“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
This is a psalm of lament. The psalmist is lamenting, or complaining, that he is alone. He feels forgotten. That even God is hiding on him. He’s been attacked by his enemies, has run away in defeat, and is now left alone with only his own resources to work with and only his own terrible, inner thoughts as company. And, it seems, he’s been there for a while. It feels like he’s been forgotten “forever”. (Psalm 13)
Loneliness at Christmas
There are a lot of people these days who know how this psalmist feels. Christmas is only a few days away and a lot of people are in the full swing of the holiday season. Trees and decorations are all up, the radio is playing holiday music, the TV is playing Christmas movies, the Nativity Play is tonight, Christmas Eve service is around the corner. It’s at this time of year you get to ask people the very weird question, “How many turkey dinners have you had so far?” and for a lot of people here the answer is usually more than two.
When you ask people on the street their favourite part of Christmas, or even just “what is Christmas all about”, you’ll usually get the answer, “Time with my loved ones.” Most of society doesn’t recognize the “Christ” part of Christmas anymore, but they’ve certainly been conditioned that this time of year – usually from about Thanksgiving to New Years – is about making excuses to spend time with family and friends doing something special.
But it’s not like that for everyone. While many people are taking time off and flying and driving all over North America to be with their families and friends, others are not so blessed. Part of the problem with making the holidays all about family is that those without family are often lost in the shuffle, forgotten, and their feelings of loneliness can get very intense.
I saw a heartbreaking post that went viral online a couple weeks ago. There was a woman in Tulsa who posted this to Craigslist under the heading “Anybody need a grandma for Christmas”: “I have nobody and would really like to be part of a family. I cook and I can cook dinner. I’ll even bring food and gifts for the kids! I have nobody and it really hurts! Let me be part of your family.”
That’s sad, but the response to her plea was even sadder. She had to quickly take down the post because many of the responses she got were very negative. She was accused of trying to trick people, others calling her a “parasite” trying to prey on a generous family, and one person told her to go kill herself. Such is the risk we take when sharing our feelings online – and such is the nature of how toxic the internet can be.
One article about the post this week said how this is a reminder of the “loneliness and social isolation acutely felt during the holidays, particularly among [those] who have no family or have become isolated from relatives.” This problem is increasing as fatherlessness and divorce are common, children move farther away for school and work, life has gotten so much busier, and fewer people are having children at all. According to the article, fewer and fewer people are even feeling the need to visit their relatives anymore.
It’s quite well known by now that some governments around the world have said we are having a loneliness public health crisis. Australia and the US have official government agencies dedicated to ending social isolation. And the UK, after doing a yearlong study on the problem even created a government position known as the “Minister of Loneliness” to try to help their nine million citizens (14% of the population) who suffer from loneliness.
A Universal Problem
Bringing the problem closer to home, I saw another article in the Ottawa citizen about the “Cost of Loneliness”. The gist of the article is that if we can solve the loneliness problem, we’ll save a lot of tax-money because loneliness has connections to things like early death, heart disease, dementia, depression, and suicide. One shocking statistic I read is that according to the 2016 census “for the first time in recorded Canadian history, one-person households are the most common household type in the country.” Another amazing statistic was that “being disconnected is just as dangerous to good health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” A 2008 study apparently said that “loneliness is contagious”. It said that “every additional day of loneliness per week led to about an extra day of loneliness per month for those in the social network.”
Of course, this all costs tax-payer money in a country with public health care, but it also costs businesses money too. Everyone, in the western world anyway it seems, is trying to fight a “war on loneliness” with everything from prescription drugs, free bus service for seniors to go do things, an international summit’s on isolation, encouraging people to play online video games, asking doctors and social workers to give people a ‘social prescription’ to take dance lessons, and giving them companion animals or even companion robots to keep them company. They’re throwing everything they can at the problem to try to ward off the crippling despair that seems to be growing in the nation.
Men and women, young and old, married and unmarried, may experience the problem differently but there’s no segment of the population that doesn’t feel it. Seniors seem to feel it worse than the rest, but teens have some deep feelings of isolation too – even as they are surrounded by friends or family.
Pastors aren’t immune to this either. You’d think that a group of men dedicated to Jesus and His people wouldn’t feel lonely. But that’s not the case. You might think that if you just went to church more, served the community more, kept busier with work, or just invited more people out, that you’d never be lonely – but that’s not true. The busiest, most diligent, friendliest, most godly men I know are also some of the loneliest.
Why Loneliness Hurts
The North American world has tried almost everything to combat this epidemic of loneliness in society, but it’s only getting worse. I don’t want to speculate as to the myriad of causes because I’m sure you can all come up with a dozen off the top of your head. But I want you to consider for a moment the danger of loneliness and the root causes of it. And, clearly, it’s far more than just being sad or bored. It’s a far deeper issue – so much so that it affects every part of life. We just talked about how it’s linked to depression and suicide and even has the power to infect others. That’s a powerful influence.
And I think it comes down to three things: Loneliness isn’t an end in itself. Loneliness leads to three even more powerful problems: Lovelessness, Joylessness, and Hopelessness.
There’s a big difference between being alone, being isolated, and being lonely. One can be alone and still feel loved, joyful and hopeful. If you’ve ever had the flu or a bad cold and have been stuck in your bed, even sent away from the family so they don’t catch it too, you know what it’s like to be alone, or isolated, but not feel lonely. People are avoiding you, but not because they don’t love you. You lie there miserable, but you still know you’re loved, feel joy that they’re around you and not sick themselves, and have hope of feeling better to join them.
Being lonely is different. You can feel lonely while in a crowd. You can feel lonely while smiling and serving people. You can feel lonely while sitting across from someone you love. Loneliness can be like an infection, a disease that latches onto your soul and won’t let go. For some people, loneliness is like a wave that crests on them out of nowhere. While for others it’s an enemy that crouches in the corner of every room just waiting for a moment of silence, a distraction-free moment, to strike and cripple – which is why they are always listening or watching or doing something.
I think that’s what the psalmist means when he says, “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” He’s tired of listening to his own bad thoughts – and back then he didn’t have an iPod to plug in or a radio to turn up.
He doesn’t feel love because his enemies have overcome him. He doesn’t feel joy because everything’s gone wrong and there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix it. No one has come to help – not even God – and that is leading him into a very dangerous place: hopelessness. You see, loneliness doesn’t end with feeling lonely. Once you feel lonely, it’s not a far journey to believing that no one loves you… which means you think you’ll never feel joy… which means life is only pain… which, if that thought process isn’t interrupted, if there is no other “counsel” for their “soul”, it will ultimately lead to the feeling of utter hopelessness.
Hal Lindsey once said, “Human beings can live for forty days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope.” That’s why loneliness hurts so much.
But why is loneliness so powerful? I want you to consider Genesis 2:18. It’s the verse where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone…” I’ve mentioned this many times, but remember that God said this before the Fall of Man. The world was perfect. No sin, no problems, no bad weather, no bad news. Adam is standing in the Garden of Eden, has been given a meaningful job and an abundance of resources, and is standing in the direct presence, in the very glory of God Himself – and God says, “There’s something wrong.” “It is not good that the man should be alone…”
That reveals something. The fact that the presence of God Himself and the perfect environment of Eden wasn’t enough to combat loneliness tells us something very meaningful about the power and danger of loneliness.
What’s the Solution?
I think secular society is starting to figure this out, which is why they are trying to fix the problem. But they simply do not have the resources – because loneliness cannot be fixed by giving someone a dog, making them go to a community centre lunch, medicating away bad feelings, or giving them access to the internet so they can post on social media or play video games online. That’s like trying to treat cancer with a Band-Aid. The problem is deep, and so the treatment must be deep.
Humans were not designed to be alone. And that loneliness isn’t merely a sociological problem – it’s an existential one, a spiritual one. Our greatest problem is not a physical or sociological problem and therefore it cannot be solved by man-made ingenuity. Our greatest enemy is not economic or political or familial or even mental or emotional. Our great enemy is the spiritual problem of sin and our spiritual enemy called Satan. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pe 5:8), and just like a lion he doesn’t take on the strongest member of the pack, instead, he chases the herd until the weakest fall behind, until the ones who cannot run well, or who are immature, or injured, get left behind, become isolated, alone, and then feeds on them. Loneliness isn’t just miserable, it’s deeply dangerous.
And therefore, since the problem is spiritual, the only solution must be spiritual. And our spiritual solutions are found in Jesus.
We’ve been lighting advent candles for the past month and doing readings about those candles. Do you remember what they stand for? Love, Joy, Peace, and Hope – all surrounding the Christ Candle. Why? Because having Christ at the centre of our lives is the only way to solve our greatest problems. Jesus’ greatest gift to us is not to solve our worldly problems. When He inaugurated His kingdom He didn’t save us financially, politically, or physiologically. If Jesus would have come to give everyone health, wealth, and worldly peace – a lot of people would have been happy. But they would have still been suffering from the effects of sin – broken relationships with God and each other, a spirit that longs for wrong things, and ultimately death and judgement before a holy, wrathful God who would send us to Hell. We should be very thankful that Jesus’ solutions weren’t worldly ones, but spiritual ones – because our greatest issues are not physical, but spiritual.
I want to show you something from another Pastor named Paul Tripp for a moment because in an advent message he gave recently he absolutely hits the nail on the head.
Come back to Psalm 13. Look at how this lonely man responds. Start at verse 3,
“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed over him,’ lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.” He turns to God and says, “God, look at me, listen to me, and please answer me. You are my Lord and my God and I know that you’re the only one that can keep this loneliness from dragging me into death, the only one who is going to keep the enemy from claiming victory.”
And certainly here Christians can say the same thing about our spiritual enemy.
He says to God, “Light up my eyes!” Another translation says, “Make my eyes clear!” He’s saying what we’ve been saying about Jesus in our study of the gospel of John. He is the source of light and the only one who can bring light in the darkness, who can restore sight to the blind. Psalm 19:8 says,
“…the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes…”
In his moment of weakness, he’s turning to the word and promises and person of God.
Listen to Ephesians 1:15–21,
“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”
What is Paul’s prayer? That the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened by knowing the hope that is found in Jesus. Hope comes from knowing our souls are secure in Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus as saviour and friend. Peace comes from knowing that Jesus is victorious over our enemies. And love comes from knowing that God loved us while we were unloveable. As Romans 5:8 says,
“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
This is why we come to God and says, “O Lord my God, light up my eyes…”
Look back at our passage in Psalm 13. What is his conclusion? How does the Psalm end? At the beginning of this short psalm, this man is almost overwhelmed with loneliness and grief. He’s almost lost hope. But he turns to God and asks for light in the darkness. What happens in verses 5-6?
“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
What we see here is that God has answered his prayer. What did God do? Send friends? Conquer his enemies? Give him abundance of wealth and health and power? No. This man’s problem was a spiritual problem, and God solved it with spiritual power.
God shone a light in the darkness and said, “Here. See the truth.” And in that moment this lonely, hopeless man says, “Wait. What am I saying. I’m not alone. God is here. And God is trustworthy. And God’s love never fails. I know that. I’ve seen it. I’m sitting here right now alive because He saved me. Sure, I got pounded, but I’m still here, and God is still good. The story isn’t over. God is always victorious and His people always win in the end. And when I think of all the ways that I’ve been saved and blessed up to this point I can see that I’m not at the end of my rope – in fact, I can see a lot of ways that God has “dealt bountifully with me.”
It reminds me of another passage we studied recently that said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (1 Cor 4:7-9)
In verse 6 we read something amazing. He says, “I will sing to the Lord…” From loneliness and hopelessness and joylessness and fear and feeling forgotten and unloved – to “I will sing.” How does that happen? Did his circumstances change? No. Did his enemies get conquered? No. Did he get a windfall of money or some new weapon? No. What changed? What takes a person from “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” to “I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”?
There is only one thing. God answered the prayer for Him to “light up his eyes.”
Let’s turn to one more place in scripture; to Isaiah 9:2-6, a passage we read every Christmas because it’s a prophecy about the birth of Jesus and what He would do. Ever wonder why baby Jesus is usually glowing in nativity pictures? Isaiah 9 is why.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
What is that light? It’s Jesus.
“You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In this room, right now, there are people who know this truth, have seen this light, and have met the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace”. There are people here who have lived on both sides of this psalm – and who still struggle on both sides. I can tell you today that the solution to your problem of fear, sadness, hopelessness, joylessness, and loneliness is not a worldly solution. I think, deep down, you know this because you’ve tried it.
You’ve tried to distract it away with work and entertainment. You’ve tried to control it with schedules and exercise and rules. You’ve tried to medicate it away with pills and food and porn and alcohol. You’ve tried to ward it off by serving people, going to parties, staying busy. You’ve tried to find your solution in another person – a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend – and whether they’ve let you down or they continue to try, they are simply not enough, which is why you blame them or push them away or cling to them so hard that you suffocate them.
It doesn’t work because the only solution to your loneliness is to have God Himself light up your eyes, to restore you to Himself through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to go from hopeless and lonely to singing about “steadfast love” is to, like the advent wreath, have the light of Christ at the centre of your life.
There seems to be a feeling of flux right now in the world. I’m sure you’ve felt it. A feeling of instability in our hearts, community, country, and world. There are people going through relationship transitions as the dynamics of their marriage, friendships, partnerships and workplace change around them. Some are facing personal transitions as their body changes with age. Some are making decisions that will bring about a new season of life and the lives around them. On top of that, we have all the environmental changes happening around the globe, wars and rumours of wars, and of course the recent elections in our own nation, the one coming in the US, and political instability around the world. Sometimes, with all this uncertainty, it can feel like the ground beneath our feet is shifting. The question comes, then, what can we do to ensure that while the world around us shifts and moves, we are on solid ground?
Please open to Luke 6:46–49,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
The Fruit of Obedience
What we have just read is the end of one of Jesus’ sermons, called The Sermon on the Plain. We know that Jesus didn’t just speak a message once and then never repeat it again, so this is likely a second telling, and summarized version, of the longer Sermon on the Mount from Matthew where He described what life in the Kingdom of God is like –the laws of the Kingdom, the attitudes and character of His people, and how they will relate to God and live in this world. I want you to notice that at the end of this message, He concludes with a question and a story:
The question was:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
and it is just as sharp today as it was the day He spoke it. He contrasts the difference between hearing and doing, confession and obedience. If you look at the previous verses you’ll see Jesus tell the parable of “The Tree and its Fruit”,
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43–45)
This whole section is talking about hypocrisy: saying one thing (“Yes, Jesus is my Lord, I got saved, I’m a Christian, I go to church, blah, blah, blah…”) but not having a life that reflects it. How can you tell a good tree from a bad tree? They might look the same on the surface, but the real test of a tree is whether it produces good fruit and seeds and offspring. In the same way, the definition of a disciple is not simply someone that calls Jesus “Lord, Lord”, it is someone who produces spiritual fruit.
What is spiritual fruit? Let me give you a couple of verses for that so we know what we’re talking about.
- Think of John 15 where God is presented as the Gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
- Philippians 1:11 and Hebrews 12:11 speak of the “fruit of righteousness”.
- Colossians 1:10 speaks of believers, “bearing fruit in every good work”.
But flip over to Galatians 5:16–25 and we get to see a much clearer picture,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Does this mean that we are saved by doing good deeds or having a good attitude? No. The New Testament is very clear that we are not saved by good works, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus isn’t talking about how He wants us to perform good works to earn our salvation, but instead is being clear that anyone who believes in Him, who is reborn as a Christian, who has had the curse of sin lifted and is now a new creation in Christ, will demonstrate that by leading a changed life. Will it be a perfect life? No. We still suffer from the effects of sin in our bodies and are surrounded by temptations – but will we hate sin, want to be free from it, and seek to do good works? Yes.
Consider James 2:14–19,
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
Believe it or not, the demons have better theology than you do. They know Jesus, the Bible, the plan of salvation, and have seen everything from the beginning to the end. They believe in Jesus. They know Jesus is the Saviour of the World. They fear Him as God and shudder at His name. Knowing about God isn’t enough. What matters is faith that leads to repentance which leads to obedience. Knowing you are a sinner that cannot save yourself, knowing that Jesus is the only way of salvation, isn’t enough. You must believe in Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord, and demonstrate that belief by turning away from sin and self and obeying Jesus. That’s what the demons won’t do. They believe all the right things – but they won’t submit to Jesus as Lord.
God hates hypocrisy. He often warns about people who look and sound like believers but are not.
- He calls them “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15)
- or “rocky and thorny ground” (Mark 4:10-20).
- The Apostle Paul warned of “false apostles [and] deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” Saying, “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Cor 11:13-15)
How can we tell the difference between good trees and bad, good soil and bad, someone that claims to be a Christian but isn’t and a true believer? How can you tell within yourself whether or not you are a real Christian or merely a “cultural Christian” or just going along with what your family says? The answer Jesus gives is simple: Do you call Jesus Lord and then do what He says? Does your life bear the fruit of obedience to Jesus? Have you ever asked yourself, “Do I really love Jesus? How do I know if I really love Jesus? I feel like a sinner. I feel guilty and shameful. I don’t feel like I love Jesus enough.”
Listen to Jesus words in
- John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
- John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
- John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
Believers turn away from sin and towards Jesus. Ask yourself: Do you want to obey Jesus? In your heart of hearts, does Jesus get the last word in your life? Is He your highest authority? When you slip up, fall to temptation, sin against Him, is He the first person you turn to in order to ask forgiveness – because you know that your sin, guilt, shame, and all the mess that came from it, was because you didn’t obey Him? Do you readily accept His discipline because you know that even though it’s painful at the time, you know that He’s trying to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” in your life (Hebrews 12:7-11)
Turn to and listen to the words of 1 John 5:1–5,
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
A true believer knows that the commands of God are “not burdensome”, which is why we readily and joyfully and eagerly obey them.
For example, say someone has seriously wronged you. What does the world tell you to do? What does your sinful flesh tell you to do? It wants you to blame, and get bitter, and stay angry, and punish them, gossip so their reputation is ruined, seek revenge, avoid people because they might hurt you again, get angry at the world because you were wronged, hang around other bitter people, make that pain your entire identity, have it colour every relationship and decision you make for your whole life. Right? And how does that all feel? Awful.
What does Jesus want us to do? Forgive the person. See them as a fellow sinner. Grieve, share, pray, and then let God mete out the punishment – either on that person in Hell or on Jesus on the cross. To see that Jesus weeps with you, and will one day rescue you from all that pain. That one day it will be forgotten. And further, God wants you to even recognize that He is bigger than the pain and can even cause it to produce fruit in your life. That He can allow you to become a source of help, inspiration, and healing for others because you are now equipped in a way no one else is.
Now, which is more “burdensome”? The world’s way or God’s?
It’s the same with so many things. The world says, “Use alcohol, chemicals, and porn to make yourself feel better.” God says, “Practice self-control, turn your burdens over to me, and openly share your weaknesses with others so they can help you.” Which one is more burdensome?
The world says, “Hoard your money because the future is uncertain. Gather up possessions because having stuff will make you feel good. Don’t share with anyone because no one can be trusted. Don’t lend your stuff because it might get broken.” God says, “Trust that God will provide what you need when you need it, so be generous with each other. Love people instead of things because all the stuff is going to rust and break anyway. Hold all your things in a loose hand and share generously because it’s not yours anyway, you get to feel the joy of giving, you won’t get upset when something breaks, and more people will be blessed.” Which one is more burdensome? Greed or Generosity?
Christians know that trusting God, following God, loving God, turning from sin and self to obeying God, isn’t just a bunch of religious rules to try to get heaven points – it’s literally a path to freedom laid out by Jesus Himself.
And so, God treats us like fruit trees or vines. Because He wants us free from the burden of sin and the world, and to bear fruit that leads to an abundant life, He prunes us. God doesn’t have much interest in fruitless branches. And then tells us that the difference between a good tree and bad, a good branch and bad, a true believer and a hypocrite – is fruit.
Jesus doesn’t care about the number of people that call Him “Lord”. But He does care very much about producing fruit. Jesus isn’t planting a forest. He’s cultivating an orchard.
The Struggle of Obedience
And so, at the end of this sermon, Jesus looks at the crowd – and to us – and says,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
We all struggle with this, don’t we? We pray, “Dear Lord, God…” and then almost immediately disobey Him. We read a scripture, hear a sermon, feel a conviction in our heart from the Holy Spirit, and we absolutely know that our Lord God, Creator of the Universe, has just told us to do something – and then we don’t do it.
God says, “Forgive that person. Be reconciled to your brother or sister. Stop pursuing worldly gain and start looking after your spirit, your family, and your church. Go be a peacemaker to that troubled situation. Go tell those people about me. Get rid of that unrighteous anger. Stop lusting after people that you’re not married to. Stay married to your spouse and do everything you can to love them. Quit lying and breaking your promises. Show love to your enemy. Be generous with the needy. Read your Bible and talk to me every day. Take time to rest and fast. Smash the idols you have in your life. Stop worrying about things and trust me. Show humility and stop putting yourselves above others. Obey your parents, teachers, and elders. Submit to God in all things.” And then says, “Will you do what I tell you?”
That’s the Sermon on the Mount and on the Plain in a nutshell. And at the end of that incredible list, Jesus asks us to evaluate our hearing and our doing, our confession and our obedience, our talk and our walk. He wants us to check to see if they line up.
Why? Because, as we live in this world, we are going to face a lot of storms and He wants to make sure that we’re safe. It’s an act of love! He knows that until He comes again, this life is going to be filled with difficulty, uncertainty, and temptation. There are liars and cheats that want to manipulate us, charlatans who pretend to love us but don’t, huge decisions all the time, pain and sorrow beyond our ability to handle, immense temptations, and our enemy, the devil, prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pe. 5:8). Jesus wants us secure in Him so we’re not overwhelmed by the storms of life. He knows that if we do what He says, we’ll be safe.
It’s kind of like a parent sending your teen off on a road trip. We tell them, “Ok, be careful. Do you have your itinerary? Did you check the oil in the car? Do you have gas? Washer fluid if it rains? Don’t do anything stupid while driving. And when you get there, call me. Your hotel room is going to be full of temptations, so how are you going to handle that? Your friends are going to ask you to do dumb stuff. How dumb are you planning on getting? I know you’re going to want to live on pizza and pop, but please eat a vegetable and drink some water. And remember, if you need anything, or you get in trouble, just call me!”
We’re not doing that because we’re mad, or we want our kid to obey us to prove something, or that we’re trying to load them with burdens. Why do we do this? Because we love them and want them safe! Jesus’ sermon isn’t about rules – it’s about love!
I want to close by asking you to consider the story Jesus tells about the two builders for a moment.
First, notice that both of them hear the message. One “hears… and does” while the other “hears and does not”. We’re not talking about people who have not heard the message of the Gospel and the teachings of scripture. Jesus is talking about people who have heard what God wants and expects from them but doesn’t do it.
Second, notice that both of them build. In the story, the house represents a person’s life. Everyone builds a life. Both builders are placed in the world, both are given the materials they need to for a good house. Both builders use their skills and abilities and God-given resources to build.
Third, notice that they both build near the stream. They are neighbours. Similar materials, similar environments, similar issues. We all, for the most part, are working with the same stuff. Yes, we all have our own uniqueness –physical or mental advantages, more or less money, some more prone toward certain temptations, some differences in upbringing or personal baggage. We all have things that make us us, and God has certainly gifted each one of us with a special purpose, but our similarities vastly outweigh our differences. We all live by the same stream. We all have skills and abilities, we all face temptation, fear, grief, and pain.
Which leads us to the fourth similarity between the builders: they both experienced a flood. The flood represents the troubles of this world and the final judgement before God. In other words, immediate consequences and eternal consequences.
What’s the difference? Both hear the message, both build a house. On the outside, to anyone else, they look identical. As the two trees from the parable, they look the same for most of the year. The difference is only shown during the storm. And it’s something unseen, something under the house. Something neither builder built. The foundation.
One dug deep and built on the rock. He did the work. He put it into practice. It took time and effort to dig a hole the size of a house in the sandy land by the stream until he hit bedrock. He had to put off building his house. He didn’t do the fun stuff first. He dug down, down, down, until he found the solid bedrock near that stream and then built on that.
Hearing is easy. Obedience takes work. Getting saved is a free gift from Jesus, living with Jesus as Lord requires sacrifice. It might mean putting off things like career advancement, certain relationships, or things you enjoy – so you can dig into God’s word and practice obedience, removing the shifting sand from beneath your house, one shovelful at a time, knowing that leaving it there will cause problems later.
It might mean removing some things you go to for comfort or getting rid of things that distract you from your relationship with Jesus. I remember as a college student destroying over a hundred CDs in my music collection because – at the time – they were a stumbling block between me and Jesus. It hurt, but it had to go – there have been many more since.
It might mean removing things from your schedule so you can pray, read scripture, attend church each week, and have a Sabbath rest. It might mean changing your finances so you can live a generous lifestyle. It might mean throwing out or selling something you enjoy because it causes you to sin.
Each shovelful of sand you remove that separates you from the foundation hurts a little at first, but obeying God in these ways actually removes burdens. There goes my pride. There goes my selfishness. There goes my Sunday morning sleep. There goes that TV show I like. There goes my favourite addiction. There go my internet privileges. There goes my gossip group. There goes my vacation. There go my career plans. There go my marriage plans.
As empty the hole and dig down deeper and deeper to the bedrock of Jesus Christ we aren’t leaving ourselves empty though. It’s not like God’s perfect plan is for us to sit alone in an empty room, meditating. As we empty our lives of ungodly things, choosing to obey God, He back-fills the hole with good, godly things. As God helps us remove the sand, he replaces it with strong stone after stone, replacing our thoughts with His thoughts, our ways with His ways, our heart with His heart, our will with His will, our habits with His habits, our words with His words, our plans with His plans, the things we use to enjoy, with things that bring us true and real joy, until we have built a solid foundation on Him and how He wants us to live.
The Joy of Obedience
And then when the rains come down and the floods come up, and the stream grows into a river – we face death, loss, fear, persecution – we are able to experience the greatest joy of all as our house continues to stand. Others around us are falling apart – marriages exploding, addictions growing, debt mounting, anxiety overcoming, sadness overwhelming – and there we stand, secure in the midst of the storm. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of who we are built on. All the work of faith, all the pruning God did, all the discipline, makes sense. And then, instead of that water washing us away – it actually becomes the food, the nutrients, that allows us to bear more fruit than before! We see what Romans 8:37 means when it says that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And of course, in eternity, when we face Jesus after we die – those who believe and obey stand, and those who do not, fall. And as we stand, we don’t pat ourselves on the back – we give thanks to our foundation!
You’ve probably experienced a few storms by now, and it has shown you a few things, hasn’t it? It’s shown you where your foundation lies. Maybe you fell apart, maybe parts of you fell apart. The storm showed you the sand that remains between you and your foundation. And, hopefully, it’s shown you how firm a foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. If you did fall apart though, hopefully, it’s shown you how feeble your foundation is and how much you need Jesus.
Remember, the one that listened to Jesus and built their life on His word stood secure. The ones that listen to Jesus, and didn’t do what He said, fell apart. The story is a warning to people who act religious, act like Christians, attend church, use Christian language, claim to be believers, but who see God’s commands as burdensome, don’t do what Jesus says, and who, when difficulties come, fall apart – and in the end, will go to hell.
You may think that you’re doing pretty well with a foot in both worlds – you get the security of feeling like a believer and get to be around a bunch of Christians, while at the same time living a worldly life where you get the pleasures of sin – but here’s the thing: the storm is inevitable. Jesus says very clearly that “the flood” is not an “if” but a “when”. Pain will come in this life… and you are going to die and face the Judgement Seat of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:10)
Jesus’ question is, “What’s the point of calling me ‘Lord’ and pretending to be a Christian if you’re not going to do what I say? It won’t help you avoid the storms, your life will be insecure, and it won’t help you in eternity. What benefit is your hypocrisy? If you call me ‘Lord’ do what I say, then you will get the benefits of what I’m trying to give you!”
Update on CLRA Meeting
I thought it important to start with a quick update on the meeting Jason and I went to this week. I don’t want to take up the whole sermon time with it, but it’s important, and you are all invested in what is happening so I want to make sure you’re informed.
There were actually four meetings in a row. We began with worship and a quick orientation by the leaders of CLRA outlining why we were there and a quick discussion to make sure we were all on the same page. Pastor Paul Carter, the point leader of CLRA, explained that the whole point of the day was to be a one-stop-shop where we could pray together, hear from the CBOQ leadership about how they are dealing with the LGBTQ issues, talk amongst ourselves as church leaders, and then get a presentation from another denomination that has already dealt with the issue properly.
To be honest, this has gone on far longer than I even knew. I told you last week that this all came about because of Danforth a few years ago but it was actually 7 years ago that this came up in the Norfolk association. One of the pastors there tried to go through the process of confronting another pastor who was giving some false teaching but ended up getting in trouble himself at the CBOQ head office. That event is actually what spawned the creation of CLRA and Danforth is only the most recent example of the same issue they’ve been trying to deal with for a long time.
I could get into more detail about what’s been going on for the past years, but suffice to say that there hasn’t been a lot done. People have talked, committees have been struck, paperwork has been shuffled, emails sent, plans made — but ultimately nothing has been done to confront the actual issue of what to do with pastors and churches who are teaching and doing unbiblical things. And that’s where the frustration comes from. Lots of talk, not enough action.
To give an example of what’s been happening, let me tell you about one e-mail. The CBOQ struck a committee to discuss how they could deal with these kinds of issues. This committee took a long while to come up with six phases they would go through to “deal with challenging issues”. We are currently on phase 3 where they encourage churches to talk to about the issue before moving on to phase 4 where they get feedback from the churches.
They decided to send out an e-mail telling people that they were planning to launch phase four soon, but apparently, the first draft of the e-mail wasn’t to the liking of the CBOQ staff, so they took it to another group so they could edit the e-mail. That tweaking on one email took over a month. I got it a couple weeks ago and it absolutely reads like it was written by a committee more interested in not offending anyone than actually saying anything. This caused confusion among the churches and head office was inundated with calls by confused church leaders. And the churches who want to see decisive action taken on what they see as an obvious issue are very frustrated.
When the president and former president of CBOQ came into the meeting, it felt tense. The two men were obviously nervous and defensive. When they sat down their tone was immediately aggressive and accusatory towards the pastors and leaders of CLRA. They talked for a long time and were given a chance to answer questions from the crowd, and it was a very frustrating thing to listen to. We kept asking pointed, specific, questions like, “Do you believe that homosexuality is a sin?” or “Will the CBOQ be decisive and deal with this issue?” or “We already agreed on this in 1988 and 2003 and have systems in place to deal with it at an association level, will you support those systems?” – and they just refused to give clear answers. If you’ve ever watched a politician bob and weave around reporters questions and dodge issues they don’t want to talk about, you’ll know how it felt. It was very disappointing.
When the two of them eventually left, the gathered leaders only had a short time to talk but I think they all felt the same way as I did. Pastor Paul voiced his frustration, as did some others, said it was generally agreed that the CBOQ was badly broken, hopelessly divided, the head office woefully inadequate to the task, and that the conference is probably unfixable outside a mighty work of God. Pastor Paul then made the suggestion that there was really only one, last ethically right thing left to do: Present one final, clear, decisive, formal motion at the next CBOQ Annual Assembly Meeting in June that essentially presents them an ultimatum. Stand by the word of God, stick to the principles the CBOQ has historically agreed on, and create a discipline and policing mechanism to deal with the churches who refuse — or don’t.
And that’s the current plan. Pastor Mark Bertrand, who has been part of this process from day one and has even been sitting on various CBOQ committees, will get a few smart folks together to draft that motion, send it out to the CLRA churches, and then we’ll probably meet one more time before the meeting to nail down the exact wording.
The general consensus is that a motion like that will be thunderously defeated at the floor, but at least then everyone will know where they stand. And that’s where we’re at as a church too. Jason and I are waiting for CLRA to get back to us with a draft of that motion, and we’re waiting and praying for the next Annual Meeting.
(There was a brief Q&A at this point. To hear it, listen to the Audio Podcast version.)
Why This is Important
I know I said that I wanted to get back into the Gospel of John this week, but I really feel like we need to cover why this topic is important enough that many churches would consider leaving the CBOQ over. I can absolutely see people saying, “Why can’t we just all get along? Why do we have to argue at all? Why not just let them do their thing and we’ll do ours and then we don’t have to divide? Hasn’t there been enough division in church history? Doesn’t God talk about the importance of unity? Won’t it affect our church’s reputation if we are the ones to leave? Can’t we just all stay together for the sake of the things we actually agree on?”
And those are very good questions. No church, and no Christian, should take division, divorce, or disfellowship lightly. Whether it’s us talking about the churches of our denomination, the individual congregation we attend, or our ministries, work, contracts, friendship, families, or marriages, our hearts should be oriented toward unity, working things out, being gracious, open-minded, forgiving, putting up with one another’s issues.
Consider the words of Romans 12:9-21:
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That’s an extremely clear passage of scripture dealing with human relationships. It covers inside the church and outside. It covers friends and family, troubled people, and enemies. It keeps telling us to be kind, gracious, humble, loving, and extremely patient with everyone who we come in contact with — just as Christ has been with us.
And so, you’d think that it would go doubly when dealing with other churches, right? The Bible is super clear about Christians seeking unity. Paul pleads with churches to remain united under the banner of Christ. So why would we be talking about division and disunity with the CBOQ? After all, shouldn’t we be doing what Romans 12 says?
Leaving a Church
Yes, and no. Yes, we need to be loving and patient, but no, we should not remain in partnership with everyone who calls themselves Christian. And the nuance is important.
Right now, there’s a huge problem in the Christian church with division and what is sometimes called “church hopping”. A lot of Christians tend to treat churches like restaurants. They go, try the food, if they like it they stay, but if they get bored, the chef changes the specials, or one of the waiters has a bad day, they take off and go try a different restaurant. The consumerism of the culture has seeped into people’s brains so much that they believe that they can treat the local church like a store and their ministries like a product. And they sometimes leave a church with as much thought and prayer as they would give switching from Freshco to Independent, or from Petro-Canada to Pioneer. They only think as far as their own feelings.
I would argue that most Christians who leave churches leave for non-biblical reasons. They don’t follow through on Romans 12, they don’t go through Jesus’ teaching on how to deal with offences from Matthew 18, they don’t get council or humble themselves like Paul wanted Euodia and Syntyche to. They just leave. And that’s bad for the church they leave because the church can’t grow past whatever issue they left because of, it’s bad for the church they go to because these people are bringing baggage with them, and it’s bad for the people themselves because they are missing the blessing of what God promises to those who humble themselves toward their fellow believers.
We don’t want to be like that. But, does a person have to stay in one church forever? Are there good, biblical reasons to leave a church? And, as to our own issue, are there good reasons for a church to leave a denomination? Yes, there are. There are actually 4 I found in my study.
Four Reasons to Leave a Church/Denomination
The first reason to leave a church is if heresy is being taught from the pulpit about foundational, scriptural truths. Listen to Galatians 1:6-9:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
There is a lot of wiggle room for different opinions about secondary teachings in the Bible. A person’s view of the end times, their view of creationism, or what version of the bible is the best one are all good discussions, but they are not primary and they’re not reasons to leave a church. What we’re talking about are things that are in the Apostles Creed. If the church has a dozen amazing ministries, a great kids program, and an awesome band, but doesn’t preach the Gospel, God wants you out of that church. They are accursed.
The second reason to leave is “If the leaders of the church tolerate seriously errant doctrine from any who are given teaching authority in the fellowship.” (I got a lot of help from this blogpost by John MacArthur on these four reasons.) In other words, if there is no system in place to discipline and remove false teachers. If the first reason to leave is that they’re teaching heresy, the second would be that the church simply isn’t interested in correcting heresy. Listen to Romans 16:17-18,
“I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.”
This is the church that has a good preacher and lots of good foundational documents on their website — a good statement of faith, membership covenant, etc. — but if anyone teaches anything different from what is in scripture, they have no system, no way, even no desire to confront that teacher. You go on Sunday and hear a decent sermon, but the Sunday School teachers are unskilled and full of wrong ideas, or the Small Groups are studying dubious books or false teachers, the music leader speaks with biblical falsehoods or sings unbiblical songs, or the library is full of contradicting and heretical materials. This is also a red flag — and is, in fact, the main reason why the conservative wing of the CBOQ is considering leaving. There are churches who are in clear violation of scripture — on the LGBTQ issues and others — but the CBOQ has not demonstrated a will or desire to discipline them or allow the associations to deal with it. Letting wolves roam around the sheep is a huge problem and a reason to leave.
The third reason to leave is similar to the second one, but it is if the church refuses to confront sin or discipline members who are sinning blatantly. I won’t get you to read it, but you’ll hopefully remember from 1 Corinthians 5 that Paul gives the church a lot of trouble for letting people in the church get away with some pretty disgusting stuff. And not only refusing to discipline them but actually bragging about how open-minded and non-judgmental their church is. This is another red flag — that they don’t take sin seriously.
Not that they are all spying on one another, breathing down each other’s necks with everyone afraid to move lest they get hammered by the pastor — we’re talking about people who are in obvious sins. I’ve heard of churches who have caught men molesting the kids in the church but refused to call the police or tell the church. That person just leaves and goes on to do it at a different church. That’s terrible. We’ve talked about the dangers of not confronting sin many times and that the most loving thing we can do is to drag sin into the light and deal with it. If a church doesn’t take discipline and sin seriously, then they don’t take God, salvation, scripture, or love seriously. We would all agree that a parent who doesn’t discipline their child, or who doesn’t pull them back from danger, does not truly love them.
We, as a church, cannot say we love the people of Danforth or Norfolk or any other church in the CBOQ who is teaching and practicing error if we are not willing to step up and say so. It is cruel of us to allow a group of people we are in association with to go on listening to and believing wrong things about God because we are too afraid to tell them the truth and bring their pastor or leadership to account.
The fourth reason to leave a church is if the church is marked by hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to actually live it out. We read 2 Timothy 3 last week, but turn there anyway. Hopefully, you’ll remember this list describing people in the church who want to be called Christians, who even want to be pastors and leaders in the church, who want everyone to see a “form of godliness” but are in fact hypocrites who will not submit to Jesus.
How can you tell if you are attending or in fellowship with this kind of church? Paul describes it this way, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be…” now look at this list:
“Lovers of self”. This church promotes itself, not Jesus or the Gospel. They talk about how great their pastor is, how cool their ministries are, how good their band sounds — but not about the work God is doing there. The fruits of repentance, obedience, and humility are nowhere because the church doesn’t love Jesus, they love themselves, so that’s what they talk about.
Next, this church is full of “lovers of money”. Having a big building and a gym and fancy tech isn’t bad — and having a small church full of old stuff doesn’t make you better than them. How can you tell if the church is a lover of money? All the conversations seem to revolve around money. Maintenance issues, how to spend the money, how to save the money, they argue about budget items, they talk a lot about how much tithing there is, the rich people are in places of authority even though they’re not godly, and things like that. Whether a church is rich or poor, if they spend more time talking about money than they do praying, studying the word, and presenting the gospel, it’s a bad church.
Next, this church is “proud, arrogant”. How can you tell? Because they constantly compare themselves to other churches. They think they’re better than them. When other churches or preaches or ministries come up in conversation it’s always comparative — who is better, who has bigger numbers, who has bigger building, who raised more money. The preacher slams other churches in his sermons, and the culture of the church shows that they think they’re better than others.
I’ll stop there, but consider the rest of the list for yourselves. Have you ever heard of or been to an “abusive” church or seen an abusive pastor? They absolutely exist. And they’ll abuse under the guise of being “fundamentalist” or even “tolerant”. There are churches and pastors and ministries who teach their youth to be “disobedient to their parents” under the guise of being radically sold out to Jesus. Some churches are “ungrateful”, others “unholy”. There are “heartless” churches who don’t care about the marginalized or oppressed. There are “unappeasable” churches who are always complaining and arguing about something. There are “slanderous” churches who promote gossip and talk about people behind their back – even from the pulpit.
And there’s more for you to consider. These are churches and church leaders, as verse 5 says, who have “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” What does the Apostle say we should do when we come across churches and ministries like this? “Avoid such people.”
Why? Because a little yeast works its way through the whole dough (1 Cor 5:6). Because bad company ruins good character (1 Cor 15:33). Because if you partner with willfully sinful, unrepentant, heretical people, you are guilty by association and they will invariably drag you into their sin.
Now, let me be clear. That doesn’t mean you’ll ever find a perfect church. We’re not a perfect church. What we’re trying to be is a church that is actively working towards godliness through the power of God. That’s all that can be expected. A good church, a good Christian, a good association, a good friend, a good partner, is not one that never sins – it’s one that recognizes their sin and is working on it. They see the hypocrisy in themselves and want to deal with it. They see greed and they want it to stop. Not because they are trying to earn God’s love or show off, but because they trust God’s way, trust God’s Word, fear and respect God as Lord, and know that sin is dangerous, sin is corrupting, sin is a trap, and sin cost Jesus His life, so they want to be free of it. And they preach a message that tells people how to be free of it by the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The CBOQ, if they keep going the way they are going, doesn’t seem to want to do that. They have tolerated sin and error for years, and have had ample opportunity to deal with it. That’s why we’re on the fence waiting to see what they’ll do with this final ultimatum.
So my encouragement to you is to pray for the CBOQ that the leadership would repent. For the churches that are in sin, that they would repent. For the leadership of CLRA, and for us to make wise and careful steps over the coming months.
My further encouragement to you is to consider your own history with churches. Have you ever left a church for wrong reasons and need to repent and ask forgiveness? Are you here for the right reasons? Are you considering leaving, and are those reasons godly? Do you know people who have left their church, this one or another, and need to be confronted about why they did it? Perhaps God is calling you to do that.
And finally, I would ask you to consider our own church’s issues. Are there any weeds in our garden? Are there sins that we, as a church family, need to repent of? Are there things we’ve let slide that God has convicted you of, but you’ve been afraid to bring up? Let’s deal with them so that we can all stand clean before God and not be mired in sin. How can we ask for the Holy Spirit to bless our gatherings and grow our church if we have sins God has been telling us about, but we refuse to confront? God will not bless disobedience.
Let’s take the speck out of our own eye, before we go and try to deal with the log in the CBOQ’s.
Turn with me to 1 Kings 18:1–40 and I want to read two stories about the prophet Elijah today, but we need to read a large section so we can get the whole story. A lot has already happened up to this point, but you’ll figure out how things are going as we read. The only thing you really need to know is that the current king of Israel is an evil guy named Ahab who married an even worse, pagan woman named, Jezebel, who did everything they could to insult God and provoke His anger.
Elijah comes on the scene as God’s messenger and tells Ahab that because of the horribleness in Israel, He was going to bring a three-year drought. God then tells Elijah to take off for a while. During this time, a good man named Obadiah becomes governor under Ahab, which is a pretty difficult job for a faithful man of God. We pick up the story in 1 Kings 18:1.
“After many days the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.
And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the LORD from my youth. Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid a hundred men of the LORD’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” And Elijah said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”
That’s what I call a power encounter. Elijah, the man of God called during a very difficult time, stands alone on the mountain, surrounded by hundreds of enemies – but he’s bold, brash, and confident. So much so that he not only builds his altar but soaks it with buckets and buckets of water. And then BOOM, God shows up in an amazing way! The people’s hearts melt. They have seen firsthand that the Baals are fake and the Lord is God. Elijah is vindicated, the people turn on the false prophets, then as the people repent God ends the drought with a great rain. Elijah even tells Ahab he better get going because the whole country is about to be one, big, flooded, mud pit and if he didn’t leave now his chariot was going to get very stuck.
Wouldn’t we all like to have God use us in such a way?
The book of James in the New Testament actually uses this passage to say that this sort of encounter isn’t outside the realm of possibility for Christians. In fact, James 5:13–18 says that the same God, the same Spirit, the same power that was at work on Mount Carmel is available to the people of God in the church. He says,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.”
A Nature Like Ours
Our first instinct might be to say, “Nah. That’s Elijah. He’s the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. I’m not like him!” Today’s message isn’t about prayer. What I want to focus on right now are the words, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…”
Other translations say that “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” (NIV) or “Elijah was just like us…” (BSV) or “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are…” (KJV) and James’ point is to argue against the idea that Elijah was special somehow.
Remember the story in Acts 14(:8-18) where Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and God heals some people through them, but everyone starts to worship them as Zeus and Hermes instead of believing in Jesus? The whole crowd starts getting ready to treat them as gods and offer sacrifices to them and Paul tears his clothes and cries out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are men of like nature with you, and we bring you good news…” “We’re not gods! We’re just regular people! Jesus is God! Jesus has the power! Jesus did the miracle! Let’s talk about Jesus!”
That’s what James is saying too. Elijah was just a guy that God chose to work through. Elijah was just a guy who did what God told Him to do. When God said to pray for a drought, he did. When God said to pray for rain, he did. Elijah didn’t make the rain start or stop. No one can do that except God. Elijah was just a regular guy who just said what he was told to say. God had the power. God did the miracle. Let’s talk about God.
That’s the whole message of the book of James. You want an answer to prayer? You want to see Jesus at work in your life and others’? Here’s how: It’s not believing that you’re super special and powerful, it’s knowing you are not but trusting Jesus and just doing what He tells you to do anyway. Then you’ll see His power.
What Was Elijah Like?
But I want to go back to 1 Kings for a bit and take a look at the kind of guy Elijah was – because it’s easy to think, “Oh sure, you say ‘he’s just a guy’, but he’s, a super-saint. He was always praying, always trusting, super humble, charismatic, organized, full of joy and trusting God all the time…. that’s why God used him. I’m not like that. If Elijah had half the problems I had, then the story would have been different…”
But let’s look at 1 Kings 19. These verses come right after the Mount Carmel power-encounter, right after the rains come, right after all that amazing God stuff….
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree.”
Elijah hears that Jezebel is after him and what’s his reaction? You’d think it would be to put the boxing gloves back on, ring the bell, and call round 2 – but no. We see terror, depression, suicidality. This often happens to people after great battles, even if they are great victories. You’ve probably experienced this. Things don’t go so well for a while, but you’ve been putting up a fight – or you have a bunch of days where some really cool stuff happens. You focus on a project and it goes really well… you have an awesome, busy vacation… you have some kind of personal breakthrough… you run a race or paint a picture the best you’ve ever done… and then, for some reason, the next day you feel totally deflated, depleted and depressed. You were flying high yesterday – proactive, energized, able to get the job done – but today, now that the stress has let up, you can’t handle anything. You’re foggy. You get sad. You get sick. The amazing thing you just did yesterday looks worse than it did. You spiral into a funk. Ever felt that? Where does that come from?
Some people call it the “Let-Down Effect” or “Adrenal Fatigue” and you’ve probably experienced it. It basically means that our bodies are capable of squirting all kinds of helpful hormones into our system to keep us going when we need energy, but those resources are finite and once the stress is over (whether it’s good stress or bad) those helpful hormones are depleted, our systems start to crash, and our bodies and minds start to unravel. You’ve probably felt this if you jump into an exercise you haven’t done in a while. Day One goes great, you’re surprised how well you do, but the next day you feel like you’re going to die.
That can happen mentally too. You tell your body that you can’t afford to be grumpy or tired right now – so you hold all those negative feelings in, push down that stress reaction, overlook all the stuff that’s bothering you – so you can get the job done, enjoy the vacation, or whatever – but those brain chemicals run out too. And living in fight or flight for that long has filled your body with stress chemicals and other issues. That box of emotions you’ve been packing inside your heart gets full and starts to leak. I’m sure you know the feeling. This may be part of what Elijah was going through.
Some people, if they are naturally or usually more anxious or depressed than average, or naturally have less energy than average, or have learning or physical disabilities, start with a deficit and end up requiring more of their minds and bodies than others. An introverted person has to psych themselves up to go to a party, or give a presentation, or have a discussion they’re not looking forward to. A person with ADD has to psych themselves up to be able to buckle down to study for a long time or pay attention during an important family dinner or meeting. Your average person can wake up to an alarm clock, eat breakfast, take a shower, and go for a walk – but for someone with depression, that takes way, way more energy to do and then actually requires some recovery time! Maybe Elijah was that kind of person too. Wouldn’t surprise me.
Look at what happens here. Elijah, the man who had just confronted thousands of armed zealots with great courage, knowing that God absolutely had his back – is now scared of one woman. So much so that he takes off and “ran for his life” 200 kilometres South. He’s not praying or doing anything positive. He’s running as far away as he can, to the very edge of the Promised Land. He gets there and is utterly exhausted. He’s so scared he won’t even tell his servant where he’s going and takes off into the wilderness, alone, and collapses under a shady tree. At that moment, depression really takes hold. He ran away to escape death. But what does his exhausted, depleted brain say?
Look at what he prays. He says, “It is enough.” Literally, that means, “Let it be enough.” “I’m done, Lord. I can’t take anymore. Please let this it.”
Then he says, “Take away my life”, meaning, “I want to die. Kill me, God.” He ran away to escape death! How muddled are his thoughts? How messed up are his emotions? How depleted are his mental and physical reserves? He’s so down he wants God to kill him. “God will do it better than Jezebel”, he may have thought.
He says, “I’m no better than my fathers.” Here we see how utterly disappointed he is with himself. He feels like a total failure. Keep in mind the Mount Carmel encounter was only a week ago! But now, all of that is forgotten. All he sees is how cowardly he is, how fruitless his ministry has been, how impossible the fight against Jezebel is, how nothing will ever change, how he’s not the right man for the job, how he has no help, no support, no comfort, no hope.
Now, keep in mind, these are all lies – but that doesn’t matter. His brain is incapable at this point of processing truth. He’s so stuck in the dark that he can’t see the light.
He prays this one sentence prayer and passes out.
Consider our phrase from James again, “Elijah was a human being, even as we are…”. We see Elijah on Mount Carmel with fire from heaven or confronting the evil Ahab, or praying for rain and seeing a flood and we think, “Wow! That’s amazing!” But we often forget about Elijah under the broom tree a week later. Elijah wasn’t super-human. He was just a guy who said “yes” to God. That’s James’ point. God showed Elijah grace in choosing him even though he was a very weak vessel. Elijah obeyed and God gave him everything he needed on Mount Carmel. But the story isn’t about how special Elijah is. All Elijah did was say “Yes” and then go where he was told to go and say what he was told to say. God did everything.
God’s Gracious Response
I don’t want to leave the story without looking back at 1 Kings 19:5-8 to see God’s response to Elijah’s prayer. Did he kill him? Rebuke him? Let’s see.
“And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”
How does God respond to this utterly spent man, who is totally depressed, took off on his responsibilities, gave his resignation, and then seriously contemplated suicide? Wind and fire? A booming voice from the mountain top?
No. He sends an angel to deliver some pancakes. No sermon. No judgment. No guilt. No pressure. Just some pancakes. And then the angel left him alone to sleep some more. Elijah’s problem wasn’t lack of faith – his problem was physiological. He was physically, emotionally, and mentally spent. He didn’t need a lecture or pep-talk or guilt-trip. He needed pancakes and some rest. God knew that. God knows our physical limitations. He’s not disappointed with us for being human.
What does God do next? What does the angel say, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” God acknowledges that Elijah’s problem isn’t faith, it’s physical. “Dude, you’ve rested, but now you need to eat some more.” God, for now, completely ignores the content of Elijah’s prayer that he prayed in that depressive funk, and just says, “Ok, eat something. You’re not done yet, but I totally agree that you need to recharge. Take some rest. Eat some food. Once you’re ready, I’ve got something else for you. Now that you’ve slept, sit up and eat and you’ll feel better.” What’s the prescription? Prayer time? Meditation? Worship songs? Big meeting? A new schedule? A better list? Nope. More pancakes. And these were like, seriously good pancakes too. Had to be like Lembas Bread from Lord of the Rings. Because they fuel him for a while.
With his body rested, his belly full, things started to look a little better. Is he fully recovered? Heck no. Is he 15% better than when he laid down and wanted to die? Sure. He’s got enough in the tank for whatever thing God has next. Elijah’s depression prayer is forgotten, Elijah gets up, says “Yes” to God again. And God doesn’t send him to take on the world again. God gives him a break for over a month, but keeps him moving forward. And sends him to mount Horeb, also called Mount Sinai, where God first spoke the Ten Commandments to Moses and Israel. In other words, instead of sending Elijah back to work right away, God bring Elijah back to Him. He brings Elijah back to the genesis of his faith. Back to basics. Back to what brought Elijah and God together in the first place. And they have a long talk.
I’ll leave the reading of the next part of 1 Kings 19 to you, but suffice to say that after Elijah has recovered a bit, God meets Elijah in a powerful way, deals kindly but appropriately with his needs, his attitude, and his sins, but also brings him back for about 15 more years of ministry – even mentoring God’s next prophet. God saved Elijah by His loving kindness.
God Prefers the Weak But Willing
Let me close with this: When God calls a person to salvation and wants to use a person for His kingdom, He doesn’t call the strong, talented, powerful, influential, wise, and smart. He prefers people who are weak but willing. They know they are weak, but they are willing to say “I’m not sure why you chose me, but Yes, I will go. I will do it your way, in your strength, in your time, because I know I can’t do it on my own.” And then He equips them to do the job.
That’s the strange part. God bypasses the already capable so He can equip those who are incapable. God bypasses those who seem to have it all put together, in favour of people who are a mess. God bypasses the intellectually superior in favour of those who know they don’t know it all. God bypasses those who are secure unto themselves and chooses people with great insecurities because they are the ones who know they need Him most. God prefers the weak but willing. Then He equips those people, making them stronger, smarter, more powerful, more influential, wiser, and more talented. All He requires from us is to say “Yes, Lord.” And since that person knows where they came from – and everyone else knows where that person came from too, and the wild improbability that they would be able to pull off what they are doing – God gets the glory. God blesses us, we feel useful, and He gets the glory. It’s a good deal.
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are…” Flawed, emotional, prideful, prone to depression, anxiety, even suicidality – but God chose Him, equipped Him, put Him in the right place at the right time to do amazing things – and all Elijah had to do was say “Yes”. And then, even when Elijah had a total meltdown, God didn’t turn His back on him and head off for someone better who wasn’t so damaged. No, God was gracious, loving, kind, patient, truthful – and gently scooped Elijah back up, set him on his feet, strengthened him, and kept using him.
That’s what God does. That’s how God sees you, your family, and this church. No one is too messed up, too far gone, too weak, too stupid, to be saved and to serve. What disqualifies someone is pride and a hard heart. What matters is simply saying, “Yes, Lord. Despite my weakness, insecurities, failures, and fears, I will serve – but I won’t go unless you go with me. I can’t do anything of value on my own.” (Ex 33:15) That’s a heart God can use.
So, my encouragement to you is the same as before. Don’t write yourself off – or anyone else. If you’re in sin, stop, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness and healing and He promises to do it. But your past or current mess, or the past or current mess of that person who has been blowing up their life, doesn’t mean God is done with them, and it doesn’t mean God can use them or you to serve His kingdom.
Maybe it’ll take some time. Maybe you need some recovery time. Don’t feel bad if you’re under the broom tree right now. Don’t feel guilty that life wiped you out. You are a human being, even as we are. Don’t feel bad that your brain and body are depleted and all you can do these days is sleep and eat some pancakes. That’s ok.
But – but while you are there under the broom tree, don’t think God’s done with you. Don’t think God’s mad at you. Don’t think that God is disappointed with you. He’s not. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) You need to accept help, accept that you’re depleted, accept you are weak and let him and God’s people minister to you.
And for that person you are concerned about, that seems like they’ll never recover? All that needs to happen – literally the one thing that needs to happen – is for them to ask God for help. Consider the prodigal son. Consider Peter who denied Jesus. Consider Elijah. He ran as far as he could, gave up, and passed out. But, in that dark moment, he simply said, “God, I’m done. I’m spent. I’m a mess.” It was a cry for help, and God used it. Sure, what He asked God to do was wrong – but that didn’t stop God from helping him. God took that cry for help and used it. God knew what He really needed. Why did God answer that prayer? Because it had the single, most important ingredient God can use to change a life – humility. All the words were a mess – but within his heart was the ember of humility that God could use to restart his fire.
So that’s what we’ll pray for. We’ll pray for those who are weak, and we’ll pray for humility. Humility to accept our limitations and receive God’s amazing grace.
A lot of us are like those two followers walking down the road to Emmaus. They start out, perplexed, anxious, disappointed in how things have turned out, confused about God’s plan, talking to one another about things they don’t understand, and hoping that if they keep walking away, that somehow they will leave their problems behind them. They wanted God to solve their problems and make them happy, but somehow that wasn’t God’s plan. So they’re disappointed with God, with Jesus, and are walking away.
Some are like those two when they’re a little farther down the road when, even though Jesus is walking alongside them, even talking to them, they don’t recognize Him or His presence. They are believers, but because of their sin, doubt, fear, or pride – because their focus is on themselves and their troubles – are blind to the presence of Jesus, unable to see, hear, or understand what He’s saying. Even though Jesus offers His word and an explanation of the entire story from beginning to end, they don’t get it because their hearts are darkened to Him.
And then there are those who have had that “aha” moment with Jesus, where they’ve finally figured out who Jesus is, recognize His person and His power, realize He is the one that the whole Bible is talking about, and whose hearts burn within them to know more. In the story in Luke, once Jesus leaves them, they jump up and run back to the city of Jerusalem so they can find others to share their story of hope with.
Everyone is somewhere on this path.
Paul and Corinth
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 15:1-21. This passage is written by the Apostle Paul, a man who walked every part of that path with more intensity than any of us will ever experience. Paul is mostly known as a dedicated missionary of the gospel of Jesus who travelled all around the ancient world preaching, teaching, and planting churches in the name of Jesus. Paul was not always a missionary though. Paul wasn’t even his birth name. When he was born he was Saul, the son of a strict Jewish family who were also Roman citizens. When he was young he likely not only studied under a rabbi but also attended Greek school at the same time. Then, in his teens, moved to Jerusalem where he was given the chance to study under one of the most famous Jewish teachers of all time, Gamaliel. Paul eventually becomes a Pharisee – the strictest and most hard-core followers of the Law of Moses. And Saul was the top of his class. He was the most hard-core of the hard-core. It was the Pharisees that spent the most time antagonizing and attacking Jesus and Saul was most likely in Jerusalem when Jesus was there. It’s very likely that the two of them crossed paths, with Paul on the side of the Pharisees, not Jesus.
We are first introduced to Saul as a young man of around 20 or 30 years old, holding the clothes for an angry mob that were stoning the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen. Saul hated Jesus and he hated Christians. He hated Jesus and his followers so much that he made it his personal mission to destroy them. He saw Jesus as a condemned and crucified blasphemer and anyone who believed in Him as worthy of the same punishment.
Acts 8:3 says that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” He likely had his hand in the suffering and death of many Christians. Saul was a powerful, intelligent, influential, man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. Until Jesus did.
Jesus didn’t come walking beside him though. There was no gentle invitation. Instead, as Saul was headed into another town to rout out the Christians, Jesus blasted a light from heaven, knocked Saul to the ground, and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”. Not “my followers”, but “me”. Saul spent three days, blind and trembling. He couldn’t eat or drink. His whole life was turned upside down. Everything he thought he knew was wrong.
A few days later Jesus sends one of his followers, Ananias to cure Saul’s blindness and baptize him as a new believer. Over the next days and years, Saul would reorient everything he had ever been taught and realize it all pointed to Jesus. He had memorized the whole Old Testament and suddenly everything he thought he knew was wrong – but those scriptures and prophecies started to make a lot more sense. Jesus walked with Him and explained the scriptures, just as He did to those followers on the road to Emmaus. Paul meditated, prayed, and spent time talking and listening to Jesus until He had that “aha” moment about God’s upside-down kingdom. The crucified Lord made sense. The gospel made sense. The life of Jesus made sense. God as a suffering servant made sense. The only thing that didn’t make sense was why Jesus, the one who he hated so much, would save him. Why would Jesus show love to the one associated with the people who got Him crucified, and who had tried to destroy His people! Saul never forgot that amazing grace. So he changed his name to Paul and took that message to as many people as he possibly could – suffering every injustice and pain imaginable so more people could hear.
So that’s the author of our passage today. Now, consider the audience. Paul was writing to the Corinthians, a church in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was a town full of pagan idols, temples, and activities. It was a cosmopolitan, port town with lots of money and people. Paul came into this town a bit of a wreck. He had some bad experiences on the road and when he got to Corinth he was almost ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But Corinth accepted him, listened to his simple messages, and a church was formed. And they were so excited too! Imagine living your whole life on the Las Vegas strip, surrounded by sin and lies and temptation, but add to that believing that the gods you worship are fickle, angry, at war with each other, even easily bribed. It is a life out of control. But then you hear the Gospel of Jesus. That there is One God above all and He loves you, accepts you, and wants to save you. That this God didn’t just love a certain group of people, but even loved messed up pagans like you, and was willing to not only save you from hell, but change your life here and now, to give you a hope and a purpose, and affect your life so utterly that you could put away all the garbage in your life and live with Him as your one God, through whom you would find true peace and joy.
Corinth was a city of darkness and Jesus came to them like a beam of light. Corinth was a land of spiritual thirst and Jesus came to them as the one who quenched that thirst.
But Paul had to move on to plant other churches, and it wasn’t long until the darkness crept into the church and started to corrupt it. They started letting pagan worship practices come in. They started arguing with one another. They fought and even sued one another. Then came the sexual temptations and drunkenness where people were using the freedom of the gospel to excuse all kinds of depravity, even worse than the pagan temples – and they were bad. Then the other side of the church overcorrected and started banning everyone from doing almost anything – no marriage, no meat, no holidays, no nothing. It wasn’t long until they started letting false teachers take the pulpit, men who would deny the resurrection of Jesus and draw people away. The church, in quite short order, became a mess of compromise, division, and corruption. Paul heard about this and though he couldn’t leave the church where he was, he wrote a letter to them. We call this letter 1st Corinthians.
The passage I’m about to read is in chapter 15. Paul has already been writing about how their sin was destroying the joy and peace they once had in Jesus, but he was building to something. In Chapter 12 he tells them that under Jesus they shouldn’t be divided but united – and not in a boring, cookie-cutter, sameness, but in appreciation of their differences. In Chapter 13 he tells them that the only way to do this is by letting the entire motive for everything they do be love. In Chapter 14 he gives more examples, but then in Chapter 15, right before he closes his letter, he tells them how, and why, they should take all this so seriously.
Why should they fight temptation? Why should they humble themselves and seek unity? Why should they study the Bible and get their theology and practice right? Why choose a life of humility, sacrifice, and temperance when all around them were opportunities for self-aggrandizement, power, and pleasure? And even if they wanted to, how could this wreck of a church actually come back to Jesus? Surely He was done with them. Surely they were too far gone.
But Paul remembers his own story, and how much it mirrored theirs. If anyone was “too far gone” it was him. And he knows that the amazing grace of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ, has the power to utterly and completely change lives. The same power that rose Jesus from the dead, that turned him from Saul to Paul, was available to them. The hope and power they knew at first wasn’t gone, it was still there.
How could they access it? By remembering what happened on day one when Paul first arrived and preached that first message. By going back to what they first believed. By dumping all the garbage that had come up in their lives, their homes, their relationships, their church, their city, and their nation – and by getting back to the foundation of their faith. By seeing their sin for what it was, the ploy of the enemy to draw them away from Jesus toward their previous, hopeless, shame-filled life. To turn away from the mess that Jesus had saved them from and back toward Jesus. They had already been saved by Jesus, empowered by God, and had the presence of the Holy Spirit – but they had forgotten. All they had to do was remember.
And so Paul says in Chapter 15:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”
The Resurrection Is EVERYTHING
I saw an article online this week where BBC radio called 2000 people to ask them about their beliefs about Christianity for a program they were putting on Palm Sunday in 2017. They discovered that only 35% of the people that called themselves Christians believe the biblical account of the resurrection of Jesus, and only 61% even believed in life after death. Then what do they believe? Why are they even calling themselves Christians? And Canada isn’t so different in their statistics. Western Christianity is not so different from the Corinthian church 2000 years ago. We are just as affected by our culture, just as forgetful.
In our world today we sometimes forget why the Christian church exists. Some people think it’s here as a place to get together as a community once a week for some fun and support. Others see it as a place where morality is taught so kids can know right and wrong. Others see it as a political organization, a motivated group gathered to promote either conservative or liberal values, depending on whether you prefer talking about the economy or social justice. Some people see the church as a way to network so they can make friends and business partnerships. Others see the church as the keepers of culture and tradition, a place to be married and buried, maybe visited on important holidays, but not really something that affects daily life. Others see it as a place for idiots and rubes to get another injection of blind-hope and be duped out of their money by corrupt leaders.
Why do we exist? Why are we here today? Why are we making a big deal of this thing we call Easter, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is it tradition? Is it just part of our culture? Is it to make some kind of allegorical point about sacrifice? Is it just an excuse to get together, sing some songs, think big thoughts, and eat some treats?
No, the Christian church exists to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re here. Everything else – our community work, good deeds, hospitals, orphanages, music, art, education, traditions, everything, is meaningless without the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do good works so people will see the risen Jesus. We open hospitals and orphanages and schools to give mercy and sacrificial care to needy people because Jesus has shown mercy to us when we had need, and so we can share the gospel with them, telling them that they don’t just need medicine and a home, but the healing of their souls. We create masterpieces of music and art not merely to celebrate the death of Jesus, but because of His resurrection. His death is only worth painting in the light of His resurrection. Otherwise, the story isn’t one of victory, but tragedy.
As Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the resurrection isn’t real, if we’re just here for pancakes and some nice music, to read from a book full of lies and prophecies that never came true, to sing songs about a made up fiction, and to go home in the same condition in which we came – no closer to God, no more holy, no more meaning, no more hope – because the resurrection didn’t happen, then we are above all most to be pitied.
If Jesus isn’t alive, then there is no answer to sin, no meaning to our suffering, and we’re all doomed to either oblivion or hell. If Jesus isn’t alive, then sin and death have won. If Jesus isn’t alive, then everyone who has ever died is either gone forever into a meaningless void or has been doomed to hell because they died still condemned, because their faith was in the wrong person. If Jesus isn’t alive, and all this church has to offer is some false “hope in this life only”, and a few moral nuggets that you can take or leave, then what’s the point? Why live like a Christian if Jesus is dead?
Jay Adams defined Christian Preaching as “preaching that will get you thrown out of a synagogue or mosque.” Because for a message to be a Christian message, it must say something about Jesus that no one else says. A message that is not only distinct but radical and offensive to those who don’t believe it. A Christian life, a life lived in the light of the resurrection cannot look like a pagan life, a Buddhist life, a secular life. Our beliefs are not interchangeable. For a Christian life, and Christian message to be Christian, it must show that Jesus is unlike anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus is more than telling people to be good and moral and honest. It’s more than showing people how to do life. It’s more than learning bible verses that look good on mugs and pillows and tattoos. It is about finding our sufficiency in Jesus because Jesus is the only one who lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, and then rose again after being buried in a tomb, conquering sin and death, showing Himself to hundreds of witnesses, and creating a movement where so many people have met Him – have personally met the risen Lord – that they are willing to give everything, even to die, to share the message of salvation with others .
The Resurrection is E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
This is why it is so utterly heartbreaking and aggravating to see Christians and churches that miss the point, who forget about living in the light of the resurrection so they can concentrate on other things. It’s like watching someone brag about how great their house looks, while it’s on fire. It’s like hearing someone brag about getting a new stereo in a car that doesn’t have an engine or wheels. It’s like someone saying how attractive their girlfriend is, even though it’s a corpse they covered in make-up and propped up against a wall. Christianity without the resurrection isn’t just pointless, it’s bizarre, even disgusting. It brings no glory to God and offers no hope to anyone. It’s an exercise is religious futility.
This is also why it’s so painful for us to see a life lived without Jesus, good or bad. Christians, you know this feeling. You know what it’s like to see someone that is either utterly wasting away because of their slavery to sin, or who have such wonderful gifts but are only using them for their own glory. Or, perhaps worse, you know what it’s like to watch a person grow up in church, learn all the lingo, go through the motions of attending Sunday School, saying the prayer of salvation and getting baptized – but then to realize their faith had no roots, and they never did know Jesus. They head into high school or college and before long you realize that it was all pretending.
Why does that hurt so much? If the point of Christianity was about giving some moral lessons and traditions, then what more can you ask? But if Christianity means having a living, dynamic relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ – then seeing people enslaved to sin, living an empty, secularly successful life, or knowing people who only pretended to be believers – is soul-crushing. Why? Because everything they do is still soaked in sin.
We see a life full of good things – but know that since they didn’t know the resurrected Jesus, they died under the curse and went to Hell. What a heartbreaking waste. We look at their impact, the followers they gather, the children they have, the work they do, how beautiful and successful people say they are – but then realize they spent their whole lives under the influence of Satan and that everyone who followed them was pointed toward death, and they stand in judgment before God for the people they corrupted.
The resurrection is everything because it is the foundation of reality, hope, purpose, meaning, and life itself. A life not lived in the light of the resurrection is a wasted life – a dangerous life – a meaningless life.
Why? Because if you don’t know the resurrected Jesus, then you are like those disciples on the road to Emmaus – walking away from Jerusalem – before Jesus came to them. You are lost, though you think you know where you are going. You are believing lies, even though you think you know the truth. You are trying to find meaning and security where there is none. You are trying to discern what to do with your life while living in the dark. You are trying to find purpose among utter chaos, direction with no compass. Without knowing Jesus, all of your efforts to find peace, hope, and meaning, is like using your own strength to pull light out of a black hole.
So, my question to you today is this: Where are you on the Emmaus Road?
If you are a Christian, are you living in the light of the resurrection? Do you live each day in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Living each day like He is real, available, present, and willing to walk with you every step of the way? Does your relationship with the living, Lord Jesus make a difference in your daily life? Do you talk to Him about your hopes, fears, worries, plans, needs, and desires, knowing that He is near and willing to protect and guide? Or do you live as though you believe a story that happened 2000 years ago? I challenge you to examine yourself. Are you walking with the risen Lord Jesus each day?
If you are not a Christian, have you looked into the most important event in human history? Have you spent time thinking about it, reading about it, and talking about it – even if it’s uncomfortable, even if you know that believing it is a terrible risk? Have you felt the Holy Spirit tugging at your conscience, placing people in your life to tell you about Jesus, pointing you away from sin and death, and inviting you towards life – but you’ve been pushing them aside because you are afraid, or because your pride keeps telling you that your way is better? My challenge to you is to study the resurrection, talk about it with people, and seek the truth – and then, when you have done that and realize that it’s true – to submit yourself to what God has been trying to do in you, accept that amazing grace, turn away from your sins, ask God’s forgiveness, believe that Jesus died for those sins and rose again to destroy them forever, and follow Him from now on as your Risen Lord.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
This is the start of our story. Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there was either heaven or earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them. And then He formed the woman from a part of Him, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divine breath inside us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease wasn’t heard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, satisfying choice. There was only one bad one.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show one does not believe God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between creator and creation, rejection must be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that which they were not allowed to have and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of life, they wanted the knowledge of death too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “good”… but after they fell to temptation, they now knew “good and evil”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, and He can’t be in relationship with evil – He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love, He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of the decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that they had sinned all of creation was marred and effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. Everything changed because of sin. God’s wrath and justice were at work, but in an act of divine grace, they were cast out of Eden so they would not eat of the Tree of Life as well and be trapped forever in their sinful state.
And, as God had promised, Adam and Eve would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
All bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope in the whole midst – the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with the death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). Though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved, but that He was the only one listening to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started over using Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we can get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah, a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but who was willing to listen and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save this one family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God used it to raise Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a long time until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made to his family. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation to be the slaves of Egypt. They were in slavery for hundreds of years, suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world. “I am the only God and worship me only. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God. This would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sins of the nation on an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is death. God had the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before Adam and Eve ate that cursed fruit.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just as wiping away all of humanity in a flood, leaving only one, good family didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned from the law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter is a sort of in-between time which you can call Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, and it would last 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened, but it seemed to keep to this endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But it was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even sacrificed their own children to demons. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Lawgiver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that he picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred for sin and how much He wanted them to come back to Him, warning them about the dangers of sin, and saying He would have to discipline them for their own good.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. One who would finally obey. They spoke of the One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would conquer evil, sin and even death. The coming of Jesus is spoken of in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God was continuing to prepare the world for Jesus. Raising up nations, setting the stage for the birth of Jesus at exactly the right time. He was showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
They needed one who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey the law perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would conquer their enemies, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift to the world. But He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) are looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of His life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of Jesus’ life.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as King, the one who they should submit to, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge and spread the news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. We murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story. Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than One who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where love and grace are removed and physical and spiritual death reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not wrath or gluttony or lust or abuse. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement against sin on Jesus. We will never understand the full measure of the suffering Jesus took for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him so we could be restored back to God.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires a choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through our conscience. He shows us his plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law and dying for sin – and then He makes each of us an offer. Will you accept Jesus as your only Lord and your only Saviour?
Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, and then extends his pierced hands and offers the freedom He bought with His own blood freely to anyone who would believe in Him.
As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. We are living in the days of epilogue before God brings His first story to a close at the Final Judgement. Every day gets us closer to the end of this story and closer to the next book, the story of eternity.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known: That you were designed by a loving creator who gives you a hope and a purpose, and life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and a career. That your instinct towards justice and desire for hope and peace can be fulfilled. That your decisions have eternal consequences. That you need not fear death and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into great victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bibles, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
**Content Warning: This post may be a little graphic.**
Seeing the title of this post may be a little surprising to you but it’s a topic that I’ve been meaning to cover for a long time. And since I don’t have to prepare a sermon this week I thought that this would be a perfect time to work on it.
Why did I want to cover such a topic? Because it comes up a lot more than you might think in my counselling ministry. I’ve been asked the question, “Is it okay to masturbate?” many times over the years. I’ve been asked by men, women, teens, moms, dads, husbands and wives. I’ve been asked face to face by people in my home church and through e-mail by people all around the world who have contacted me through my blog. This is a relevant and important topic and I want to try to give it a proper treatment.
But since I don’t have to write a sermon this week, instead of writing it as a block of theological prose, I want to do it in the form of a conversation.
Three People One Conversation
Corrine (40): “Hi, Pastor Al. I’m the mother of a teen boy and a teen girl and I have a really personal question for you. What does the Bible say about masturbation? My son has started to take 20-minute showers and I’m starting to find laundry baskets full of sticky clothes and I’m sure he’s masturbating. My daughter probably is too, though I’ve never caught her. It makes me angry and scared and I want to yell at them and tell them to stop, but I don’t know what to say.”
Kyle (15): “Hey, Pastor Al. I’ve got a problem. Or, at least, I think it’s a problem. I don’t know. Maybe not. I know porn is bad and I’m not supposed to have sex before marriage and stuff, but what about masturbation? My school tells me it’s natural and healthy and some websites I’ve seen even tell me it’s good for my mental health, but I feel really guilty after I’ve done it. What does the Bible say about it?”
Ted (31): “G’mornin’, Pastor Al. Actually, I’m not doing very well today. I feel sad, sick, depressed, and angry. I’ve been married for a while now, and I love my wife, but my sex life is pretty much dead. Between work, the kids, her health, our busy schedules, her period, and everything else, we basically don’t do it anymore. And the last couple times we’ve done it, she’s been so unresponsive that it’s not even enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I love her, and the rest of our marriage is pretty good, but it’s killing me that we can’t be together. I think I’m one of those men with high testosterone because I’m literally always horny. And I can hold it together for a little while, but after a few days, it’s all I can think about. I start to get angry and have sex dreams and feel irritable and depressed. That’s when I do it and I’m so sick of that cycle. I’ve been working really hard not to look at porn, though I do fail sometimes, but what about just doing it myself so I can stay sane? Am I allowed to just get myself off in the shower and be done with it? When I do I try to think of my wife. It makes me feel better for a bit – while at the same time it makes me feel guilty too. So, what do you think? Does the Bible even say anything about that kind of stuff?”
Pastor Al: “Wow, that sounds really tough, and I’m really glad you had the courage to come to me and ask about it. Not only that, I’m really proud of you that you are asking the question ‘What does the Bible say?’ because that means you want to do things God’s way and that shows humility and obedience. That’s really good. The first thing I need to ask you is this: What’s the pornography situation in your home right now? Do you have blockers on the internet or is it wide open? Is this question really about pornography or is it about masturbation?”
CKT: “Yes, we’ve got the blockers up and all that. Our house is locked down. The only place it can be accessed is through the data on the cell phones, but we have safe-guards on them and don’t have a tonne of data so that’s not really a big issue. This really is about masturbation.”
Pastor Al: “Ok, that’s good, because it’s an important distinction. What do you know already? I’m guessing you’ve already done some googling, right?”
CKT: “Some, but there are a million websites with a million different answers, and half of the response that come up are pornographic so I just gave up and came to you. But I did learn that Christians call masturbation ‘Onanism’ for some reason. What’s that all about?”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, let’s get that out of the way. Onan was a guy in the Old Testament who was killed by God because he ‘spilled his semen on the ground’ (Gen 38:9). Some people think this means that any man who ejaculates anywhere except into a woman’s vagina is sinning, but that’s now what it means. According to God’s law, if a married man died without a child, another one of his family members was obligated to marry the widow and sire a son so that the dead man’s property would be passed down to her son and the widow would be taken care of. Onan didn’t want to obey this law because he wanted the land for himself. He was happy to have sex but didn’t want to risk her getting pregnant, so whenever they had sex he pulled out. So Onan’s sin wasn’t ‘spilling his semen on the ground’, it was refusing to obey God’s law and not caring for the widow, but using her instead.”
Pastor Al: “But definitions are still important. Strictly speaking masturbation, simply put, is stimulating yourself in such a way that it produces sexual arousal. That’s it.”
CKT: “Ok, but is it a sin?”
Pastor Al: “Well, it’s not quite that simple. There’s actually no Bible verse you can go to that says that masturbation is either good or bad. There are lots of verses about sexual purity, but nothing about masturbation.”
CKT: “So it’s okay?”
Pastor Al: “Well, hold on. Let’s explore it a little bit more. It’s not that the Bible has nothing to say, it’s just that there’s no ‘gotcha verse’. Look at 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 for example. The ESV gives this section the title ‘Flee Sexual Immorality’, right? Here, let me read it to you:
‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Paul starts by saying, essentially, “Jesus has freed us from the Law that forced God’s people to eat, drink, wash, travel, clothe themselves, etc. in certain ways. Jesus fulfilled the Law and opened up the world to His people to enjoy and explore free from the restrictions of the Law which only brought guilt. But that doesn’t mean we are free to do whatever we want. Romans 6 says that Jesus doesn’t set us free to do whatever, but instead that we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom 6:18). That means that even though we have tonnes of freedom in Christ, far more than any Jew or other hyper-religious nuts, there are still limitations because we are not our own, we are the property of Christ and He can tell us to do what He wants. Paul talks about some of those limitations in 1 Corinthians.
We all want a ‘gotcha verse’ to make this simpler, but there isn’t one. So, since there is no Law or scripture specifically against masturbation, then that means we have to ask some more questions, and I think this passage gives us 4 really good ones: “Is masturbation helpful?” “Is masturbation dominating me?” “Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?” “Does masturbation glorify God?”
CKT: “It sounds like you are saying that it’s bad, right? It’s hard to believe masturbation is helpful and God-glorifying!”
Pastor Al: “Not necessarily. Just because something doesn’t sound God-glorifying, doesn’t mean it isn’t. People starve themselves in fasting and that glorifies God. Police officers and soldiers kill people and that glorifies God. Parents punish and discipline their children and that glorifies God. And when doctors slice people open, fill them with poison, and blast them with radiation that causes them to be terribly sick to cure cancer – and that also glorifies God. Right?”
CKT: “Well, now I’m really confused.”
Pastor Al: “Hang in there because what we’re talking about isn’t as simple as ‘Don’t steal’ or ‘Be generous’. It’s more complicated because it has far more to do with your motives than your actions.”
CKT: “Ok, so how do I figure out the motive? From what I can tell it’s just horniness.”
Pastor Al: “Well, there’s a lot happening when someone masturbates, so let’s do a pros and cons list to see what’s actually going on behind the surface of the action. So, why do people masturbate?”
CKT: “Well, it feels good. But that’s not a good reason for anything, is it?”
Pastor Al: “It’s not a bad reason though. People do lots of things just because they feel good. People eat cake, which has very little nutritional value, but I never get asked whether the Bible says it’s ok to eat cake. People skydive and surf and look at art and get suntans and swim and get massages and back-scratches and their nails done… and none of that is in the Bible. They just do it because it feels good. That doesn’t make it wrong.”
CKT: “Ok. It also alleviates pressure. There’s a bunch of pent-up emotions inside that get some kind of release afterwards.”
Pastor Al: “Sure. Anything else?”
CKT: “Some people say it’s a good way to learn about how you get pleasure so you can enjoy sex with your partner more.”
Pastor Al: “Alright.”
CKT: “And, uh… I guess it relieves stress? I know someone who couldn’t get to sleep at night unless they did it before bed because it helped them sleep.”
Pastor Al: “Well, stress relief yes, but that person may have been addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, pretty much anything can become addictive. If this person literally couldn’t stop, used it as their main source of escape, and felt compelled to keep doing it even if they didn’t want to, they were addicted.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah. Masturbation is a powerful thing. We’ve already talked about some of the good things it can provide, like physical pleasure and stress relief, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have dangers. Just like food can make you fat, exercise can ruin your body, and work can destroy your marriage, using a good thing in bad ways can cause real problems.
That’s the next question: ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ Pastors, counsellors and mental health experts are all over the map with this topic because masturbation (especially to orgasm) has such a powerful effect. Doctors and psychiatrists will look at compulsive masturbation as a sign of potential mental, emotional, or behavioural problems. It can be a sign that there’s something happening beneath the surface that is far more serious.
When it gets out of control chronic masturbation can lead to withdrawal from life, disengaging with healthy relationships, and actually drive someone into deeper levels of depression.
God made sex feel good because He wants us to enjoy it. When our genitals are stimulated we feel pleasure, excitement, distraction, release, and our brain starts to squirt out all kinds of good-feeling chemicals like dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. That’s a wonderful gift. And it works even when we pleasure ourselves privately.
The issue is that our desire for masturbation can be masking much greater problems. The reason that we get addicted or think about it all the time isn’t necessarily because we like masturbating so much – it’s because there’s something wrong in our lives and we know that spending some time alone doing that is a guaranteed way to be free from those negative feelings for a while. It works every time.
Incidentally, that’s how all addictions start. Something’s wrong with life and the person finds a substance or activity that gives them a rush and makes them forget their problems for a time. Whether it’s shooting heroin, eating until their sick, binging Netflix, thrill-seeking, or masturbating, it’s the same obsessive drive. And then it’s not long until that addiction starts to take over healthy things in their life. They withdraw from their family, friends, church, and school so they can do it more. When they are offered positive, healthy choices – counselling, nutritious food, a board game with the family, or sex with their spouse – they say no because they don’t get the same rush as they do from their addiction. That’s when things really start to spiral.
CKT: “Well, that’s scary! I don’t think it’s at the level of addiction though. I think it’s more about alleviating the pressure. After all, we all have these biological urges inside us (given to us by God, by the way) and it’s not our fault that we want release, is it?”
Pastor Al: “No, it’s not. But for every one of our desires, God has given us a way to have them fulfilled in a righteous way. It’s our sinful nature that corrupts those desires and tries to fulfill them in sinful ways. (James 1:14-17)
Say you have a desire for power. Our sinful nature tells you to dominate people, oppress them, control them. God says, if you want real power, submit your will to mine and live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Say you have a desire for riches. Our sinful nature says to steal from others, work too much, hoard your stuff, don’t share. God says if you want real riches, tithe properly, give things away, take care of the poor, and live simply, then you’ll see treasure beyond your imagination.
God gives us a desire for tasty food, we invent refined sugar. God gives us a desire for justice, we invent revenge. God gives us a desire for peace, we punish anyone who disturbs us. God gives us a natural desire for intimate relationships and sexual release, we invent pornography and spend time away from humanity wrapped in a shield of self-stimulation.
Sometimes we get depressed, anxious, afraid, lonely, or angry and we feel bad and want a pick-me-up. God invites us to cast our cares upon Him in prayer, gives us His Word to read so we can hear His voice, gives us brothers and sisters in Christ to call, gives us the beauty of His creation to walk in, a thousand things to study in the world, and worship music to sing to lift our spirits – but instead, we lock ourselves in our bathroom alone so we can play with ourselves because we know it’s an easy way to get a hit of those feel-good brain chemicals.
So, the question comes, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for the way He wants us to fulfil that desire?’”
CKT: “Ok, so I know pornography is bad, and I know there are lots of other things to do when the urge hits. And I know the importance of keeping busy and going for walks and stuff — believe me, I’ve tried! But sometimes going for a walk or listening to music or reading isn’t an option, or it isn’t helpful. And right now, in this situation, finding sexual release from a loving spouse is… just… not possible!”
Pastor Al: “Ok, so now I’m going to ask you a very personal question. What kind of thoughts go through a person’s head when they masturbate? What thoughts go through yours?”
CKT: “Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but there are a variety of things, I guess. All the porn is blocked, but I’m able to find sexual comics online. They’re not real people, just drawings, so it’s not really porn. Sometimes I read sexy stories. Or, sometimes I picture my spouse doing things that I want them to do. Sometimes I dwell on those types of things for a while, but mostly I just use them to get myself started so I can get done faster. Why, is that wrong? It’s not porn!”
Pastor Al: “You seem a little defensive. How do those things make you feel? What does your conscience say?”
CKT: “Honestly, they all feel wrong. Looking at naked drawings of people having sex seems wrong. Readings stories about people having sex seem wrong. And I feel guilty about it. But what about fanaticizing about my spouse [or future spouse]? How can that be wrong?”
Pastor Al: “There’s the operative word: ‘fantasizing’. And fantasies can be dangerous. You’re right about the sex comics and stories. They’re sinful stories about sinful actions that create sinful thoughts that affect your ability to have a holy thought life. Jesus said in Mark 7:21–23, ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ and porn, sexual comics and stories are all defiling. When Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8 about guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, he said, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” and those comics and sexual stories are neither true nor honourable nor pure nor lovely nor commendable to others. Would you ever in a million years link to those comics on social media or give them to your small group to read? No way, right? That should tell you something.
In the same way, fantasies about your spouse are equally dangerous. That person in your mind may look like your spouse, but they aren’t, are they? They do and say things your spouse wouldn’t do or say, right? Essentially, what you’ve done, is dressed a porn star or prostitute in your spouse’s skin and have made them perform for you. And that’s damaging to your soul and your marriage. It causes resentment, bitterness, anger, and lust to swell in you because your reality will never be the same as your fantasy. It is, without question, a way for Satan to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, and you and the God who provided that spouse for you.”
CKT: “I’ve never thought of it like that.”
Pastor Al: “Yeah, it’s serious business. Ok, so what have we covered so far?”
CKT: “Well, the first question was ‘Is masturbation helpful?’ and we came up with a few ways it can be like stress relief and learning about your body. The second question was, ‘Is masturbation dominating me?’ which led to talking about addiction and how masturbation can be a sign of greater problems. The third question was, ‘Does masturbation honour God’s plan for sexual purity in marriage?’ and that really seemed to put a nail in the coffin, didn’t it? It’s hard to see how a person can masturbate while keeping their minds totally clean and pure and holy, right?”
Pastor Al: “That’s definitely a problem. But it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. After all one could say the same thing about sports. Some people get super competitive or trash-talk or start to hate the people on other teams. Or we could say the same thing about alcohol. Some people can have a glass of wine and it’s no big deal at all. Other people know that they can’t do it because it’s a real problem for them. Just because some people get super-triggered by something doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone. That’s what Romans 14 is all about, right?”
CKT: “Ok, so that only leaves the last question. ‘Does masturbation glorify God?’”
Pastor Al: “Right. So what do you think the answer is?”
CKT: “Well, based on what we’ve been talking about I would say that since there’s no verse that says God forbids it, and since there are some good things that come from it, I suppose it could glorify God when we do it. Boy, that’s weird to say out loud. But there seem to be lots and lots of ways that it can be dangerous or addictive or sinful and therefore not glorify God. Is that right?”
Pastor Al: “Pretty good! Most people wish God would be super-clear about this kind of thing, but the fact is, He’s not. God has given us freedom to enjoy this world and glorify Him in millions of ways. Some of those ways are done in relationship with others, like serving, counselling, corporate worship, teaching, being a parent or child, or being married – but some things are done totally alone. God even says in Matthew 6 that things like doing good deeds, giving, and a lot of our praying should be done in such a way that no one ever sees it. The Bible says that everything we do – no matter how wonderful or mundane, how public or secret – can be a continual, living, holy, acceptable sacrifice of worship to God – and that could, potentially also include masturbation.”
CKT: “Really? How?”
Pastor Al: “Well, let’s do a little checklist. Masturbation could glorify God if:
- You keep your mind out of the gutter and only think of things that are excellent, lovely, praiseworthy, true, etc.
- You are not addicted to it, but are being self-controlled in your use of it.
- You are not choosing it instead of other, better things like time with your loved ones, worship, prayer, scripture, church, counselling, etc.
- You’re doing it as a way to help yourself or others to be more holy.
CKT: “Wait, what? Masturbate so you can be more holy?”
Pastor Al: “Well, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 says that sexual frustration is a path to temptation and sin, right? That’s why we get married. It says,
‘But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’
The best way for a person to deal with their sexual urges is with their spouse. And a spouse should do what they can to help out. But if a spouse simply cannot do anything because they are too sick or infirm, then it seems to me that the next step is to have a conversation with the spouse about masturbation. After all, when you get married your body isn’t just your own, it’s owned by God and your spouse too.
So, if you can get right with God about masturbating, then the next step is to get right with your spouse. If they say that you can do it because it’s going to help you and your relationship, and you can do it in such a way that you’re not fanaticizing about other people or some porned-up version of your spouse, then why not?
Or, say you’re not married but in a constant state of distraction because your hormones are totally going crazy. You’ve prayed for help, read your bible, are practicing self-control, are trying to keep your thoughts pure, but your sexuality is ever-present and there’s no way to get married. There’s nothing in scripture that says you can’t masturbate. Yes, there’s a laundry list of warnings about how you can do it wrong – but that’s true about a lot of things.
I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution and I’m not saying it’s right for everyone. All I’m saying is that according to what I read in scripture, there is a way to masturbate in a way that glorifies God and helps holiness. Maybe, sometimes, one thing you can do to help yourself to serve God and others better is to masturbate.
Think of it like having a cup of coffee or taking an afternoon nap. You’ve got somewhere to be at 3pm and nothing to do between now and then. You’re tired but you’ve got your work done and have some free time. You’ve done your devos, had a snack, chatted with your family, and now you’re alone. You’re not bored or sad or angry or depressed, you’re not trying to escape life or create artificial joy, you just know that the 3pm event is going to take some energy. So you have a choice. Make a pot of coffee and have a couple mugs or go to bed and have a nap. Neither is wrong and you’re motives are good.
Do some people abuse coffee? Sure. Do some people sleep too much? Sure. But that’s not your problem. You’re just doing what you think is right and you know that God, your family, and your spirit are at peace with that decision. That cup of coffee or that nap will bring glory to God. Maybe masturbation can do the same thing for some people.”
CKT: “Ok, Pastor Al. I think I have some thinking and praying to do. Some of that is way outside my field of experience and I really need to chew on that. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me about this. Please pray that I make the right decision and honour God with how I deal with it.”
Pastor Al: “Will do, CKT. Have a great day! Let me know if you have any more questions.”
I got a lot of help from:
- Butman, R. E. (1999). Masturbation. In D. G. Benner & P. C. Hill (Eds.), Baker encyclopedia of psychology & counseling (2nd ed., p. 726). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
The very first line of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” from CS Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is one of my favourites. It says,
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
If you’ve read the Narnia books or watched the movies, then you’ll remember Eustace Clarence Scrubb. He begins the book as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He’s honestly worse than the White Witch. Sure, she was pure evil, but Eustice was a self-centred, know-it-all, cowardly, jerk.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, then maybe you’ll remember the feeling you had when watching or reading about Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. I hate that pink lady so much… but back to Eustice.
Lewis spends a good chunk of the book introducing us to this obnoxious and disagreeable person, giving him opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself or show a little bit of good, but it never happens. Then comes the scene where the ship has been hit by a huge storm, is in absolute tatters, runs aground on an island, everybody spills out haggard and exhausted. But they know that even though they are all utterly drained, they must rally for a few more hours so they can gather food and firewood to set up camp. Eustice, seeing that there will be no rest, slowly sneaks away so he can have a nap somewhere out of site.
After a short time, he comes across a dragon’s cave. He watches the dragon die and then sees its store of treasure. His rottenness really comes to the fore as he imagines all the selfish things he could do with this fortune until he falls asleep on a pile of gold. “When he awakes, Eustace is no longer a boy but a dragon, the outward manifestation of his inner greed and selfishness.” He discovers that the gold bracelet he put on his arm is now bringing great pain as it constricts his dragon leg, and when he tries to go to the others he finds himself cut off from his friends, isolated and alone. He curls up in a ball and starts to cry hot, dragon tears.
His friends never give up the search though and eventually, after much suffering and loneliness Eustice starts to regret his ways, miss his friends, and after much trial and error because he can no longer speak, manages to explain his predicament to his shipmates, even use his new form to help gather supplies.
After some time as a dragon, Aslan, the Christ character of the book arrives. He leads Eustace to a garden on top of a mountain where a well stands in the very centre. Eustace wants to enter the water so the pain in his leg could be soothed, but Aslan says he must undress first. Eustice realizes that Aslan must mean that he must shed his skin, like a snake. He sees how dirty and scaly he looks and starts to peel off that layer, “only to discover another nasty, scaly, and rough layer underneath. And then another. After three layers, he realizes it’s vain — he will never make himself clean or get rid of his pain or shed the nasty skin.”
Aslan the Lion then says Eustace, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace is obviously nervous about having a huge lion with great claws come and tear at his skin, but he’s so desperate for relief that he relents and lies down on the ground, flat on his back. Lewis describes what happens next from Eustace’s perspective:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…. After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me… in new clothes.”
This passage has come to my mind many times since I read it recently. There is some great truth in it.
Often in our lives, we desire to be cleansed, renewed, made right, fixed, changed into a new person. We look at the life we’ve led, the decisions we’ve made, the foolish nonsense we’ve gotten ourselves into, and we wish it could be different. We feel guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, and anger and we want it to change. We are addicted and want freedom. We are afraid and want security.
And so we do what Eustace did first. We try to peel off an outer layer, something on the surface, in hopes that that’s all we need. We read a book, try a change of habit, make a new schedule, commit to exercising, make a prayer time, get a Bible-in-a-year checklist and say we’re going to read it. We tell people around us that we’re going to try to be nicer, better, cleaner, more friendly, less stressed, more committed, more determined – and that we’ll do it by changing one or two things in our life. Give something up, join a group, take a walk, clean our house, and organize our lives.
But it doesn’t work. We strip off that one layer and it’s not too long until we realize that we really haven’t changed anything. We’ve exchanged one bad habit for another, one idol for another, one way of control for another, one enemy for another, and no matter how clean our room is, how clear our schedule is, how many days in a row we read our bible, attend group, or go for a walk, nothing ultimately changes inside of us. The fear, sadness, anger, and hunger are still there.
So we do what Eustace did again. We strip off another layer. We change something else on the surface of our lives in hopes it will change us. We do something radical like die our hair, get a piercing, shave or grow our beard, get a tattoo, buy a new wardrobe, in hopes that if we look different then we will feel different. Then we look around for other things that we can change. We dump our friends and try to find new ones. We see our church and blame them for not doing enough, so we go somewhere else or stop going altogether. We see our doctor and blame them for not giving the right treatment, so we get a second opinion. We blame our medication and figure it isn’t working right, so we stop taking it or go find different ones. We blame our family and spouse, so we ignore them, commit adultery or get a divorce. We blame God so we go looking for another religion.
We hope that if we change what is happening on the outside, change enough surface things, that it will fix our deepest problems. But it doesn’t work. With every surface change, with every layer of stripped-off skin, we eventually realize we haven’t really changed. We’re still the same dragon we were when we started.
“Tim Keller once said in a sermon, ‘The way to deal with guilt is not to avoid it, but to resolve it. Eustace not only realized he couldn’t get his own skin off, but that only God can come and take your skin off, and to do this you have to let him pierce deep. You must take all the guilt on yourself and stop blame shifting and take responsibility for what you’ve done wrong. No excuses. Full in the face.’”
This is what everyone must do before they can know the freedom and healing that comes with being made new by the power of Jesus Christ. They must look their sin in the face, stop making excuses, stop blaming others, stop thinking it’s just a surface problem and say,
“The reason that nothing changes no matter what I do is because I am the problem.
The reason I feel so afraid is that I want to be in control of everything and everyone. I want to be God because I don’t trust Him.
The reason I’m so angry is that I believe that my life should be one of unbroken comfort and ease. Deep down I resent everyone who makes me feel even a little bit uncomfortable, and I hate that God allows suffering in my life, so I hurt others so I control them, punish them for taking my comfort, and feel better about myself.
The reason I’m addicted is that I chose to be. I felt lonely, afraid, sad, or bad in some way and wanted an escape. I knew what I was doing was wrong, knew it had consequences, but chose to do it anyway because I didn’t care about anyone or anything other than myself at the time. I wasn’t fooled into a trap. I jumped into it. And I keep going back into the trap because I don’t want to go through the pain of leaving it, regardless of what it’s doing to me or the people I love.”
The only way to be free of sin is to admit you are a sinner. Admit you like feeling the rush that comes when you are the centre of attention, and so you seek it out, push others down, even steal the glory from God so you can feel good about yourself – because deep down you believe you should be worshipped.
Admit that even though you pretend to be nice on the surface, that deep down you are full of hate and you allow that hate to come out in socially acceptable ways. You would never murder anyone, but you will gossip about them, slander them, mock them, make rude comments about them, and stab them in the back – not to their face but to others or anonymously online – and then when you feel guilty or get caught, you make excuses saying they deserved it. There are people you hate, would never show love or affection or friendship to, even though you don’t know them, simply because of their race, gender, or social status.
Admit that you lie and believe lies on purpose because the truth is less convenient.
Admit that you lust after men and women who you are not married to, and that you want to, that you enjoy it, and you don’t care if pornography and human trafficking and prostitution is utterly destroying people’s lives and making it so you can’t even have a conversation with a young man or young woman without objectifying them, because you like it – and you don’t care about the suffering that comes from pornography because allows you to feel pleasure.
Admit that you have used all kinds of excuses to weasel out of work you should have done because you are lazy.
Admit that you are jealous of those who have more than you, who are better looking than you, who have a better life than you, and you would gladly take all of their comforts and dump all your problems on them if you could because you care more about yourself than anyone else.
Admit that you’ve stolen many, many times. You steal from the government by falsifying your taxes, from stores by keeping change that wasn’t yours or using coupons wrongly, from media companies by stealing signal and sharing passwords, from musicians and artists by downloading their songs and books and art for free instead of paying for them, from your parents when they weren’t looking, from your neighbours, your friends, your church, even from God by not giving Him what you promised Him.
Stop making excuses for your sin, stop blaming others, stop making light of it, stop assuming it’s just a little problem, a white lie, a personality quirk, and admit that you are a sinner who has loved sinning, and will keep doing it for as long as you can, until you are caught, or it kills you. And there’s nothing you can do to stop.
Only then, only when you admit your biggest problem is you, your sin, your failure, your decisions, your debt, will you ever be willing to ask for help. Only then will you roll over, expose your belly, and, regardless of how much you fear it, allow Jesus to change you utterly.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this “Rock Bottom” and it refers to the very lowest level a person can hit before they are willing to look up. Some people’s rock bottom requires very little loss before they ask for help – other people need to go through a lot more suffering, but the common theme is suffering, loss, and then admission of need. As long as a person is living in denial, defending what they do, comfortable with their addiction, they will never want to change. Until an alcoholic sees that drinking is a problem, they will never stop, they will never be able to root out what is really driving them to drink. In the same way, until a sinner sees that the real problem with their life is that their sin holds them captive, they will never ask to be freed from it, and thereby never know freedom.
What Happens When You Finally Admit Your Sin
What happens when you ask to be free? What happens when you finally admit you are living under a curse, that there is nothing you can do, and that you want to be free from the living-death that your sins keep you in? What happens when you realize the consequences of your sin are yours, feel the heat of the wrath of God coming against you, and are pressed down with guilt and shame? What happens when you turn yourself belly up and allow Jesus to strip you down and then dress you in His clothes? What happens when you finally admit you are a sinner in need of a saviour?
The picture of Eustace is one of a sinner whose outsides finally caught up with his insides. He was always a dragon, now he just looked it. So what did Aslan have to do? He had to kill the dragon part of Eustace so He could become who He was intended to be on the outside and the inside.
To save us from our sins, Jesus has to kill the sinful part of us, the part that has killed our souls and damned us to eternal death in Hell. Then Jesus must resurrect us to a new, eternal life that is no longer trapped in that curse. The only way to conquer your dragon is to kill it. You can’t make friends with it and hope it will behave. You all know the experience of trying to make friends you’re your dragon-self – it never stays friendly. The only cure for sin is death.
So how does God kill the sin part of us?
He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin
2 Corinthians 5:21 gives the answer,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is one of the most important verses in scripture because it helps us understand how salvation through Jesus works. How is it possible that we can be sinners to the core, rebellious lovers of iniquity, our backs turned against God and toward all manner of depravity – and then be made right with Him without being punished, without facing God’s wrath? How can we go from being dead in our sins (Eph 2:1), destined for Hell, to alive in Christ and live with Him forever? If God hates sin, and the wrath of God must be poured out against it, then how can sinners be saved? How can the curse of sin be broken?
We know it’s not by trying to change our behaviour, right? Not only is that insufficient – because our sins are so numerous and powerful – but it’s ineffective. It’s like trying to cure cancer using lotion. It’s like trying to fix a brain tumour by getting a haircut. The consequences must be terrible and the effect of the cure must be complete.
It says that “for our sake”, because of His great love for us, Jesus chose to exchange Himself for us. This is where Lewis’ illustration of Eustace falls apart a bit – but was actually written about in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Jesus doesn’t just tear away the dragon from us. Instead, Jesus becomes the dragon. Or rather, God treats Jesus like He is the dragon. God puts upon Jesus the full weight of His wrath against sin. Jesus, the one “who knew no sin” became sin. Jesus had the entire measure God’s wrath against sin, the full curse, placed on Himself, and then takes the punishment you deserved.
The rejection of Jesus should have been ours. The scourging should have been us.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross…” (1 Peter 2:24)
A surface change in our behaviour isn’t enough to deal with the problem of sin. We need to have the curse of sin broken in us. We need someone to kill that dragon. Jesus did that for you, for me, for anyone who is willing to admit their sin and their need for a Saviour. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The scripture is clear, and our conscience attests to the fact that there is nothing we can change in our behaviour to fix the problem (Rom 8:3). We couldn’t obey God, so Jesus obeyed for us. We didn’t want to die for our sin and face hell, so Jesus took our condemnation, died for us, and took the full weight of hell on Himself. We want to be made righteous and free from the curse of sin in our life, to be made clean and right with God and those around us, but we can’t do that ourselves – so Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life, and then died like a cursed sinner, so we, who deserved that death, could be made righteous.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God kills that dragon of sin inside us strips us to the core, and then resurrects us to new life. That’s why Christians are baptized. It’s an external picture of what’s happening on the inside. We admit our sins and then go under the water in death, we are buried with Christ as the water envelopes us, and then we are raised to new life as we come out of the water, cleansed and set free from the curse of sin.
This is why one of the pictures of becoming a Christian is known as being “Born Again”. Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man dedicated to living an upright, perfect life according to the Law of Moses, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) What did that mean? It meant that the way of the Pharisees, the way of laws and rules and surface changes will not make you fit for heaven. You must let God kill your sinful self, your sinful flesh, and let Him resurrect you as a new person, born again.
This happens only when you believe in Jesus. Every other religion, every self-help book, every other messenger will tell you to try harder, do more, pull up your socks, and give you a list of superficial things you need to change so you can become a better person. Or they’ll just teach you how to become friends with your dragon. That’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t offer a surface change, a spiritual band-aid, a list of rules and steps to a better life – He offers to take your sins upon Himself, die in your place, destroy the dragon within you, kill your old self, and then resurrect you as a new person, free from your slavery to sin. All He asks is that you admit you need Him and Him alone, believe in Him and Him alone, and allow Him to invite you to enter into His death and His resurrection.
Let me close by reading Romans 6:1-14.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
[1, 2, 3] I got a lot of help in this section from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/my-dragon-skin-torn-off
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
Every year around Christmas time people all over the world set up nativity scenes – and there’s a huge variety. There are old-timey ones that have great detail and classic poses, modern, new ones that are more simple, even impressionistic, and there are the weird and silly ones. We have a Little People set at home and new this year is a rubber duck set we found online. But my favourite weird nativity that I found online this year is the hipster nativity set where Mary is taking a duck-face selfie with baby Jesus, the cow is eating gluten-free feed and is 100% organic, and the wise men show up on Segways with gifts from Amazon.
Regardless of how traditional or weird the Nativity Set is, one thing always holds true – it’s never lonely around the manger. Jesus is surrounded by people, and that’s what I want to talk about tonight.
The holidays are a time for getting together with all kinds of people. We plan dinners and events with people we work with, we take a little more time talking with people around us about the season, we find time to have friends in our homes and go to theirs to meet others, we make time to gather with family members that we don’t see very often. If you ask most people over 12 years old what their favourite Christmas memories are they will no doubt all give the same list – the big family dinner, the family around the tree, seeing family from far away that they haven’t seen in a long time. No matter how nice the decorations are, how great the turkey is, what presents you get, what music you sing, or what your favourite tradition is, the make-it-or-break-it part of Christmas is how close or far away you are from the people that mean the most to you.
Which is why Christmas can also be such a lonely, difficult time of year for a lot of people. As the lights multiply in the streets, store music changes to carols, the smells of baking fills the air, and the traditions multiply around you, they can trigger some pretty intense emotions that you’d rather not deal with. The decorations and the smells – though nice – are sometimes a reminder of what’s missing. And it’s one big reason that so many struggles with depression and addiction around Christmas time.
We did a lot of reading and singing tonight and there was a pretty resounding theme to all of it, right? One that is familiar to many. That the world looked pretty dark and lonely and scary – for Israel, the shepherds, and the world – but that all changed when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. As Isaiah 9 said,
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isa 9:1,6)
That was written 700 years before Jesus was born. And when the Apostle John wrote his gospel about Jesus he started with words that sounded very similar. I want to look at the first 13 verses of the first chapter of John because I want you to notice something very important tonight. It’s a Christmas story but told in a different way. It begins by introducing Jesus as not only a baby in a manger, but backs up the story way before Mary and Joseph, even before Adam and Eve. It says that Jesus wasn’t merely a special man, but God incarnate – and speaks of His coming as a light piercing the darkness. It says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Next, John introduces fast forwards to the forerunner, the precursor, the prophet who was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus – the one known as John the Baptist. It says in verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
This is all building up to a summary of who Jesus is and why He came. John will tell the rest of the story in his book, but for now, here is the story of Jesus in a nutshell. Starting in verse 9,
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
If you know the story of Jesus then you know that this is exactly what happened. Jesus came into the world, lived a perfect life, spread light and wisdom and goodness and truth, showed people who He was and demonstrated His divine power in healing and miracles, but even those closest to Him didn’t understand Him. He came to the world He had established, to the humanity He had created, to the nation He had chosen, and they did not receive Him. He was born in barn and laid in a feeding trough, because there was no room for Him and that reality would dominate His entire ministry. He would come to people, tell them the truth, but instead of receiving Him, they would try to use Him, misunderstand Him, lie about Him, neglect Him, and then reject, humiliate, abandon, and unjustly crucify Him.
Jesus said this in John 3:19-20,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light…”
God Created Family
But if we keep reading at the beginning of John we find out that there is more to the story. Jesus came as light in the darkness, but people loved the dark more than the light – but listen to verse 12,
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
What does it says Jesus provides for those who receive Him, who put their trust in Him, who believe in Him? Most often in church, we say that believers receive salvation, forgiveness, cleansing, hope, renewal, joy, etc. and all that is true, but notice what it says here: believers are given “the right to become children of God”.
One of the greatest gifts that we receive when we come to Jesus is the gift of family. It means never having to be alone. Consider the story of scripture, right? In the beginning, God creates the whole world and puts Adam in it. There is no sin, Adam can see God face to face, everything is perfect, but God says something is “not good”. What is it? “It’s is not good that the man should be alone.” (Gen 2:18). So God makes Eve and then tells Adam to go make a family.
When God saved Noah, He told him to bring his family. When God chose Abraham, God chose to bless an old, barren couple with a family and then worked through that family to create a great nation through which He would bless the world. And that pattern continued. Moses needed his family’s help. David and Solomon’s biggest problems came when they messed with God’s plan for their family. Over and over we see that God doesn’t just use special individuals, but families to carry forth His will and dispense His blessings.
When Jesus came to earth, He could have come like one of that lone-gunman we see in those old western movies. A man in a white hat with no past rides into town, dispenses justice, and then rides off into the sunset. He had the power to do that. He’s God, He doesn’t need anyone to help Him. But what was His perfect plan? It was to come as a member of a family. He had a mom, step-dad, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. That wasn’t an accident.
And then, to everyone in this dark world, He not only offered salvation through His death on the cross for all who believe but also offered them the opportunity to be part of His family. Not His human family, but His eternal family.
“…To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…”
The word “right” is a legal term. It means that not only is an invitation given, but also a contract is signed. If you believe in Jesus then you have the “right” to call God your Father. Listen to the words of Ephesians 1:3-5,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
When you are saved you are also adopted as a son or daughter of God, because He wants you in His family. He wants to be your Dad. When Jesus teaches His followers how to pray, how does He tell them to start the prayer? “Our Father”. What does Romans 8:15 say to all believers who are afraid?
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
You don’t need to be afraid because Dad is with you. What does Galatians 4:6 say about how close our Heavenly Father is?
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
Your Heavenly Father is as close to you as your own spirit.
Could God’s view of families be why He repeatedly tells His people that the way we love Him best is to show our love for widows and orphans? To be family to those who have none.
My message this evening is simple and twofold. The first is that I want you to remember to appreciate your family. For all the drama and excitement and struggles of being part of one, a family is one of God’s greatest gifts and I want you to remember that the best part of Christmas isn’t the food or fun, but your family. They are what you’re going to remember, so maybe stay off the electronics, put down the drink, and spend time with them. And remember, if you are a Christian, you are part of a bigger family too. God doesn’t just make Himself our Father, but also gives us a new family of brothers and sisters that we will be with forever. So if you need something, if you have something to share, call up one of your brothers and sisters in the faith.
And second, if you don’t know Jesus and feel alone tonight, if you are afraid of what is happening inside and around you, if you need freedom from your guilt and fear, or have never really known the deep love of a Father who accepts you for who you are and wants to be with you forever – Jesus stands ready to invite you into His family, if you are willing to receive Him. To receive Him means more than merely agreeing with some facts about Him, but welcoming Him into your life, submitting to Him as Lord, and building a personal relationship. It means believing what He says and trusting His way is better. To do this you need to admit your sins, admit your guilt, admit your need, and then accept that Jesus died for that sin. Receive Jesus as Lord and Saviour. At that moment you become a child of God and will never be alone again, but will be adopted as a son or daughter of God.
And if you do that tonight or tomorrow, I encourage you to call someone and tell them right away. What a great gift to give and receive at Christmas.
Over the past while our church has been going through a study of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 400-year-old summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. When we paused for Christmas a couple weeks ago we were only on Day 8, but we’ve already covered a LOT of material. We covered the bad news like sin, Law, guilt, and wrath – and also the good news about who Jesus is and why He is the only One who can bring salvation to the world. We spent a lot of time really digging deep into what it means to be a sinner saved by the grace of God.
Then, after learning how we can get back into a relationship with God we transitioned into getting to know God better by learning more about who He presents Himself to be. Along the way we’ve covered some pretty deep and intense topics, using a lot of important, theological language and doctrinal concepts. We’ve done introductions to why theology matters and where creeds come from. We’ve spoken of God as triune, omnipotent, omniscient, holy and righteous. We’ve spoken of Jesus as saviour, sacrifice, mediator, and advocate.
Studying these subjects and using theological language sometimes gets mixed reviews and actually be a bit of a danger. While my hope is always that these sermons help us grown in our knowledge and love for God, these types of studies can sometimes bring the temptation to detach our hearts from our minds, our relationship with God from our understanding of Him; to cerebralize our faith instead of letting the concepts inform our worship and relationship with Him. There is a danger that instead of expanding our love for God, the study of theology can cause us to sterilize our love for Him. He becomes a subject to study rather than a person to know.
This kind of thing happens to us all the time. Let me give you a couple examples. Humans have this capacity to get used to things pretty quickly. If we are surrounded by a certain smell – whether it’s good or bad – it’s not too long until we experience something called olfactory fatigue where we no longer even smell it anymore. We can be baking cookies and pies or trying to choose a new perfume or lotion, or up to our eyeballs in sewage, and at some point, our nose just gives up and we don’t even notice the scent anymore. It’s not until we leave the environment for a while and then return that we even realize how strong it was.
Bank tellers can handle thousands and thousands of dollars per day, and where at one time holding a huge pile of cash in their hand was something amazing to them, it’s not long until it becomes so commonplace that they don’t even think about it as money anymore – just something to be counted and stuffed in a drawer. Or consider museums. People fly around the world at great expense to visit the world’s greatest museums, to stand before great art for just a short period of time, sometimes even moved to tears by its beauty and the intensity of being near it, but the security guards and cleaning staff are so used to seeing it that they don’t even care anymore. It’s just part of the background of their job. The first time you watch a movie it changes your life, you tell all your friends, you want to experience it again – you even buy it to bring home and watch again – but then, after 3 or 4 more viewings, the surprises wear off, the experience dulls, and now the DVD just sits on your shelf among the others. This happens to everyone. Surgeons get used to seeing blood and holding people’s guts in their hands, factory workers get used to the huge or complex and dangerous machines they see and use every day.
There’s an old phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt” and while it’s not always true – like in marriages or friendships or study – there is a nugget of truth in there. The more we get to know something the more in danger we are of taking it for granted. The teenager with the new driver’s licence merges onto the highway for the first time and as they get up to speed they feel like they’re about to break the sound barrier and fly off the road – so they grip the steering wheel tightly, open their eyes wide, and stare intensely at the road. But it’s not long until that same teen is in the fast lane and passing vehicles while holding food in one hand, changing the music on their iPod with the other, and driving with their knees.
That’s the danger of familiarity, and it can happen to us when we study theology too. It can be tempting to take the things we know about God for granted, try to put Him in a box, or get so used to using words like “awesome”, “almighty”, “saviour”, “glory” and “grace” that they lose their intensity. And when that happens, blasphemy and pride aren’t too far behind.
The season of Christmas and Advent offer a cure to that though. Even with all the complexity of the season, the packed schedule, the family issues, the emotional intensity, the commercialism and stress, there is a haven found in Sunday morning worship. Over the past month, many churches around the world have chosen to pause their services and light an advent candle. We do that here too. There is a short reading, some scripture, a moment of pause as the candle is lit, and a moment to reflect. It is a simple and beautiful way to cause us to stop for a moment and elevate our thoughts to the real meaning of what we’re doing here and why this season is so special. Each week a different candle is lit, a different special scripture is read, and a different aspect of the life and promises of Jesus Christ come into view. Each week we remember one more gift that Jesus gave us He came at Christmas. And it’s done in simple ways, with simple language, and with materials that have been in use for thousands of years.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours, we have five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of Advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the colour of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represents these weeks as concentrated times of prayer, repentance, and reflection in preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, but the third, pink candle interrupts that intensity with a week of rejoicing and celebration. Traditionally even the priests wore pink vestments on that week to set it apart. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty and now I want one!)
As I said, each of the candles has a different theme, but these themes aren’t communicated with big words, deep doctrinal study, or intense theological exposition. Instead, the words are very simple, and the concepts very meaningful – even intimate. The candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we will light on Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers everywhere that of our deepest longings – our desire for a hope that does not disappoint us, love that keeps us forever, joy in the midst of suffering, and a peace that passes understanding – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.
In Jesus There is Hope
The first candle represented Hope. Hope, one could say, is the thing that keeps most of us alive. We can live for a long time in many difficult circumstances, but if we lose hope, it is then that we are in true danger. Hope is something we cannot live without but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news and uncertainty, so many doom and gloom voices out there that sometimes it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved from scum, there is no such thing as eternity, nothing they do ultimately matters, any emotion they feel, even for their parents or loved ones, is just learned behaviour and biochemical trickery. As they move through life the best they are given is to be told to try to squeeze as many years of pleasure and distraction as they can out of this messed up world before death comes and they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that, is there? That’s a dim view of life, and we can see it in the rise of depression, addiction, abortion and suicide. The world doesn’t promise much. We put our hope in politicians or scientists or friends, but things never really change much and these supposed saviours fail us over and over. So the best we can come up with is to distract ourselves from thinking about the future, use chemicals to stop the scary thoughts in our head, and keep ourselves trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because when we stop for a moment all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker.
But then comes the first week of Advent that says, “When Jesus came, He brought with Him a great hope.” The scripture we read on that day was from Isaiah 9:2 and it describes the coming of Jesus this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The coming of Jesus at Christmas was the coming of a beam of light into a dark place. Suddenly, because of Him, because of His, His words, His message, His life, and His work on the cross we are no longer faced with meaninglessness and oblivion, but salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, a mission in this life, and then eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says it this way:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…”
Is that not what all humanity longs for? Isn’t that why you are here today? Because you’ve looked at the things of this world and realized that the hope it offers perishes, spoils and fades, but that in Jesus Christ hope never can. That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
What is this love rooted in? What foundation does it have? It is established in love. But not a worldly kind of love. Our hope doesn’t come from one who only loves those who love Him back. It’s not the kind of love that happens as an exchange of goods, or because someone did something for Him. He doesn’t just love people who achieve some kind of level of loveableness. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. And it’s the kind that we worry about, the kind that fades, the kind that we feel like we can mess up and lose. But God’s love isn’t like that. God offers a better kind of love – a deeper love.
When we lit the Love candle we read John 3:16-17 which talks about the depth of God’s love for us. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Romans 5:6-8 describes the love we find in Jesus this way:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. Jesus didn’t come for those who had earned the right to be saved or were special enough to be saved. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless” – other scriptures say that we weren’t just powerless but were “dead in our… sins” (Eph 2:1). It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness or goodness. He doesn’t just love those who are “good people” but for those who were “ungodly”. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends.
A couple of verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that Jesus died while “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and His opposites, to live among us and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, gained nothing so we could gain everything.
In Jesus there is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. We always feel like God is against us, like we are alone in an out of control world. Without the guidance of Jesus, the good shepherd, we never know what it means for God to give us such a love for our enemies that we are able to pity them, feel bad for them, even find peace while sitting at a table with them. It is only knowing that Jesus is in control that we are able to be at peace in a world filled with strife and turmoil. Without Jesus, we are always trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world so we can control it better – but they all fail us because it’s impossible to find true peace anywhere else but in the presence of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday we lit the peace candle we read the prophecy about Jesus that came 600 years before He was born in Isaiah 9:6-7 which said that when Jesus came His people would say,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
In Romans 5:1-2 we read it about our peace with God this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (knowing we have been forgiven so much). Peace in the knowledge we cannot lose our salvation and that we can trust God because He has everything under control. Peace knowing that we are loved so very much by a God who traded His Son for us.
In Jesus there is Joy
And, therefore, knowing all of this – when we are secure in the hope Jesus offers, understanding the love Jesus has for us and knowing we are at peace with God and others and within ourselves because of what Jesus has done for us – we have joy.
Without Jesus, a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can experience happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time, even smile and laugh for a moment. We can surround ourselves with lots of good things like family, friends, finances, food, and fun – but all of those things only bring temporary moments of happiness. Our family lets us down or passes away, our children grow up and leave, we fall out of friendships, the food runs out or makes us fat or sick, the money doesn’t keep its promises, and the fun only lasts so long. It’s not too long before we realize that the things we thought were supposed to bring us everlasting joy don’t last.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness but instead promises us more. He offers us Joy, and it is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – transcendent joy comes from our transcendent God. We already read a joy scripture today when we lit the candle, but I want to read another from when Jesus speaks about the mixing of Love and Joy in John 15:8–13,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’”
What brings a person joy? What makes a person full of joy even when their circumstances aren’t very happy? Jesus tells us here. We have joy when we know that we have a life that leads to more life. When we know we are in right standing with God. When we are mindful of God’s presence and the good things He provides every day. When we know we are bearing fruit in our lives because God is working through us. When we live a disciplined life, free from folly and stupid decisions because God’s Spirit is helping us moment by moment. When we feel the ever-abiding love of God, knowing the Creator is on our side and works all things for our good and His glory. When He brings us to a family of believers who surround us with His love, accept us for who we are, and care for us no matter what because they know Jesus too. What brings us joy us knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us, call us His friends, advocates for us, and will be with us every step of every day for the rest of eternity. That kind of joy is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that church and Christmas and theology and doctrine can get complicated. I know that when you look inside there are a lot of things you don’t even understand about yourself, let alone the world around you. But I know this for certain: that everyone here wants these four things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. And I know this: The message of Christmas, the message of the church, the message of the Bible is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.
So take time to consider that this week. To meditate upon Hope. To remember it and pray and journal about Love. To sing about Peace and share that Joy with others. All centred around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
*Sorry, no audio.*
Have you ever read the book of Malachi? It’s the last book of the Old Testament and sort of has the qualities of a sunrise. You’ve heard that phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and this little book reads like that. It starts off super dark but ends with a glimmer of light on the horizon. Those who heard it first really needed that glimmer because even though they thought things were bleak, they were about to get darker.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and helped Israel restart their worship practices, but things were still pretty rough. The generation that had returned to Judah did okay, but as usual, it didn’t last long. The prophets told them that if they rebuilt their temple and turned their hearts back to God, then they would receive the promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, and peace – all that good stuff that meant God was with His people.
But after a hundred years they were feeling pretty disillusioned. The Promised Land didn’t look anything like it was supposed to. Sure, they were no longer slaves in a foreign land, but the glory days of peace, prosperity, popularity, and power that they had under King David and King Solomon were long gone. Now, though they were being mostly left alone, they were still the least important territory in Prussia, ruled by a the pagan king Artaxerxes. They were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, were constantly fighting with their neighbours, and couldn’t even get along with themselves.
Actually, it wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them most. What troubled Israel more was the spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt and the sacrificial system was working, but the temple was much smaller and inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. Everyone knew that God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple, that first drop of blood spilt on the altar, that the miracles would start automatically raining down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
But was God gone? Had God abandoned His people? Had He broken his promise to be faithful to them? Of course not. Look at Malachi 3:13-15,
“Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Do you hear what they are saying? It is not that God left His people, is it? Instead what we see here are a people who are upset that God isn’t giving them what they want, so they have given up. God says, “Your words have been hard against me!” That means they haven’t just been grumbling, but actually accusing God of being unfair, unjust, unkind. Maybe they didn’t say it aloud – that would be pretty unjewish – but this is what they said in their hearts and their actions show it. They thought, “What’s the point of keeping the faith if there is no profit to it?” So their worship was lethargic and passionless. Their prayers were lists of complaints about God’s lack of love, about how He was unjust in His dealings, and full of bargaining to try to get something out of Him. They even withheld their tithes and offerings because they didn’t think God would take care of them and were worried they wouldn’t have enough.
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? I have. You read the Bible, see the promises, do what you’re supposed to do, and things seem to get worse? That’s the kind of month I’ve had. I try to do things right, and things get worse. The spiritual attacks are relentless, the voices in my head are terrible, the circumstances add up, the suffering around me grows, and I get more and more bad news and I spend my time confused, angry, sad, and afraid. I try to pray, to read my Bible, to call a friend – but I can’t sleep, don’t eat, and feel miserable. I honestly feel like I’ve aged 50 years in the past 2. My tinnitus screams in my ears, I can barely hear sometimes. Some days my whole body hurts and I can hardly get upstairs. I spontaneously burst into tears in front of random people now. It happened the other day when I asked the optometrist at Costco to adjust my glasses. I literally choked up.
Have you ever had a rough patch in your life where nothing seems to go right and you start to ask yourself, what’s the point in following God? Where’s the “profit” in following God’s rules, doing things His way, saying prayers, reading his word, doing what we’re supposed to, denying ourselves pleasures – which almost always makes life more difficult? But you stick to it, believe God’s way is right, try to do things His way, but things seem to just get worse? You wonder where God is? Where’s all that “peace that passes understanding” and “joy in the midst” you’re supposed to be feeling?
And then you look around, read some stories online, or hear from others that things seem upside down. The Christians you know are all going through tough times, but the God-hating, hedonistic, non-believers are prospering. People who are outright committing evil, lying through their teeth, spreading gossip, killing babies, mocking God to His face, are not only getting away with it but are being praised and rewarded for it! Hypocrites are adulated and the faithful mistreated. One starts to think, “Where is God in this? What’s the point in doing things God’s way if it never seems to make our lives any better?”
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. I know I’m not alone in this. Israel was tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God but fighting amongst themselves and then losing every other battle to the enemies that they used to be able to defeat easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi isn’t a book of complaints and accusations. In this book God reminds His people that He is more than happy to bless them, stands ready to help them, but there’s a problem. Malachi reminds the people that God hasn’t abandoned them. It was God who chose Israel and God who stayed faithful, even demonstrating great love when they had completely turned their backs on Him. He even restored them back to their land and saved them from their enemies when they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He demonstrated his willingness to bless them.
But what was their response to God’s amazing grace? Was it to worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? It was for a short time, but not for long. It wasn’t long before they forgot the agony of being slaves in Babylon and started to grumble and complain that things weren’t good enough. They wanted more comfort, more prosperity, more gifts from God – and faster. But when God didn’t come on His magic sleigh with His eight tiny reindeer to deliver presents to everyone, it wasn’t long until they got upset with Him, so they started to dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings to the temple, holding back the good stuff to themselves. Then they started to withhold their worship, love, and obedience, saying that they would only do what God wanted if He would start doing what He was told. Then, when God didn’t fulfil their demand for more worldly pleasures, they decided to do it themselves. They committed sexual sin, divorced each other, married unbelievers, took advantage of each other, and refused to help the needy. But they still wanted to be called “Holy” and “Believers” and “God’s people”, so they kept doing their religious activities.
So God tells them that the reason they aren’t feeling His presence right now, the reason they aren’t connected with Him right now is that their hearts and lives are a mess. That’s what the whole first part of Malachi is about.
God told them they were treating Him like a sugar-daddy. They proved they didn’t want a loving relationship with Him but just wanted to use Him to get nice things. And when the nice things stopped, they dropped Him like a hot-potato. That’s not love.
But here’s the revelation for us today, certainly for me, but maybe for you to. I can’t just point fingers at Israel in this because I know I’ve done this too.
It starts to feel like God only does nice things for people who love Him enough. That He’s always trying to get away and we are the ones who need to hold tight to Him. That God has lots of blessings to share but He’s giving them to the wrong people. But is that true? Is it true that if we loved and obeyed God enough, tried hard enough, worshipped good enough, served and tithed and sang enough – that things would be easy? Is it true that all the hard things in life are just God being mad at us for not trying hard enough?
The wisest man to ever live struggled with this. In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon puzzles about how the world works. It all seems upside down. In Ecclesiastes 8:14 he says,
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous…”
A few verses before, in 8:10–11 he says,
“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
He felt it too. He feels like the world is topsy-turvy, that evil is rewarded and good is punished, and God isn’t showing up fast enough – and so our hearts start to think that maybe it would be better to do evil because it seems to work.
We wonder why doing bad things seems to easy and good things so hard, don’t we? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. The rest of the world is another thing. I don’t understand what the government is doing. Corporations are getting more powerful and sometimes eviler. People seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have scientists doing all sorts of insane things like creating and destroying human embryos and messing with their genes, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
And when all the difficulty hits, Christians fall on our knees and cry out to God, but nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, give some money, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for a bit, feel some peace when we read a psalm or our eyes are closed, but the troubles invariably come crashing back when we get up and get back into life.
It’s easy to slip into that Malachi mindset. Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little back because we are worried about the budget. We skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries because there’s lots of work to be done elsewhere and church stuff hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises. We start to indulge more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – because it gives us that little rush we were trying to get from God, but He wouldn’t provide. Sure, it produces shame… but if we keep at it we know that will eventually go away.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music because it just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either more miserable or better off – and we don’t want to hear from either one of those people. We head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution and they prescribe something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it doesn’t help. We rarely pray except to complain about how unfair life is or say that if He’d just fix things then we’d start doing what we’re supposed to. But nothing changes, and we start to wonder if God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. Sure, it goes against everything we think we believe, but by that point, oblivious seems like a better option than constant pain, sadness, and disappointment, right?
That feeling, by definition, is hopelessness, and it’s not only where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi, but something felt by a lot of people today. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, 400 years later, except for a few exceptions, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the entire nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? Where do we find that Romans 5:5 “Hope that does not disappoint”. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Look at Malachi 3:16. Here we see something special. After the complaining, faithless, disobedient and hopeless have had had their say against God, another group emerges: “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In the first part of Malachi, we see God listening to the conversations and blasphemies of the first group – the complainers. Now, we see God listening into the conversations of another group – the faithful. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God there was one group that was still faithful, still hopeful, still hadn’t bowed their knee to another god, still hadn’t turned to sin, but had remained obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How? Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”.
I’m sure most of you have had a campfire. Some of you even have fireplaces in your homes. And you know how it goes, right? You can’t just stick one log in at the beginning of winter and let it go until you don’t need it in the spring. Sure, you start with a nice fire, but as time wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be left with only a few charred, little blocks with a few tiny, flickering, little flames, surrounded by some orange glow and grey ash. So what do you do? When the flames are dying down, and the heat is dying out, what do you need to do to make sure the flame doesn’t go out altogether? You bring those embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should draw together. One of Satan’s main tactics is to get us alone, to tell us all the reasons to stay home, stay alone, not share our thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and temptations with people. He wants to divide and conquer. But to keep the flames of faith alive we must draw together.
Above my monitor, I have two cards that were given to me at just the right time with just the right message. The first has a quote from Isaiah 46:4 that says, “I have made you and will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” They remind me of God’s love.
The other one simply says, “We’ve got your back!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at that card, reminding myself that my church has my back. Let me tell you that I’ve had some dark times lately, some dark thoughts, and Satan has been non-stop trying to tell me some very evil lies, trying to make me feel alone and forgotten. But I look at that card and remember that my church loves me, my church cares for me, my Christian friends have my back, and it gives me the strength to send a text to a friend, an e-mail to the elders, and ask for help and prayer. It reminds that when I am too weak to pray for myself, too sad to read anything, that I can draw closer to God by leaning on His people.
And what do God’s people do when they get together? They “spoke with one another.” Hebrews 10:23-25 was given to believers in a very similar situation to Malachi’s. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says to believers, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” I would imagine that God’s people of Israel in Malachi’s time and God’s people when Hebrews was written, and all of God’s people who have come after, speak the same things, right?
They confessed their hope to one another. They spoke God’s word to each other, reminded each other of the truth about of God, combatting the evil lies that were in their heads. They asked each other what brought them hope that week? They told stories about how they saw God that week. They remembered God’s promises and told stories of his faithfulness.
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. Christians stopping their lives to come to one another and simply say, “How have you been this week? How can I help you? How can I serve you? Did you know that so-and-so needs something? Can we work together to help them? Tell me about how you’ve struggled with sin and temptation this week, and let me help you. How are you doing with guilt and forgiveness? Do you know that God has forgiven you?”
What else do Christians speak about to generate hope? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but let me remind you how far you’ve come. I know you feel lonely right now, but you’re not. God’s here and I’m here too. I know you feel like your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I see answers that you’re not seeing. Let me tell you about them. I know you feel worthless but I want you to know that I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it even though you don’t. Don’t give up on God or yourself.”
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21,
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”
He’s saying the same thing. Don’t go to sin to try to get the things that only the Spirit of God can provide. But look what he says next because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
“…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? How do we keep the fire of faith from going out in our heart? How do we feel better when we feel like God and the whole world are against us? Satan will tell you to get alone, turn away from God, from friends, from prayer, from church, from your spouse and children, to get alone and get selfish. What does God say? Connect with God by connecting to other believers. He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, communicate and get together with His people. How do you resurrect dying coals? Gather them together and then blow on them! So how do we encourage ourselves when our spirit is dying? By connecting with other believers and letting the wind of God’s Spirit blow on us.
This whole section of Malachi is leading up to the prophecy about the coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture. Advent means “arrival”, but the Season of Advent is the waiting for that arrival. As even the faithful people of Israel groaned in frustration, but kept the faith, so Christians participate in advent as a time of waiting, of groaning, of knowing things aren’t right with the world, but anticipating that God’s plan will come to fruition, that He will make things right, that He is victorious, and that all of His promises in Jesus are true.
Christmas time is such a mixed bag, isn’t it? I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you look forward to and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know for others, there is so much going on in your life and heart that you wish Christmas would be cancelled. Both of those feelings are necessary to understand Advent and the Christian faith.
So my encouragement to both of you, whichever side you are on, is to do the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses to get together and invite people from outside your usual circles so more people are encouraged.
And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear some space in your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, to find ways to talk and sing with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, into temptation, being sucked into the dark, or call text another believer and tell them. Ask them to pray for you. I have been rescued from the dark so many times by doing that because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It works because gathering with other believers is the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 The Lexham Bible Dictionary & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
John McCrae and Flanders Fields
In Canada and around the world, the poppy has long been a symbol of the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others. It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of Remembrance Day. I did some reading about him and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place/ During what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what saw by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother around that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…..And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches –holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them a voice. (http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/mccrae/flanders)
It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd,1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He died five days later at the age of 46 and was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of (Bull-oy ne) Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields.
No Greater Love
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, knowing what could happen, so others could be safe. Their sacrifice was a choice. One that ought to be remembered.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
As Christians, one thing we do every week – not only once a year, but every Sunday – is to remember the One who willingly laid down His life not to defend our nation, but to save our souls; Jesus Christ. What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that we can never say that anyone “took Jesus’ life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice – the cross.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” We often say that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, but we must also remember that Jesus is God and chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who deserve death and Hell. We are the ones who should have received our just punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example of bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication, and sacrifice.
But the Christian understands this best of all because we see all those attributes most perfectly in Jesus. It is His perfect sacrifice that compels Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t any believer is fully able to process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some who can more than others. In the same way that a soldier understands Remembrance Day better than most, it is those under persecution for their faith and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, that can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”, as in a witness in a courtroom. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. As Christians gave their lives for their faith, pointing to Jesus as the reason for their sacrifice, it came to be known as the term for those who were suffering in the name of Jesus,and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to their beliefs,that that they are willing to die. The ultimate witness of truth.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people may think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. The website Voice of the Martyrs, among others, is dedicated to telling those stories. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Jesus promised that anyone who serves Him will risk persecution and martyrdom.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And there is no point at which this will stop. It is a future reality as well. When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Iraq where Christians live in constant fear of losing their lives because of their faith. But it is coming and we should pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who suffer and are martyred in His name. They aren’t suffering or killed because God loves them less or forgot them because they are cursed, or because they didn’t have enough faith. They did not suffer because of their sin –Jesus already paid for that. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. Our identification with suffering as losing God’s blessing is a very Western, very wrong idea. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5, “ThenI saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They are not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom and will be given things byGod that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. They need to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength, to learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous. In the same way, when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [and a few verses later] Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)
Being a follower of Jesus requires the commitment of our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages, our families, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus must be ready to give everything to Him because it may be asked of them – knowing that Jesus has already given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like that part of the Bible or theology or Christian discipline, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. They see Christianity as a smorgasbord of options from which they get to pick and choose.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths, our own version of God. Then we can be happy.”
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected, or because you like the idea. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution, to suffering, to the inconvenience that comes with being a Christian, is to believe with every fibre of your being that what Jesus says is true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
In a word, “Assurance”. Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose things about Him. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking aboutsubjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, picked through for what we like and don’t like, but truths that are meant to be found, taught, discovered and believed.
Christians who suffer through persecution, or for that matter, Christians who suffer through anything in this life, learn that they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a pie-in-the-sky, subjective truth which they can pick up or put down at their convenience. For those who suffer, their beliefs must have certainty. Suffering tests the quality of our faith. Their relationship with Jesus can’t be merely based on peer pressure, feelings, or fashion. If your faith is only as strong as your feelings, then you are in real trouble.
Your decision to be a Christian must be a very real one, because it affects every moment of your life, from when you get up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. If God changed your heart, revealed His presence, sent His Son, made you His, and sealed you salvation by His Holy Spirit, then you must live that way. When you go through suffering or persecution you faith is no longer your opinion – it becomes either true or false, life or death – because you need to be absolutely certain you’ve put your faith in the right person.
In suffering we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them, “…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures and the Christian martyrs who have come since, were not certain in themselves. It wasn’t about their own strength, their own will, their own abilities. They were not strong in themselves. They did not build their lives on their own foundation. Their strength lay in the God they knew would deliver them.
When Paul was under arrest for preaching and teaching Jesus, he said 2 Timothy 1:12 that he wasn’t ashamed ofhis suffering, nor the Gospel, nor Jesus. He said, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When a suffering Christian prays, they must know with certainty that God hears them and will answer. They don’t have time for spiritual games, they need Jesus to help them. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we knowthat he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
A believer in suffering must have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, or they will fall apart and go all manner of other places for comfort. The question is whether or not they believe Jesus when He says in Matthew 6:31–34, “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. Butseek 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.”
Or Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
I believe that with the same certainty with which I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs or those facing suffering because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be totally free from hypocrisy, to be absolutely certain of their faith. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Have you readFoxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about someone who died for their faith? Or, maybe do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture that talk about suffering? Let me encourage you to read those books and verses. They are a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certainis your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it anunshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your rootsburied deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in yourlife? Or, when suffering comes, do you find yourself falling into doubts,fears, poor coping strategies, sinful habits, even avoiding God and otherChristians? Could that be because you aren’t doing those things, like prayer,study, meditation, and worship, that are necessary to grow your faith deeper?
Third, are you avoiding something difficult, that you know God wants you to do, but you don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable or inconvenient? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, choosing to pretend you are not a Christian in that moment, because acting like a Christian will bring unwanted attention? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something important – or stop doing something – but you know that obeying in that way will bring a time of hardship or suffering… so you choose not to obey? If so, you are missing a great blessing.
A 2nd-century Christian author named Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” which means that it is possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, your obedience, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus. I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because you fear man more than you fear God!
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to obey God and go preach and die for the gospel. I do not want to suffer, nor should any of us, but Romans 5:3-5 is the absolute truth and cannot be circumvented. Whatis the recipe for hope? “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To believe that all suffering is evil is to deny what God can do with it. And to run from and try to avoid all forms of suffering is to avoid Jesus and thereby avoid building hope and faith – in yourself and others.
How many here have Instagram? I do. I’m pretty much done with Facebook these days, and I’ve mostly shifted over to Instagram. I like it a little more because it’s a little more dumbed down. There’s not as much going on in the feed as there is on Facebook. It’s just a stream of pictures, comics, and quotes that I can thumb through, and then double if I like.
Most of the stuff on there, and I’m assuming this is how it works for you too, I just scan past and never think about again. But there was one quote that I saw recently that caused me to pause and has stuck in my brain. It’s a quote from a theologian named Steven Lawson.
It goes like this:
“Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I tried to find the context for the quote, whether it was a sermon or a book or something, but couldn’t. And that’s ok because this short sentence is powerful enough on its own. The background is likely the famous song Amazing Grace which starts, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
And both of those echo what we read in Ephesians 2:1-9. Please turn there and listen to how we are described before Jesus saves us:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Here we read how God sees us before we are saved, before He resurrects our hearts, before we admit we are sinners and accept Jesus as our Saviour. He sees us as dead in our sins, sons and daughters of hell, workers of disobedience to whom evil comes so naturally, we don’t even notice it. He sees us as His enemies, deserving of wrath, and condemned. Meaning that even the good we thought we were doing, wasn’t good at all, but actually worked against God. (Isa 64:6; Romans 1)
And yet, despite being a dead, wretched, lost, blind, enemy of God – He shows us an incomprehensibly great kindness by sending His only Son, trading His Son for us on the cross, and accepting his death for our sake. He then cleanses us from unrighteousness, comes to live inside us, and promises that from now on we will be with Him forever. And what is the cost of this great salvation? What must we do? Good deeds? Give money on Sundays? Go to church? Punish ourselves? No. Jesus completely paid the price, all we must do is believe He did it. That’s why we’re here, singing, giving, serving, and studying His Word today, right?
More Wrath More Grace
BUT, here’s the thing. Steven Lawson was right. “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” It’s almost a mathematical equation. The more you understand how much wrath God had prepared for you, how much trouble you were in, the more amazing you will understand His grace and forgiveness and the work of Jesus to be. BUT, the opposite is true too. The more you think you deserve God’s grace, the less amazing you’ll think it is.
We just had that tornado touch down in Dunrobin outside of Ottawa, right? Every time something like that happens in the news I hear someone say the same thing, “Nothing like that ever happens around here. We live in such a boring place. I wish we would have something cool happen like a tornado or hurricane or something!”
I promise that no one in Dunrobin is thinking that way. None of the people who the tornado missed are jealously looking at their neighbours house and wishing it would have wiped them out. None of the parents are looking at those with terrified, injured children think, “Wow, my family is so boring. I wish my kid had been almost killed by a tornado.”
Why? Because they saw firsthand the devastation, the damage, the wrath of the storm. Because it touched them they have a respect for it, fear of it, and for many, a thankful heart that it wasn’t worse.
Those who are far from the storm, safe in their homes, watching it on the news laugh at the storm, mock the storm, even wish the storm upon themselves for fun. Why? Because they have not felt its fury. But those who were in it, closest, who were holding each in a basement other while the storm ripped their house apart, they respect the wrath. I watched a video of a man who was in his home with his daughter when the tornado hit. It ripped off the roof of their house, and his daughter went flying up. He grabbed her little hand as she was being pulled into the storm, and held on for dear life until it passed. That man isn’t at home joking about wanting the storm to come to his town. Why? Because he felt the wrath of the storm.
The Gospel Balance
Christians are often criticized because we talk too much about sin. We are sometimes characterized as being joyless, fun-sucking, lemon-eating, sourpusses who spend too much time thinking about how bad and undeserving and guilty we are. The church is sometimes seen as a guilt factory where people who come in needing some help or encouragement are told instead that everything is their fault and that they should actually feel worse. And in some cases, that can be true. Some churches, some preachers, even me on occasion, concentrate too much on the bad news. Which is why there are so many that refuse to talk about the bad news at all.
People generally don’t like feeling guilty, shameful, wretched, blind, or lost – so they avoid places, like the church, where those feelings happen, and instead, seek out places that affirm them. They join groups that make them feel good about their life choices, feel accepted no matter what they’ve done, encourage them to do it more, and get told that they should never have any bad feelings about it. This is great when a person is trying to lose weight, learn a craft, study for exams, or get free from an addiction – but it works the other way too. Alcoholics go to bars to be surrounded by people who won’t judge them, addicts go to clubs to be with people who do what they do, violent people seek out people who want to be violent with them, sexual sinners seek out people who sin like they do and won’t criticize them, and argumentative jerks go to online chat groups…
What they want is to get rid of the feeling of guilt, shame, and fear that what they are doing is wrong. They want to be surrounded by people who will say: “Despite how you feel, despite the warnings in your head, despite your feelings of guilt and shame, keep doing it. You’re fine. You’re good. You were built this way. You deserve it. Your excuses are enough reason. You’re the exception. All of your actions are justified – because you are just like us. And if enough people say that it’s ok, good, right, beautiful, helpful, and healthy – then we can start to believe that. And we’re going to make sure everyone else believes it too.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ exists within a paradox where guilt meets grace. There is a tension in Christianity that we all hold at the same time – and it is in that tension that we must live in order to create within us a heart of praise and thanksgiving. Christians exist in the tension between God’s Righteous Holy Wrath against us sinners who deserve Hell and the mystery of God’s Amazing Grace.
We hold in our minds, at the same time, the knowledge that we are dead, wretched, lost, blind enemies of God who have utterly rejected Him, with flesh that keeps pulling us towards sin, loving sin and self too much, and failing God every day – and the knowledge that somehow, for some reason that we will never understand, God loves us so much that He traded His Son for us so that we could be with Him forever (Rom 11:28-36). Or as Romans 5:6-8 says it,
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That quote that I mentioned before, “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” could be restated, “Grace cannot amazing to you unless you know how wretched, lost, blind you actually were.”
That’s why Christians spend so much time talking about sin – because we know the damage it does and the consequences of not taking it seriously. That’s why Christians spend so much time praying. Because we know that we can’t really trust ourselves, our minds, our hearts to lead us the right way. That’s why Christians don’t run from guilt, but instead walk through that guilt into grace. If we ignore the guilt, we cannot get to forgiveness. Because when we feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid of God’s wrath, it forces us to go to Jesus to deal with it.
Jesus the Advocate
My daughter Eowyn memorized a verse this week that I really needed to hear. As she was working on it, I was going through a tough time, making some bad decisions, getting really down, Satan accusing me over and over in my ear – and she kept coming to me, handing me the book, and reviewing the verse to make sure she had it right. So I had to read it multiple times that day and eventually is sunk in. It’s from 1 John 2:1 and here’s what it said:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
What a healing balm that has been to my soul this week. The apostle, in this book repeatedly calls Christians, “My little children”. I like that and needed to hear it so much. It’s a reminder that as grown up and smart as I think I am, spiritually I’m still a child. I’m not all grown up and mature, like my Heavenly Father. I’m still learning, growing, making mistakes, and tripping over my own feet. And God knows this. When I sin, He’s not looking down on me in wrath. No, I’m a Christian. I’m forgiven. I’m one of His kids.
Sometimes I still get afraid that God is mad at me for the things I’ve done. That God is punishing me. But then I remember Romans 8:15–16 which says,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
I have to remind myself: I’m a Christian. God is my dad. When I sin, He still loves me. I’m no longer under His wrath. And as His kid, His child, I don’t need to be afraid of Him.
People tell me sometimes that I can be sort of scary. I have angry eyebrows, a pointy beard, and a loud voice and that freaks people out. Do you know who isn’t scared of me? My kids. They’ve seen my face, heard my voice, and know me – so they don’t get scared when I talk – even when I want them to be! I raise my voice during a conversation for some reason, people turn their heads and wince, babies cry, sirens start going off in the distance – and my kids laugh. Why? Because they know I’m not scary. I’m their dad. That’s how God wants me to see Him too.
Next it says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
God doesn’t want us to sin. Part of the reason He wrote the Bible was to show us our sin. The Law of the Old Testament, the stories of Israel, the hard-hearted Pharisees, the cruel Romans, the arrogant Greeks, the false teachers, the superstitious pagans – we see ourselves in all of them, and we see our sin. The Bible shows us our faults and then guides us on how to make it right. God doesn’t want us to sin. He still hates sin and hates seeing His children doing it – and will oftentimes discipline us so we can learn about the wrong we’re doing.
Later in chapter 3:9-10 we read:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Though we’ll never be free of our sinful natures until we get to heaven, God doesn’t want us to be “practicing” sin. We fall, we fail, we develop a bad habit, we go to the wrong place for comfort, that happens to all of us. But when Christians do it, we recognize it as sin. That means we don’t want to do it, even though we just did. We want to change, want to be holier, and we ask for God’s help. But sometimes we keep falling, right? Does that mean God hates us? Does that mean we’re not really Christians? That’s what Satan the Accuser wants us to think (Rev 12:10).
No, there’s an amazing but in there. It says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
And I’ll keep reading,
“He is the propitiation for our sins…”
If a human being was creating a religion what would that say? It would go, “I’m writing down all these things so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, boy are you in trouble! You’d better not! Jesus won’t be happy with you!” But that’s not what it says, is it?
It says that Jesus is our Advocate. In other words, Jesus is our lawyer. He takes up the cause for us before God the Judge. He presents our defence, speaks to God for us, He mediates the conversation with God and He’s on our side. He’s our Advocate before God. And God listens because Jesus is “righteous”, meaning He is perfect. More than this, Jesus is also “the propitiation for our sins”. That means that Jesus was the sacrifice who bore God’s wrath against us so that we could be free.
This is where the understanding of “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” comes into play again. Christians sin. Someone said to me recently that they didn’t want to come to church because they feel like a hypocrite. I told them, “It’s ok. We’re all hypocrites.” What did I mean? I meant that even though all the Christians in the church say we hate sin, we all keep on sinning. All of us. We keep sinning, keep doing things our own way, keep denying God and living as practical atheists, keep being selfish and bitter and trying to steal God’s glory. But what happens when we sin? Do we lose our salvation? Or does God simply forget about it? Does He pretend it didn’t happen? Do His kids get away with sin?
No. Do you know what happens? A Christian sins, again and again, and Jesus, our Advocate, says, “Father, don’t count that sin against them. Remember, I took the punishment for that sin. You poured your wrath out on me for that. They are still free.”
When Jesus was on the cross, God looked at the entire timeline of human existence, at the sins of all who would believe – from Adam and Eve to the very last believer at the end of time – potentially billions of people and billions upon billions of sins – and He poured the exact amount of wrath out on Jesus to pay for all of them. All our sins in our past and all the sins in our future are not forgotten by God – they are paid for by Jesus.
Christians who recognize that they are sinners, and how deep that sin goes, are people who recognize the immensity of the wrath that Jesus took for us – and recognizing that allows us to begin to understand how Amazing His Grace really is.
And understanding that grace, that undeserved merit, and then seeing all the other good things God gives us which we absolutely do not deserve – changes our lives. It makes us more willing to forgive others. Knowing that when we were enemies of God He forgave us allows us to forgive our own enemies. Knowing how generous God has been with us allows us to be generous with others. Knowing that Jesus came to serve us makes us want to serve others.
That’s why Christians take time to contemplate our sin and the wrath we deserved because of it – but the grace we got instead – it causes us to praise, to worship, to give thanks.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Chances are when you sit at the table with whoever you are celebrating with, you’re going to say grace before you eat. At least I hope you do. It’s an important habit all Christians should have – to stop for a moment and recognize that where you are and what you have is a good practice to develop humility. But when you do sit down and say grace, when you think about all the things you are thankful for, I want you to remember that that list is much longer than you realize. One Christian leader said it this way: “Everything above Hell is grace.” (Bill Stafford)
Allow that thought to enter your Thanksgiving this season. Allow yourself to see how great a sinner you are and then, as you contrast your darkness with light, realize how great your Saviour is.
Macy’s story is packed with some wonderful truths. First, that we never really know what’s going on in people’s lives, do we? We are pretty amazing at covering up our feelings and putting on a brave face for the world. Macy cried herself to sleep every night but didn’t want to share what she was going through with anyone – until she hit bottom.
Second, that we are not only meant to be part of a family but part of a Christian community. Sometimes our families let us down, hurt us, even work against our faith – but when we become a Christian one of the gifts we are given is the church, the Body of Christ, a group of like-minded, like-hearted people who care about us. Once she decided to share what was going on with people, she made a point to hang out with Christian friends, her youth group, her small group, and to come to church. Christians need each other and need to be meeting together regularly (Heb 10:24-25).
A third thing I noticed was that she found healing and solace as she served others. She called her time of serving others a “getaway that helps her see the world in a different way”. She was healed and renewed, disciple and comforted, as she served others.
That’s what I want to talk about today, the heart of a Christian servant. As I said, there is so much in her story that strikes a chord with what I want to talk about today. But if I may, before we jump into the Bible study, can I pull a fourth thing out of that illustration that isn’t so much a part of what she said, but in the background of her story?
Full credit to Macy for being humble enough to share her feelings with her friends, to attend her small group and youth group, and to volunteer in that ministry to parents of special needs children – but all of the places she described as bringing her comfort, required a lot of work and sacrifice from others that aren’t in the video.
There would be no small group to go to without a small group leader and coordinator. There would be no youth group without a youth pastor and volunteers. There would be no “Breakaway” ministry without organizers. There would be no building to have it in without administrators. No Bible to read or devotional guide without translators and printers. For Macy to get comfort, she needed a connection to the Body of Christ. For her to feel fulfilled in service, for her to grow in maturity and faith, she needed someone to do the work of putting all of those things together, right? That’s The Body of Christ at work. In this we see Jesus calling different Christians with different gifts and aptitudes to work together to serve each other and their community in His name.
Motive for Service 1: Our Love for God
Please open up to Romans 12. We’ll go through the whole chapter because in it we see the Biblical view of what’s going on here. But we’ll take it in parts. It begins.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It starts with the motives behind our acts of service. Remember I said that every time you read a “therefore” you have to ask what it is there for? Paul, the previous chapter, has just described the inscrutably amazing grace of God that He would save continuously rebellious sinners like us. His point is that it is absolutely crazy, totally mysterious, almost incomprehensible, that God would look on such hard-hearted people and then trade His Son for them. And he follows that with chapter 12. He says that in light of this amazing grace, the undeserved Love God has shown you, He deserves our worship. In light of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which shows the depth and perfection of His love for us, how complete His love for us is, we should love Him back by presenting our own bodies to Him as a living sacrifice.
God, in the old covenant, demanded the blood of animals as an act of worship, and Jesus was the final sacrifice and the fulfilment of that requirement. Now, Paul says, God doesn’t want more sacrificial burnt offerings, but instead, He wants you to show your faith in Him, your love for Him, your thanks to Him for what He has done, by living your whole life as a sacrifice to Him. One a big, one-time sacrifice, but a lifetime of spiritual worship.
That’s our first motive for serving others – showing love to God for what He’s done.
Motive for Service 2: The Example and Teachings of Jesus
The second motive we have we read about starting in verse 3,
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
The second motive is the teachings and example of Jesus. This verse uses the word “think” three times. It’s about how we see ourselves, who we think we are. This goes right to the teaching of Jesus, and it’s perfectly captured in Mark 10:35-45. Let’s read that together:
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”
What’s going on here? If we were to break down this request it would be simply this: “Jesus, we want to be great. We want to be on top. Sure, you can be the tippity-top, but we want to be next, first in your kingdom.” What is Jesus’ response?
“Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’”
His response is to say, “Do you know the qualifications for greatness in the Kingdom of God? Do you know what kind of things you need to have on your resume in order to be even considered to be part of my kingdom let alone one of the greatest in it?” Of course, they respond,
“And they said to him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’”
What was the cup He had to drink, the baptism he had to be baptized in? It was the cup of ultimate service, of ultimate sacrifice. It was the cup of God’s wrath, of great suffering on the cross, and the baptism of being buried in a tomb. Keep reading in verse 41,
“And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.”
Not because James and John were wrong, but because they had thought of asking first! They were indignant because of their own ambition and jealousy. So Jesus stops everyone in their tracks. Look at verse 42,
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
What’s the lowest rank in a society? Below everyone else? Slave. But even among slaves there is a hierarchy. Some served more wealthy homes others had governing authority over other slaves. What is the lowest of the low? The slave who is “slave of all”. Jesus was the servant of all, going from the highest place to the lowest, the “slave of all”. That’s the attitude that the followers of Jesus are supposed to have.
How do people know that we are disciples of Jesus? By the fish decal on our car? By the big bible we carry? By the cross sign on our church? By the songs we sing? By how many things we decide not to go to? No. Jesus says in John 13:35,
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
How do people know whether or not we love one another? How do you know that someone loves you? By their words? A little. But more by their deeds, right? What they do. How do people know that we are followers of Jesus? Because we love people the way He does.
Turn to Philippians 2:1–8 where it’s written this way,
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
That’s the second motivation for serving others, the teachings and example of Jesus – because He told us to and modelled how. But there is a third motivation, but before we get there, take a look at the next verses and instead of motives for service we see the method.
The Body of Christ Working Together
Start in verse 4,
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Here we see beyond the motives and into the methods of service. Here we recognize that God gives different gifts to different people according to His plan and His grace. Then He tells is people to use them, right? He saves us as individuals and then makes us part of a church. I’m concentrating today on the motives rather than the methods, but since it’s here, let’s notice that not everyone serves in the same way. Just as I said with Macy’s story, there are a lot of different people needed to make up the ministries of the church.
Look in verse 6. Here we see prophets, not describing people who see the future, but the preachers who speak the Word of God to the people, keeping them on track with what God wants. Next comes those who serve, which is similar to the word for Deacon, but simply means someone who spends time giving practical aid to the community of believers. Then we have the teachers who have the ability to explain the scriptures in a way that people can understand it and apply it to their lives. Then we have the exhorter, the cheerleaders in the church who keep encouraging, urging, imploring, spurring God’s people to keep going because they know God is doing something special. Then there are the “contributors”, which are simply the people who God has gifted with material and financial wealth who pay for things without grumbling about it. Then you have leaders who organize and plan the ministries so everyone is on the same page, and those who have the gift of mercy, which are essentially the Christian social workers, the good Samaritans who have a special heart for the sick, the prisoner, the hurting, the difficult cases.
Each of these believers, working together, make a healthy body of Christ. But this means two important things. First, that everyone has a job and second that not everyone is supposed to be doing the same thing.
Notice that everyone in the church has something to do. Maybe you’re not a leader or teacher. Maybe you’re an exhorter or a helper. You’re not good at planning things hospitals kind of freak you out, but you’re happy to show up and help get things done. Maybe you are a gifted leader, but you don’t know much about the bible and you don’t have any money. You need a teacher and a contributor. Maybe you’re a great teacher, but you get discouraged easily. You need an encourager. Maybe you don’t have much time to serve or help or lead, but God has given you the ability to make money. It’s ok that you’re a contributor.
But what happens if people get their wires crossed and start thinking that one gift is better, one position is more Christian? Trouble, right? People that are great at encouraging feel bad because they’re not teachers. Contributors feel guilty because they don’t help more. Helpers feel dumb because they aren’t good at administration and leadership. The teachers are annoyed by the helpers because they don’t know enough Bible trivia.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work, is it? Each person is only responsible for the things that God has planned out for them and for using the gifts that God has given them.
Motive for Service 3: Competition
Now, let’s get back to motivations by looking at verse 9
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
There’s a lot of good stuff in going on in here, but what I want to concentrate on today is in verse 10, “Outdo one another in showing honour.” This is an interesting turn of phrase and commentators argue a bit about. In one sense this means, “Each of you should honour each other more highly than yourself.” Or “Respect each other by showing deference to one another.” But there’s another side of this there, and that’s the competitive angle.
This whole section is about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, where we bless our persecutors, seek out people who are weeping, spend time with the lowly, assume we need help, give our enemies gifts, and overcome evil with good. Remember what Jesus said to James and John? “Whoever would be first… must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:44)
He said this kind of thing many times. In Matthew 19 after meeting the Rich Young Ruler, His disciples were confused about who could get into heaven. Surely, if this rich, religious young man couldn’t, than nobody could. Jesus replied saying, “…many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matt 19:30) He then told the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, where a landowner gives the same payment to everyone working in his field, regardless of how many hours they had worked. He ends that story saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16)
In short, He was talking about His Upside-Down Kingdom where the wealthy, self-satisfied, celebrities are on the bottom, and the “poor in spirit”, “the meek”, “the reviled” and “persecuted”, (Matthew 5:2-11) and “the slaves of all” are on top.
Jesus never criticized James and John for wanting to be great, wanting to be like Him. But instead, explained His recipe for greatness. And what was that recipe? Servanthood.
I’m a competitive guy. I like playing games and I like winning them. That’s why I like verse 10 and 11 so much. It says “Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” It’s like Jesus says, “Ok, guys. If you’re going to try to compete against one another to see who is best, who is going to win the biggest prize, who is going to get the most points – then compete at who can serve and honour the most people, see who can help the most people, who can feed and clothe and teach the most people. I’m not about who can score the most goals, I’m about who can get the most assists. Ready, set, go!”
But there’s a catch, right? Every game needs rules. Remember Jesus teaching in Matthew 6? That’s the rules of the game. He says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (6:1) In this game, the more love you show to others, and the more secretive you can be about it, the more points you get – but you do it for others to see, or you do it for the wrong reasons, you lose points. Fun, right?
Our motives should be a mixture of all three of those, right? One of them is likely going to speak to you more, but whatever your motivation, whether you are motivated by your love for God and you want to thank Him for saving you… or you’re motivated to serve out of obedience to Jesus’ teachings… or you’re motivated by that competitive spirit that makes you want to be the best Christian servant you can possibly be… two things that we always need to remember is that it is God who saved us, God who enables us, God who motivates us, and therefore God who gets the glory – and that we cannot do any of this separate from the rest of the body of Christ. God always gets the glory and there are no Lone Ranger Christians.
Let me close with this: Today is the day that the church is has set aside to recognize some of the amazing people that help Beckwith Baptist Church. Not because we want them to lose points, but because we want to honour them, thank them, hold them up as examples for us to follow, and to honour them as people who have shown us the love of Jesus through their service.
These are people of all kinds, from all walks of life, with many different stories, different gifts and different struggles, but are all here together, in this church, serving for God’s glory. It is because of their service that we can be part of such a loving, excellent church and by honouring them, we honour the God who saved them and gave them to us as a gift.