my career plans. There go my marriage plans.

As empty the hole and dig down deeper and deeper to the bedrock of Jesus Christ we aren’t leaving ourselves empty though. It’s not like God’s perfect plan is for us to sit alone in an empty room, meditating. As we empty our lives of ungodly things, choosing to obey God, He back-fills the hole with good, godly things. As God helps us remove the sand, he replaces it with strong stone after stone, replacing our thoughts with His thoughts, our ways with His ways, our heart with His heart, our will with His will, our habits with His habits, our words with His words, our plans with His plans, the things we use to enjoy, with things that bring us true and real joy, until we have built a solid foundation on Him and how He wants us to live.

The Joy of Obedience

And then when the rains come down and the floods come up, and the stream grows into a river – we face death, loss, fear, persecution – we are able to experience the greatest joy of all as our house continues to stand. Others around us are falling apart – marriages exploding, addictions growing, debt mounting, anxiety overcoming, sadness overwhelming – and there we stand, secure in the midst of the storm. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of who we are built on. All the work of faith, all the pruning God did, all the discipline, makes sense. And then, instead of that water washing us away – it actually becomes the food, the nutrients, that allows us to bear more fruit than before! We see what Romans 8:37 means when it says that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And of course, in eternity, when we face Jesus after we die – those who believe and obey stand, and those who do not, fall. And as we stand, we don’t pat ourselves on the back – we give thanks to our foundation!

You’ve probably experienced a few storms by now, and it has shown you a few things, hasn’t it? It’s shown you where your foundation lies. Maybe you fell apart, maybe parts of you fell apart. The storm showed you the sand that remains between you and your foundation. And, hopefully, it’s shown you how firm a foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. If you did fall apart though, hopefully, it’s shown you how feeble your foundation is and how much you need Jesus.

Remember, the one that listened to Jesus and built their life on His word stood secure. The ones that listen to Jesus, and didn’t do what He said, fell apart. The story is a warning to people who act religious, act like Christians, attend church, use Christian language, claim to be believers, but who see God’s commands as burdensome, don’t do what Jesus says, and who, when difficulties come, fall apart – and in the end, will go to hell.

You may think that you’re doing pretty well with a foot in both worlds – you get the security of feeling like a believer and get to be around a bunch of Christians, while at the same time living a worldly life where you get the pleasures of sin – but here’s the thing: the storm is inevitable. Jesus says very clearly that “the flood” is not an “if” but a “when”. Pain will come in this life… and you are going to die and face the Judgement Seat of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:10)

Jesus’ question is, “What’s the point of calling me ‘Lord’ and pretending to be a Christian if you’re not going to do what I say? It won’t help you avoid the storms, your life will be insecure, and it won’t help you in eternity. What benefit is your hypocrisy? If you call me ‘Lord’ do what I say, then you will get the benefits of what I’m trying to give you!”

The Importance of Knowing Who You Are and Why You’re Here (The Gospel of John Series)

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Please open up to John 1:19-34.

But before we get into the reading, just a quick reminder about the context. The Apostle John is writing his gospel to introduce his readers to who Jesus really is. The rest of the gospels had already been written and circulated for about 30 years by the time John wrote this one and so what we read here is a sort of supplement to them – which is why some of the details that are in the other gospels are left out and other details are added in.

God inspired John to write something different than the other three synoptic gospels – something that would answer different questions and present a clearer picture of Jesus.

We talked last week about how important John the Baptist was during his time. A lot of people around the world had heard of him and had even participated in his baptism of repentance. We talked about the importance of that baptism last week and why it was important for the Apostle John to differentiate him from Jesus because there were still a lot of people confused about who John the Baptist really was and whether or not following Him was what God wanted in order for people to be saved.

The Apostle John wanted to be absolutely clear to everyone who read his gospel about who John the Baptist was and what his role was in the story of salvation. He was important, powerful, popular, divisive, courageous, certainly vital to God’s plan, and definitely prophesied about in the Old Testament – but he wasn’t Jesus. Jesus, as we talked about last week, is “the Word” of God that “became flesh”, the source of all “life” and “light”, the one who gave people the “right to become children of God”, the only one who “has ever seen God” because He “is God” (1:1-18).

But the next, natural question for anyone to ask would be, “What about John the Baptist?” He came out of nowhere, looked like an Old Testament prophet, said he was chosen by God to speak prophecies, was a powerful teacher who challenged the religious establishment, baptized followers and had many disciples, and even died as a martyr. A lot of people following John the Baptist would need to know what makes Jesus better than him?

That’s where we come today. Now, the assumption that the Apostle John seems to make here is that people already know a lot about John the Baptist, which is why he leaves out some details, like the miracles around John’s birth in Luke 1, that him and Jesus are cousins, John’s connection to the prophecies about Elijah in Malachi 4, how he dressed like Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 1, or how so many of the Jewish people, from the highest to the lowest, had been anticipating and longing (Luke 2:38) for the coming of the Messiah for the past century since the Roman Empire took over the land of Israel (63BC) – and that when John the Baptist came on the scene that Messianic hope was at its absolute peak. He doesn’t even tell the story of John baptizing Jesus because it’s already in the other gospels.

The Apostle John leaves a lot of that out because it’s already in the other gospels, but He gets to the meat of the question: “Then who was John the Baptist anyway?” and the best way to answer that is through John the Baptists’ own testimony.

Who is John the Baptist?

Let’s read from verse 19:

“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “’I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’ (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)”

The Pharisees had come up with four options as to who John the Baptist was. John was either the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, essentially a second Moses who knew God “face to face” (Exo 34:11), who could perfectly interpret the Law, and who spoke with the authority of God. Or John was the second coming of the greatest prophet, Elijah, as foretold in Malachi 4:5, who would perform great signs and wonders and challenge the corrupt rulers of the people. Or, John was the Christ, the Messiah himself, a great King and military leader in the line of David who had come to rescue the people from their Roman oppressors. Or, John was a false prophet.

John the Baptist made the whole of the Jewish leadership look and was a source of great embarrassment for them, but they knew he was something special and wanted to pin Him down. Not necessarily to follow Him (as we learn from how they treated Jesus) but to clarify his claim and see if they could disqualify and then get rid of him.

But John, like Jesus, didn’t fall for their games. He refused to take the bait and wouldn’t claim to be something he knew He wasn’t. All he knew was what God had called Him to do: to speak one very specific message: repent and prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord.

Essentially, John was saying, “Don’t look at me. I don’t matter. Stop stereotyping and arguing and trying to wiggle out of what I’m saying by some kind of loophole. Just listen to the message. The significance is not in the speaker but in the message. I’m not talking about me; I’m just the herald to someone greater. I’m not pointing to myself, I’m pointing to Him. I don’t want attention on myself; I want it on what I’m saying. Listen: Repent from your sins, prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. He’s coming very soon.”

But did they listen? No.

Look at their next question:

“They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’”

Ok, if you’re not going to let us ignore you by pinning you down to disqualify you by claiming to be something you’re not – then we’ll try a different tack. Maybe we can disqualify you by what you’re doing. Then we won’t need to listen to what you’re saying.

Do you see how hard they are working so they don’t have to hear the message of repentance? They can’t argue with the message, but they sure can argue with the man.

Their argument was that since John wasn’t claiming to be a prophet or messiah, and He wasn’t a Jewish leader, and he didn’t work in the temple, then by what right does he baptize people? New, gentile converts to Judaism were baptized as an initiation rite. Part of becoming a Jewish proselyte was to go through the waters of baptism.

But John the Baptist was calling Jews to be baptized! This was new. What religion was he calling them to join? Was he a cult leader? Was he a schismatic? Was he going against the temple and God’s Laws? The Pharisees, who were especially concerned with obeying the Law of Moses as perfectly as possible, would be especially interested. Look at John’s answer in verse 26, “John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”

John’s answer is, essentially the same as our own: “I’m just using water to symbolize something that has happened on the inside. I’m just giving people a practical, obvious, public, way to show what has happened in their hearts. I tell people to repent, to realize they are sinners who need cleaning up, and then I use the water to symbolize that they have obeyed the word of God. The cleansing of their bodies in the water shows that they desire the cleansing of their souls.”

But John then takes it one step further with a big “but”. He says, “But I have a surprise for you. The Messiah, the One I’ve been talking about is already here. He is already walking among us. He will be revealed very soon. Stop arguing. Repent. Prepare yourself. Now is the time.” When John the Baptist talks about his unworthiness to carry or even tie Jesus’ “sandals” it points us to something he has skipped. Those words are in Matthew, Mark and Luke and all point to the story of Jesus’ baptism. So at this point, as the Jewish Leaders stand before Him, John the Baptist has already baptized Jesus in the Jordan, has seen the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove, has heard the voice of the Father commissioning Jesus’ earthly ministry, and seen Jesus sent for the 40 days of temptation in the desert. And, it seems that the very next day after the Jewish Leaders questioned John, Jesus comes back from the wilderness.

Look at verse 29-34,

“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’”

And so now we hear from John the Baptist himself who he thinks he is, and who he knows Jesus to be. His whole life was meant to point to the coming Messiah, and when Jesus came, John stepped back. But before he did, he “bore witness” that Jesus was the One he had come to prepare the world for. He said he didn’t know in advance, but when Jesus came for baptism it became absolutely clear. God showed up, God spoke, God showed Him exactly who Jesus was. And so John pointed people to Jesus. When John was preaching he deflected all attention away from himself to his message – and now that He knew who the Christ was he reflected every bit of attention onto Jesus.

That’s what the Apostle John wants everyone who is reading this to know. John the Baptist’s message, witness, and ministry all pointed to Jesus. So if you are following John, now is the time to follow Jesus.

Jars of Clay

There’s something I want to chew on for a bit though here. It must have been very tempting for John the Baptist to try to take some of the credit, to accept some praise, to want to share the spotlight with Jesus. According to chapter 3, even John’s own disciples were jealous on his behalf when Jesus started to gain popularity.

What prevented John from getting puffed up with pride? How did he stay humble?

If you’ve ever done something well, something that you know you couldn’t have done without God, you’ll know it’s not easy to deflect praise. Whether it’s a piece of art you have designed, a successful ministry, having good kids, doing well in a difficult class, learning a skill few people have and then using it to bless others, having the ability to make money, or a great sense of humour, or strong administrative skills, or the ability to be patient and kind during difficult times, you’ll know that when people see you, they automatically want to give you credit – and it can be extremely difficult to reflect that praise back to God. Even when you say, “It wasn’t me, it was God”, they want to give you extra credit for being humble!

So how did John do it? How did he keep his heart in the right place? If I had to guess from what we’ve read and know about John the Baptist it was that he knew who he was and who Jesus is.

Think about when you go out to a restaurant. You sit down at the table, the server comes over and gives you water, takes your order, and then delivers the food. As Canadians it’s our habit to thank everyone for everything all the time, right? A lot of us even thank inanimate objects like ATMs and traffic lights for doing their job. So when the food comes we automatically say thank you, right? What are we thanking the server for? For bringing the food, right?

But, then, inevitably – and usually when you have a mouthful of food – they come by again and ask how the food is. And we say, “Oh, it’s so good! It’s amazing!” Now, imagine if the server started to get a big head about it. The owner buys all the food and the chef prepares everything – but who gets to hear everyone “mmming” and “wowing” and “this is so good”? Who gets to hear the thank-yous and watch people smile? It’s the server.

But wouldn’t it be crazy if the server tried to share the credit with the chef? “You’re absolutely welcome for that dish. It was half me, half the chef. Because without me, the food would have just stayed in the kitchen and no one could eat it. So, actually, I should get more of the credit for being the one who allowed you to have such a fine meal. And really, since I’m the one who gave it to you, I’m the one in the fancy suit, I’m the one who listens to you and brings you what you want, and no one else, then I must be the most important person in the room right now. You would go hungry without me. You would starve without me. No one would even know the chef exists without me. The whole restaurant would close if I weren’t here to bring you your food. In fact, I was the one who recommended that meal to you in the first place, so you don’t even get any credit for ordering it! I get all the credit! This whole place revolves around me!”

That’s crazy, right? But that’s what Christians sound like we sound like when we try to share glory with God for something we’ve done. A server, a servant, is just a delivery system for someone else’s greatness. Their whole job is simply not to forget it, drop it, or change it. Regardless of what your gift is – music, art, speaking, generosity, crafts, administration, physical strength, even physical beauty – it is, and you are, merely a delivery system for God’s glory and greatness. He gave it to you as a gift, has used the experiences of your life to hone that gift, and has designed you in such a way that when you use it not only are other people blessed, and not only do you get to receive pleasure from using it, but in doing so He gets glory. We often realize the first two of those and forget the last. We’re happy to use what we have to help people, happy to feel good doing it, but when it comes to who gets the credit, who gets the glory… we often want to steal it, or at least share it, with God. That’s crazy when you really think about it.

Consider 1 Corinthians 4:7 where the amazing apostle Paul said,

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

The “treasure” is the gospel, and the “power” belongs to God – he’s just the clay jar it was carried in. Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as a potter and His people the clay (Isa 64:8). In Romans 9:20–21 when Paul is talking to people who complain to God about their lot in life he says,

“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”

In other words, he’s the potter, you’re the clay. In this context, the Apostle is talking about saved versus unsaved, but the lesson is still sound. God knows what He’s doing, knows what you’re good for, knows what your strengths and weaknesses are, and knows where you are of best use – because He made you. And if you do things His way and you’ll be a lot better off.

If He wants to make you into a fancy vase that sits on a shelf meant to hold and feed and water some pretty flowers for all to see, but are changed out often, then be content in that. If He wants to make you into a coffee cup that gets filled up and emptied every single day, loved and useful but certainly not fancy or special, then be content in that. If God has designed you to be a cookie jar, full of good and helpful things that you never get to keep but are always meant to be for others, then be content in that. If he wants to make you into a cooking dish that has to face the heat of the flames over and over and over so others can be fed, then be content in that.

Why? Because when you are doing what God has called you to do, using the strength God gives you and returning the glory to Him, He will be there with you and you will know peace and an abundant life. Yes, it may come with difficulty, but you’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be, and you’ll see God’s hand in your life.

But, if you try to be something you’re not, you’ll be very discontent. If the flower vase gets bored of feeding the flowers and sitting on the shelf and tries to become the coffee mug, it’s going to wonder why it can’t do the job and keeps getting hurt. If the cookie jar gets tired of being generous and decides to try being a cooking dish, it’s going to break and won’t be good to anyone. I hope you see what I mean.

John the Baptist knew the secret to contentedness, peace, fruitfulness, and staying humble before God. He knew who He was and who Jesus is and gave all the glory away. John was the herald, Jesus is the king. John was a mirror, Jesus was the light. John was a voice, Jesus is the message. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John called people to prepare themselves by repentance from sin, Jesus is the one who conquered sin and death.

John never forgot who he was.

Who is Jesus?

Turn briefly to John 21:1–14. The question, “Who are you?”, which we see twice in our passage today, is asked all over the Gospel of John. In John 5, the Jewish leaders see a man who had been an invalid for 38 years get up and walk, and they ask who would dare perform a miracle on the Sabbath. In chapter 8, after Jesus declares Himself to be “the light of the world” the Jewish authorities ask twice more. In John 9 a group of Pharisees argue about who Jesus is with a man who was healed from blindness. In John 11, after Jesus says He’s “the resurrection and the life”, right before He raises Lazarus from the dead, he asks Martha if she believes Him. In John 18, as Jesus is on trial everyone keeps asking who He is, then Peter denies who he is to Jesus, then Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Everyone, through the whole book, is asking, “Who are you?”

In John 21:1–14, at the very end of the Gospel during the epilogue we read this,

“After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.”

They had seen Jesus’ miracles, heard His message, saw Him die, met Him as the risen Lord, and saw one more miracle before Jesus serve them breakfast. Finally, at the end of the book they stop asking, “Who are you?” They’ve figured it out.

Conclusion: Who is Jesus? Who Are You? Why do you exist?

My questions to you are simply this: Do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? (and consequently, who you are not?) Do you know why you are here?

Everything hinges on those questions. Who is Jesus? Who are you? Why do you exist? These are questions you must answer.

John the Baptist knows. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the “lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Who is John? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’…” (1:23) Who is John not? Moses, Elijah, Jesus, or a false prophet. Why did John exist? “…For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31)

I know this. Who is Jesus? My Saviour and my God. Who am I? I am a child and servant of God. Why do I exist? To be a godly husband and father, and as a gift to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-16) through preaching, teaching, counselling, and creativity. It’s taken many years, and certainly there have been times of difficulty and doubt, but I can say this: I know Jesus, I who I am, I know who I am not, and I know my purpose.

But I ask you today, do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? And do you know why you exist? If not, you have some soul work to do. And we are here to help you in that journey.

When Jesus God Speaks (Gospel of John Series)

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I think it’s appropriate that we start off the Christmas season with the very beginning of the Gospel of John today. We’ve been working on “context and structure” for about a month now and I feel like we could keep talking about it for another few weeks. The structure of John is absolutely fascinating! But we need to get into it and we’ll hit some of those interesting structural points along the way.

“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. 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. 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. 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. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” ( John 1:1-18)

If you have a study bible there’s a good chance that there are a LOT of notes about this first set of verses, because John packs a LOT of stuff in there. In fact, this section is like a summary of the whole rest of the book.

When Jesus God Speaks

John begins by calling Jesus “the Word” who “was with God” and who “was God.” He was there before “the beginning” and was the one who made everything. We’ve already discussed the Trinitarian aspects of this – how this affirms that Jesus is the same God who created the universe – but I want you to notice something else. John here is setting up one of the major themes of the book which is that when Jesus speaks God is speaking.

Over and over Jesus says things like, to the Jewish authorities in chapter 5,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19).

Or to the crowds and Pharisees in chapter 8,

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)

or to His disciples in

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10).

This was, and currently is, a major point of contention in regards to Jesus. Some people claim that Jesus never claimed to be God and that Christians came up with that idea later. Other religions claim that Jesus was merely a prophet sent by God but not God Himself. Some non-religious people hold Jesus up as a great moral teacher but refuse to believe in His divinity. This is absolutely wrong. Jesus absolutely presented Himself as God in the flesh.

Turn over to John 10:22-33,

“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.’ The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’”

When Jesus was crucified, this was the charge against Him: Because He claimed to be God. Pilate knew this and knew it wasn’t a good enough reason to sentence Jesus to the cross, which is why he declared him innocent and tried to free him. Jesus wasn’t killed for any other reason than claiming to be God. This incensed the Jews and they used all the political pressure they could, even claiming to support their Roman oppressors and threatening Pilate with disloyalty to Caesar, in order to have Jesus punished in the worst way possible.

Jesus didn’t just claim to be a prophet who was told what to say by God. He wasn’t just reporting what God says – He was saying that when He spoke, God spoke. No one else claimed that. Every other prophet said, “Ok, most of the time I’m just sinful, old, me – but sometimes God speaks His word to me and I tell it to you.” That’s not what Jesus claimed. There was nothing He said, no judgement He made, no miracle He performed, no woe he pronounced, no action He performed or word he spoke that didn’t carry the weight and authority and perfection of God.

So, that’s the first thing that John wants you to know, right upfront and throughout the whole book: Jesus is God and when He speaks, God speaks. Jesus is the Word of God.

And it’s also the first thing we are confronted by and are forced to reckon with. When we think of Jesus and by extension the scriptures which contain His words – and not just the Gospels, but every other word spoken in every other book – are we giving them the proper weight and authority in our lives? Do we take what Jesus says, or what the Bible says, as one opinion of many that we weigh against a bunch of others – or do we listen and obey as though God Himself has spoken to us? Because that’s exactly what is happening.

Jesus is the Source of Light and Life

The second big theme that we see throughout the gospel of John that is introduced here is that Jesus is the source of light and life.

Jesus was the one who said, “Let there be light” and “Let there be life” in Genesis 1. He spoke into the darkness and created the light. But, after sin entered the world in Genesis 3 there was a problem: darkness came back and death entered the world. Then, even in Genesis 3, right after the Fall of Man, God said that someone would be coming to fix the problem. The whole of the Old Testament points to the one who would come and do that. Then Jesus, the source of all light and all life, came. Darkness tried to reclaim the world for itself, but because of Jesus, it couldn’t.

We talked about this one a couple weeks ago, so I won’t repeat it, but as you read John, look for that theme too. And as you look, consider that not only are you being asked to see Jesus as the source of all light and life, the one who came to bring light to the darkness and to make a way through death into life, but you are being asked if you come to Him that way. That was what John was saying to his first readers too. Persecution and martyrdom and death were rampant among believers… and the political drama and insanity of the Roman Emperors like Caligula and Nero bringing death and famine by their own whims made everything very dark for almost everyone else… so where should people turn? John’s answer was, to Jesus, the source of light and life – in short, hope.

When you face dark things – sin, rebellion, temptation, unrighteous anger, bitterness, strife, lack, storms, struggles, sickness, and death – is your first instinct to come to the source of life and light or to go somewhere else? Because where you go first is probably the thing that you hold above Jesus as your functional saviour and source of hope.

Something difficult happens, darkness invades. You get sick, you feel pain, someone betrays you, fear and uncertainty starts to creep into your heart – what do you do? Where do you turn first? You want direction, comfort, freedom, an anchor for your soul. You are looking for a light in the darkness, so where do you turn first? Alcohol? Chemicals? Pornography? Sleep? Social Media Post to get some attention? Search the Internet for an answer? Lash out and hurt someone?

Or, do you come to Jesus and say, “Things are dark and I need some light. You are the light of the world. I feel death encroaching and need some hope. You are the source of life and hope.” And then wait on Him to provide you with what you need?

John the Baptist: Herald of Jesus

The third big theme of John, found in verses 6-8, and then again in 15, as we are introduced to John the Baptist. If you’ve heard the Christmas story at all, then you’ll know that things were getting darker in the world – for the Jews and Gentiles alike. The Gentiles knew nothing of the One, True God because paganism had utterly taken over their land, and the Jewish religious system was almost totally corrupted, totally divorced from the religion that God set up to draw people to Him, so even the people of God were far from Him. Things were dark.

But when things were at their darkest, a voice was heard, the voice of John the Baptist, the herald of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, a man chosen before he was born to prepare the way for Jesus, starts preaching a few years before Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and he has a simple, three part message. The Messiah is coming soon, repent from your sins and get ready for it, and live out that repentance by a changed life.[1]

John the Baptist was a powerful preacher, used by God to call many people to a baptism of repentance, but John knew He wasn’t the Messiah. He didn’t know who He was heralding for most of His life, but He knew that the Messiah was imminent – and that that the Messiah wouldn’t just get people wet and tell them to change their behaviour – He would change them from the inside out by freeing them from the curse of sin altogether and coming to live inside them through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In John 1:29-33 (turn there), after He has baptized Jesus and right before he hands off the baton to Jesus, even sending his own disciples off to follow Jesus, John says to them,

“‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’” (Matthew 3:11–12)

You’ll see John the Baptist come up a lot in the first half of the book as Jesus is compared to him. Everyone seemed to know John the Baptist and he had some serious street cred. We learn in Acts 18:25 and 19:3-4 that people throughout the whole world had experienced “John’s Baptism” and so a lot of people reading this Gospel would have already known how important John’s ministry and prophecy was. And, even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all speak of Him, the Apostle John makes absolutely clear that as important as John the Baptist was, he was only the herald, the forerunner, the announcer, of Jesus Christ. John wasn’t the light – he was only the voice who was crying out in the darkness saying, “The Light of the World is coming – be ready for it!”

But I think the Apostle John’s question for all those who read is this: Do you know that it is not enough that you feel bad about your sin. It is not even enough that you have repented from your sin by saying you want to stop. The end of repentance is not merely the change of behaviour – it is faith in Jesus. The question is, has your sorrow over your sin lead you to seek salvation and cleansing from Jesus, who can free you from the curse and grant you the gift of the Holy Spirit – or have you stopped at merely thinking you just need to change your behaviour? Because the testimony of the whole of scripture is that your problem isn’t that you are mostly good and just need a little “help from above” or that you have one or two big problems and that once God fixes those you’re ok.

The testimony of Jesus is that repentance isn’t enough – you must be “born again”. You must be utterly changed, from the inside out, by giving all your sin, all your self, your entire being, past, present and future, to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to offer the baptism of repentance. He doesn’t come to offer a little encouragement to assuage your guilt. He comes to offer the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a new life, a re-birth, to everyone who will believe.

I think of 2 Corinthians 7:10 which says,

“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”

There’s a big difference between feeling bad about your sin because you were caught, or because it blew up in your face, or caused problems for you and others – and realizing that you are a complete sinner, that your sin infects every part of your life, that your sin has caused spiritual death, and that you need a complete renewal, a complete (what theologians used to call) revivification, to be reborn as a new person who died and rose again because of the work of Jesus. That’s a huge difference. Think of the difference between Judas and Peter. Judas had worldly sorrow leading to death – Peter felt just as bad, but was restored by Jesus to new life. Worldly sorrow, or even the mere baptism of repentance, still leads to death. It is Godly sorrow that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.

Saying a prayer one time and then getting wet in a baptismal ceremony does not save you. Sorrow for your sin, leading to hatred of sin and a desire to be free from it, which leads to you the foot of the cross where you confess your sin and need, asking Jesus to take the punishment for it and to give you new life – and then living out that faith through trust and obedience to Jesus is what saves.

The Response to Jesus

There are more introductions to big themes here in John’s prologue, but let’s only do one more: How people responded to Jesus.

“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. 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.” (vs 9-13)

Throughout the whole book, you’re going to see Jesus do miracles, make claims about Himself, and then see people’s reactions. Jesus talks to every kind of person in the Gospel of John. Jews and Samaritans and Gentiles, men and women, pious religious people and social rejects, beggars and nobleman, crowds and individuals, rich and poor. And we get to see their reactions. Sometimes it is faith, but most often it is rejection – even from those who first believed.

For a variety of reasons – whether it was because Jesus didn’t give them what they wanted, because Jesus said things they didn’t like, because Jesus claimed authority over them, because they didn’t understand what Jesus was doing, or because Jesus refused to do things their way, Jesus’ teachings, claims, and miracles were often accepted at first but then rejected. This happens over and over and over until we see finally Him at the end of His life, almost totally abandoned – only a handful of people willing to admit they even know Him. The cost and risk of believing in Jesus, following Jesus, admitting to being Jesus’ disciple was too high.

And so the question, implied here and asked throughout the gospel is this: Where do you stand? After hearing what Jesus has said and done, have you turned from darkness to the light, believed in Jesus for your salvation, and become a child of God who will obey Jesus in all things – or, after hearing all this, do you still refuse to believe and obey? Will you surrender everything to Jesus as your Saviour, Lord and God, and be born again as a child of light – or do will you continue to live in the darkness? There are only two roads. Only two teams to play for. Those who follow Jesus to eternal life and those who will suffer eternal damnation.

To our modern ears that sounds intolerant and closed-minded. We’re used to leaving room for differing opinions, allowing for individual expressions of belief, letting people make decisions about God for themselves. We’ve been taught that it’s not polite to talk about religion and that it’s a faux pas to say that there is only one answer about something so important or controversial.

But Jesus doesn’t leave us any wiggle room and He doesn’t allow us to make up our own be