This week’s episode is something a bit different. It’s an update on the interesting things that have been going on in my life. Thanks for your support!
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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”.
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.
“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.
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:
“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.”
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.
I’m taking some time off for the next couple weeks, so there won’t be any posts or podcasts for the next little while.
Thanks for your prayers and support!
I’m super excited to announce the launch of my newest podcast: “Of Interest”. There are three parts: An Interesting Article, An Interesting Resource, and An Interesting Study. I know that sounds “educational”, but it’s actually personal, fun, interesting, helpful and short!
Please consider giving it a listen and letting me know what you think of it.
This week’s episode:
An Interesting Article: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/your-inner-war-will-end
An Interesting Resource: https://albertmohler.com/the-briefing
An Interesting Study: https://www.desiringgod.org/books/the-pilgrims-progress
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.
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’.”
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. 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?
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”, 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.
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.
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.”
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?
 Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Parable. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1606). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Life Application Bible Commentary – Luke – Pg 202
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.
“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.
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 – 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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).” 
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.
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.
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?
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.
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”.
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” 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!”
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.
♫ “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.
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.
 Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, pp. 237–238). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
“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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.