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.
Tonight we are going to be doing something a little special, something we haven’t done since I’ve been the pastor here, and that is to have an evening communion service. It’s interesting how this happened. Some people came to me and said that they felt like they wanted to “change up communion”.
If you know me you’ll know this immediately raised my hackles and made me wonder what was about to go down. I’m all for new worship music, trying things in church, experimenting with new ministries and seeing what happens, but I’m definitely going to have some issues with messing with the sacraments. They’re a big deal.
My first thought was an unfair one to them. I thought, “Oh great, these people want to make the Lord’s Supper cool by doing weird stuff with it.” And I’ve heard some weird things. I know of churches where those leading communion didn’t say anything, but just played a couple songs off YouTube hoping people would get the gist. I know of churches that refuse to serve gluten-free bread because it’s not as holy as bread made with wheat. I know of churches that make women wear doilies on their head or they won’t be served. I even lived next to one church that encouraged people to bring their pets to church so they could have communion too. I’ve heard all kinds of ways to fancy up Communion. Things like doing it at McDonald’s with hamburgers and coke or even serving it with French onion dip or whip cream.
Thankfully that’s not what they meant. The idea, they explained after I calmed down a bit, was that instead of having it as a short tack-on to the end of a worship service, to meet together at a special time so we can concentrate on what we are doing. Instead of little, tiny pieces of bread, serve an actual loaf and let people have something to chew on. Instead of teeny, Barbie-sized cups of juice, use dealcoholized wine in a bigger cup. The mission wasn’t about making it “cool”, but to make it more authentic, more prayerful, to take better care of how we do it, and to have a greater experience with it than is possible in the 10 minutes we spend at the end of a service.
That was something I could get behind and was more than happy to help plan. So that’s what we’re doing tonight. In my original plan, I intended on giving a short sermon explaining what communion was all about, but it occurred to me that speaking for too long might distract from what we are trying to do there, so I figured I’d give it a bit larger of a treatment this morning in preparation for tonight.
The Lord’s Supper and Signs of the Covenant
So with that in mind, please open up to Matthew 26:26-28, which tells us of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
This is the Thursday evening before Good Friday, mere hours before Jesus will go to Gethsemane, Judas will betray Him, Peter will deny Him, the disciples will abandon him, and Jesus will be arrested by the wicked Sanhedrin, falsely accused, brought to an illegal trial, and then sentenced to death. It says,
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Part of what you need to know about the Lord’s Supper is that Jesus didn’t invent it out of whole cloth. Jesus took an old ceremony and imbued it with new meaning. This was the festival of the Passover which had been instituted in the Law of Moses and celebrated for hundreds and hundreds of years so the Israelites would remember the miracle that occurred when they were slaves in Egypt; the plagues, the miracles, and especially the final miracle when God sent the angel of death to kill the first-born sons of Egypt, who could only be spared when a spotless lamb was killed and it’s blood spread on their doors.
Jesus took that powerful symbol, which all Jews knew intimately, and effectively said, “I’m the true Passover lamb. Sin and death hover over everyone, but I will be your spotless lamb who covers and protects you from the consequences of your sins. I will give up my body for yours and allow it to be broken for you. I will spill my blood so you can live.”
Jesus was creating a powerful object lesson. The broken bread and poured wine symbolized His death on the cross. But the cup had a double meaning. During the celebration of the Passover, four cups were traditionally drunk. This was probably the third of the four cups which would be passed around so all could drink out of the same cup. And before passing it, Jesus said, “…this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (vs 28) That was very specific language and there’s a lot going on there.
Covenants are simply agreements between two parties, like a contract. And throughout the Bible, God often forms covenants with His people and then seals them with a sign. He established a covenant with Noah not to flood the earth and sealed it with the sign of the rainbow. He made a covenant with Abraham and the sign was circumcision. When God rescued his people from Egypt and gave them the Law, He made a covenant with them at Sinai. It said,
“Then he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” (Ex 24:7–8)
In the same way, Jesus took the Passover wine and amplified its meaning. As He was promising to be their Passover Lamb and save them from sins, He made a promise, a covenant with them and all who would believe, written in His spilled blood, symbolized and remembered every time we pour the wine, and then drink it, making it a part of us – and as we share the cup, share the wine, we become part of each other. The blood of Jesus, the covenant that saves us, is the banner we all come under during the Lord’s Supper. It’s a great levelling field and a powerful, important, and serious symbol – and that’s why we don’t mess with it.
Why can’t we use burgers and coke? Why can’t animals take it? Why do we give warnings before we do it? Why is it for believers? Why do we take it so seriously? Because it’s a very serious thing that Jesus told us to do, symbolizing the very essence of our faith.
When The Lord’s Supper Isn’t the Lord’s Supper
Now, please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-32. This is the passage I usually read when we have Communion, but I don’t read the entirety of it, usually due to time constraints, but I would like to today. This is another passage speaking to the serious nature of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, and how important it is that we get it right. Now, when I say “get it right” I don’t necessarily mean “do the ritual properly”, which you will see as we read. If you recall, the Corinthian church was kind of a mess and had gotten a lot of things wrong, and the Apostle Paul was writing this letter to correct them. It says:
“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”
There are three things I want to point out in this passage to help guide what we are going to do this evening.
First, I want you to notice verse 20 which says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” What does that mean? This church was doing the same thing we have done each month for many years and will do again tonight. They were meeting together for worship and fellowship and then taking time to break bread and share the cup of the covenant together. So how could it not be the Lord’s Supper? The answer isn’t that they were doing the ritual wrong, but that their hearts weren’t right before God as they were eating and drinking. The offence was that instead of having the Lord’s Supper in the way Jesus intended, they were simply going through the religious motions (something many so called “Christian churches” are guilty of institutionalizing today, by the way.) What was the evidence that God didn’t accept their Lord’s Supper? Because of how they were treating one another. Sure, they had the elements before them, they were eating the bread and drinking from the cup, saying the words, and singing the songs – but the church was divided.
Paul says there were “factions” and “divisions” among them. They had separated themselves by class, race, economic status, gender, lifestyle, even by favourite apostle and beliefs. People were treating each other carelessly, with disrespect, forgetting each other’s needs, not caring for the poor and needy and oppressed among them, but instead were using those situations as a way to gain advantage over one another. They weren’t in “communion”, united under the banner of Jesus, and it showed in how they sinned against one another in so many ways. They weren’t caring for one another or forgiving one another, or doing most of the “one anothers” in the Bible. That meant they weren’t listening to the Holy Spirit, which meant they were still in unrepentant sin, which meant their hearts weren’t right with God, which meant they weren’t worthy or ready to take the Lord’s Supper, the very sign God gave us to demonstrate humility, sacrifice, forgiveness and unity.
I think that’s something our church needs to be very careful not to skip over. I know we are a friendly church, but I also know that there are a lot of hard feelings among the people here, offenses given and taken and not dealt with, old rivalries and unforgiveness, even bitterness here in our church. Don’t assume that this verse isn’t talking about us. Examine yourself. Why?
Because of how seriously God takes this offence? Look at verses 29–30,
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
To “discern the body” has a two-fold meaning. First it means to understand what Jesus did for us on the cross, and second, that they are in right relationship with the Body of Christ, or other Christians. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is reserved for humble, believing, repentant, forgiven Christians. It is for people who understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:23–24 when He said,
“… if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
And in Matthew 6:15 where He said,
“…if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
God doesn’t want our worship until we’ve show sacrificial love to others, especially those who make it difficult.
How serious does He take this? Not only will He reject our worship, He actually brought sickness and death to the church to demonstrate His displeasure. Would God do that? Certainly. Consider what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 when they lied about their tithing and God struck them dead. Consider God allowing the city of Jerusalem to be razed to the ground, sending His people into Babylonian captivity, far from their Promised Land for 70 years. Yes, God takes our faith, His church, and the sacraments very seriously and will sometimes allow His discipline to show in serious ways. We talked about that a little bit a few weeks ago.
Why is It God Not Blessing Us?
This all reminds me of Isaiah 58 where the nation of Israel wonders why so many things are going wrong with them. Turn there, but keep your thumb in 1 Corinthians. God says to the prophet in verse 1,
“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
The next verse is dripping with sarcasm:
“Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
Every day they come before God, perform religious rituals, read some bible, say some prayers, tell God how great they are and how much blessing they deserve, and wonder why everything around them is falling apart. In verse 3 the people say,
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
What’s going on here, God? We’re coming to church, singing the songs, studying your word, saying the prayers, doing the ministry stuff, going to meetings, eating the bread, drinking the wine, even fasting? Why are we not seeing victories, answers to prayer, miracles? And the answer comes from God,
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure…”
Stop there. That’s the problem. They’re not fasting or worshipping God. All they have in mind is their own pleasure. Back to verse 3:
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?”
God is saying, “Do you think I just want you to go through some religious motions and then treat everyone around you badly? Do you think you can come before me and ask for things when I know that you are utterly indifferent towards those who I’ve told you to take care of!”
People sometimes ask, “Why isn’t God answering my prayers?” One answer is found here, and is echoed in the New Testament book of James 4:2-3,
“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
God was rejecting Israel’s worship, their religious activity, their prayers, and bringing harsh discipline to them because their hearts were not in the right place. How did that show? By the fact that they weren’t repenting from their sin, and were, in fact committing sins against one another, even against the weakest among them. That’s exactly what was happening in Corinth, and I fear, it may be happening here too.
The point is that what Paul is saying here, when he says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.”, is that though they were going through the motions of Communion, performing the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, their private lives and how they treated each other showed that their hearts were far from God, and a far cry from the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus was trying to teach them through this sacred meal.
A Reminder of The Cost
Flip back to 1 Corinthians. The second thing Paul tells them in verses 23-26 was to remind them of the cost of their salvation, found in the elements – the very body and blood of Jesus. The reason we celebrate communion is to remember the Life, Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus – to remember the cost of our sins and how terrible it was when we were enslaved by them. And then, to remember that our sins, no matter how terrible, are forgiven because of the goodness of God sending His own Son and the love of Jesus demonstrated on the cross. And then, to take that love and grace and share it with one another in His name, exemplified by eating and drinking His Body and Blood together!
Communion is a powerful time, but it becomes meaningless, even dangerous, when we do it with our hearts in the wrong place.
That’s why the third thing I want to point out is what we are supposed to be doing before the Lord’s Supper – and that is to examine ourselves; to do an inventory of our head, heart, and soul, to examine our actions, thoughts, and motives. Look again at verses 27-29,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
We are commanded to invite God to open us up the way Psalm 139:23-24 says,
“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!”
To open the Word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to do soul surgery on us. As it says in Hebrews 4:12–13,
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
That is actually what we are going to spend the majority of our evening doing tonight. In order to obey Jesus in this way, we will be reading scriptures, privately confessing our sins to God, publically confessing our sins to each other, accepting forgiveness, and then having the Lord’s Supper together. My invitation to you is to take time to prepare for it today. To read scripture, get right with God, prepare yourself to confess to your brothers and sisters, and to accept Jesus again as your only hope of salvation, the only one who can cleanse you from sin.
The more I study the Heidelberg Catechism, the more I like it. It appeals to me on so many levels – it’s beautifully written, theologically rich and complex, but is also laid out in such a logical way that it’s very readable and straightforward to follow. I wish that I had been able to go through this, or something like it, a long time ago – not as a pastor preaching a series, but as a congregant or student. Even to this day, I feel so far behind in understanding what are considered to be the basics of the Christian faith.
I admit I wasn’t the best student in the world, but I don’t really remember going through any kind of catechism as a child, teen, adult, or when I was in Bible College. Sure, we studied stories and books of the Bible but it seemed divorced, at least in my mind, from how it impacted my daily Christian walk. Even in seminary, as I was taking Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Baptist History and Thought, and Christian Ethics, I knew what I was learning was important, but it almost felt like I was memorizing trivia answers so that I seem like I know what I’m talking about, rather than really connecting those thoughts as an anchor to my faith.
I love learning, and I love knowledge, but for a long time that meant simply amassing a bunch of information rather than taking time to meditate on the meaning of what I was actually learning. I learned words like Law, Covenant, Atonement, Grace, Sanctification, and Justification and knew their definitions, but somehow there remained a sort of disconnect between those concepts and my daily Christian faith, my prayer life, bible reading, and personal relationships. I could preach, teach, counsel, and answer lots of questions, but I was more like a theological calculator than an actual pastor. It wasn’t until I started facing a bunch of personal difficulties that those concepts really started to sink in.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’ve been to Sunday School and learned lots of Bible stories. Went to Bible camp, got baptized, and sat through a bunch of sermons. You’ve been to Small Groups and read your Bible at home. But your connection to God wasn’t really growing. You know more stuff, and look like a confident Christian on the outside, but on the inside, you wonder if you’re really a believer at all. You keep sinning, don’t pray as often as you know you should, don’t read your Bible with the passion you feel you ought. You come to church and though it’s nice to be here but inside it feels like you’re going through the motions and you hope that no one notices. You like your Christian friends, but are fairly indifferent towards getting to know them better. You still talk about God, but it’s been forever since you actually shared your faith with anyone – partly because you’re not sure if what you have to offer is going to help at all… since you’re not sure how much it’s helping you.
I’ve been in that place, even as a preacher. Showing up on Sundays, sermon in hand, saying what I think are all the right things, but wondering if somewhere very deep down I’m simply parroting other people’s deep thoughts about faith because I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror and face the realization that my own faith is so terribly shallow.
But then, and I don’t know how long ago it was, I started to get really interested in Theology. I think it came because of the mix of my need for good answers to tough questions, my longing for a deeper relationship with God, and my fear of standing up here as a hypocrite leading other people into error. I know a lot of it came because I was facing difficult times and my reaction showed how far I really was from God, how undisciplined, how unsanctified, and that realization started to scare me.
And so, I started asking God for help. And whereas before I was simply reading the Bible because I was supposed to, and reading books about “how to grow a church” or “how to preach” or “how to lead” – those books started to become distasteful to me – I believe God gave me a new interest in Theology. And as I started to study, it was like a healing balm to my wounded soul, like a big drink of cool water after being thirsty for so long. Suddenly those terms I had learned started to move from my mind to my heart to my soul. Suddenly the sermons I’d heard, even ones I’d preached, started to make a different kind of sense to me. Suddenly the music we were singing in church, especially the old hymns, started to speak to my problems, encourage me, challenge me, and build my faith.
A Mighty Fortress
Recall to your mind the first 4 or 5 weeks of this sermon series and then consider the words to the 500-year-old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
That speaks of the problem of sin, temptation, and Satan. It continues:
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth is his name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
What’s that about? That salvation from sin, death, temptation, and Satan is found in Jesus alone, not in our own strength. That if we try to fight him in our own strength, then we will lose. When I’m utterly ruined by guilt, shame, fear, doubt, trials and temptations – should I buck up, pull up my socks, and try harder? No? Who wins the battle? Lord Sabaoth, or “God of the Angel Armies” is His name. And it continues:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him.”
But life is still hard, we say, still “filled with devils”, and it threatens to undo us. Why shouldn’t we live in fear? What reason can we give not to live in constant fear of all the things that can and will go wrong? Because God has promised that “His truth will triumph through us”. What does that mean? It means that even through our trials, storms, and sufferings, Satan is still losing. Romans 8:36-37 says that even if we face death all day long and are regarded as sheep for slaughter, we are still “more than conquerors”. Why? Because our enemy is already beaten and is “one little word” away from total destruction. What is that word? “Jesus”. He is the one that can say to a storm: “Peace! Be Still!” and it stops in a moment (Mark 4:35-39). He is the One before whom demons cower who can command them with one word to “Go!” (Matthew 8:289-34). Jesus is the one who, at the beginning of John is called “The Word… who was with God and… was God” (John 1:1), the LOGOS, the power through whom all things came into being.
The hymn concludes:
“That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is for ever.”
What does it mean to “abideth”, or “abide”. It means to continue, to remain. This whole verse calls to mind John 15:1-11, which is Jesus’ illustration that says that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God is the Vinedresser. Jesus says,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 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.” (John 15:4–11)
To abide, as verse 9 says, means to trust and rest and believe in the love of Jesus? What does that look like? That’s verse 10. It means we keep His commandments, or more simply “do things His way”, because it shows that we trust Him. Jesus says that the qualification for salvation, for answered prayer, for acceptable worship, and for bearing any kind of fruit in this world is that He abides in us and we abide in Him.
“The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
Some people don’t like these kinds of old hymns because they sound so dark and grim, talking about sin, death, hell, Satan, suffering – but it’s not grim – it’s hopeful! It’s a theological explanation, in song form, of why we need not be overcome by temptation, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. It’s a song that says if “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”, but that there is one who can win the battle, One who is greater than us, who has chosen to be “on our side”, and who will not only win for us, but will give us even more by granting us “the Spirit and the gifts”?
What does that mean? It means that Christians who abide in Jesus, who trust Jesus, who love Jesus and know that He loves them, will be given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the very person of God, to dwell in you just as the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Israel (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:16-20). And with His presence comes spiritual gifts like you’ve never experienced before.
Beauty Under Our Noses
There’s a thing online that I come across sometimes that always makes me pause, and it’s the blogs and sites that are dedicated to before and after pressure-washing pictures. Sidewalks, decks, driveways, walls that have been left to the ravages of their environment brought back to their former splendour by some high-pressure water. It’s not that they were ruined, it was just that they were covered in the gunk of the ages.
Hymns and theological studies are kind of like that. We all like seeing a new car, new paint job, new building, or a new piece of tech because it’s so smooth and shiny, but it’s amazing how much beauty there is in the older things around us. Sometimes we walk by a plaque or building or walk down a sidewalk – or pick up an old hymnal, systematic theology, catechism, puritan classic, book of prayers – and assume that it’s just old, tired, useless, or broken down with age – but once we remove the gunk of our own biases and do a little study work – we start to realize the amazing beauty that has been right under our noses.
When I started to study theology, songs like “A Mighty Fortress” started to come alive to me. Not because of their own inherent beauty or power – which I think they have – but because they pointed me to the beauty and power of the promises that God had been telling me all along in His word, but that I was missing or misunderstanding or glossing over because I wasn’t doing the meditative work to allow them to penetrate my heart.
Christ the Mediator
Consider today’s study of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the need for God’s justice to be fully satisfied by Christ our Mediator. Words like “Justice” “Justification” “Satisfaction” Mediator” are rich with meaning, but come across as cold and pedantic, old-timey and covered in the gunk of the ages. So when we hear them or read them they sometimes bounce off of us. But if we take a moment to ponder them, to meditate, study, and explain them, suddenly the beauty and joy of what is being said, starts to come forth.
Look at Question 12, and remember the context. We’ve just spent 4 weeks talking about the trouble and misery of sin. We’ve come face to face with mankind’s greatest problem, and our own guilty conscience. We’ve tried to make excuses, denying our guilt, blaming God, blaming others, denying the need for punishment and the existence of Hell – and hopefully came last week to the place where we finally relent and say, “I am a sinner, condemned by the Word of God and my own conscience. I have offended Holy God and deserve a just punishment for having a heart that loves sin and for the sins I have committed for my whole life.”
Now we come to question 12:
“Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?”
How can we escape justice? Look at the answer:
“God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.”
You cannot escape justice. Justice will be done.
Turn with me to Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
You are caught in your sin, guilty before God. And what happens when we get caught? Our natural tendency is to look for an escape. How do I get out of this problem? Where can I run? God says, “Nowhere.” Justice must be served. We talked about that last week.
In question 13 you search your pockets,
“Can we by ourselves make this payment?”
And the answer is
“Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.”
The Judge has declared us guilty and demanded we pay for that guilt. He has seen that we are debtors who are in way over our head, owing more than we could ever repay, with interest working against us with every minute that goes by. Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if God actually showed anyone the full weight of their sins – all they have done, said, and thought wrong, all the things they did but shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do but ought to – would anyone be able to argue with Him that they are perfect? No, of course not. At death, our Debt Collector, who is also the Judge, calls us in to pay the debt. Every moment of our life was a moment of grace. He could have called it anytime – and if we cannot pay him back, we must face the terrible consequence of Hell.
But the Judge, says this: “I want full payment, now! Can you pay it?”
In Question 14 we look around the divine courtroom, desperately hoping to find someone who can help us by paying the debt:
“Can any mere creature pay for us?”
Perhaps there is another human who is good enough to pay our debt? Perhaps God would accept an animal on our behalf? The answer comes:
“No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
An angel can’t take our punishment because they are a spiritual being and the punishment for sin must be endured in body and soul. The death of an animal can’t satisfy the debt because it doesn’t have an immortal soul and cannot choose to take the punishment on themselves. Even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament those sacrifices were only temporary and insufficient. Hebrews 10:3 says that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…”.
What about another human being? No, our debt cannot be paid by someone who also owes a debt to the Judge. They must pay for their own sins. If I owe a million dollars and cannot pay it back, then how could I turn to another human being – even if he be a saint – and ask him to pay? He’s in debt too because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). We look around the courtroom, all around the world, and find no one who can pay our debt for us – and we know we are condemned.
Then Question 15 comes:
“What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?”
If no angel, no animal, and no human on earth can pay our debt for us, then to whom can we turn to save us from the consequence of our sin debt?
The answer comes:
“One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You stand before the Judge and Debt Collector who is God and know you are condemned in your sin debt to death and punishment in Hell. You look around the courtroom for anyone else who can pay it, and find no one.
But then, the Judge Himself looks you in the eye and says, “I have an idea.” And He calls in His own Son. He says, “Son, this one owes me more than they can ever repay. They are condemned to death and hell. Would you be willing to take their place, exchange yourself for them, stand before Me in judgement, and take their punishment? Would You take their sin debt and allow Me to pour the fullness of my wrath, all of Hell, upon You, for their sake? You are the only one that can do it. You are my Son and my Word, perfect in every way, and everything I have is yours. You have no debt. I’m willing to accept you in their place.”
Jesus has all the qualifications to be the perfect mediator between sinful humanity and perfect God. He is the perfection of God born as a man, and totally without sin.
Jesus looks at you and says, “I am willing if you want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jesus says, “I will abide with you. I will abide in you, just as my Father abides in me. I will take His wrath against you upon myself. All you have to do is admit that you can’t pay the debt and that you need me. I’m the only one that can do this. You cannot do this alone. There is no amount of good deeds or praying or religion you can do to pay this debt. Are you willing to let me pay it for you? If you say yes, I will give you freedom from sin, the Holy Spirit, a new purpose, spiritual gifts, a peace that passes understanding, and eternal life. I will reverse your curse and pay all your debt for every sin you commit from birth until death. And then I will stand before the Father in Heaven as your advocate, your mediator, interceding on your behalf. I’ll be the life-giving vine, you be the branch that I make fruitful. Do you want that?”
That is the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is what it means that He is our mediator – not priests or pastors or popes or Mary or saints — this is a promise we only find in Jesus.
All we must do is admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to pay for that sin. That’s the gospel. This is how salvation works. And He’s willing to do it if we are willing to turn our lives over to Him.
These are the promises I see in scripture, in the study of good theology, and in the songs that point us to that promise. Will you accept them? Will you study? Will you sing?
Let me close with the words of Romans 8:31-38, which I have read many times, and will read many more:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So, that little video is a reminder of what we’ve been studying over the past while, especially last week where we looked at Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 about how we ought to be setting our priorities when it comes to stewarding our treasures (meaning our finances and possessions). The biggest thought there was that our relationship with our money and stuff is directly connected to our relationship with God.
Last week we studied Matthew 6:19-24 where Jesus teaches us about the folly and spiritual danger of storing our treasures on earth, about the darkness that creates in our souls, and how believers simply cannot ride the fence in this matter. He says in verse 24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
This week I want to continue that study by moving on to verse 25 and look the conclusion of what Jesus was teaching in that sermon. Let’s open there and read:
What’s the Therefore There For?
Ok, so pause there a second. Whenever we see a “therefore” in the Bible, we always have to ask ourselves what it’s there for. Usually, it’s a way to tie the previous teaching to the next, and often, that next teaching is an application. The author will make a theological truth claim and then what we’re supposed to do with that truth.
In 2 Genesis we read about the truth about the creation of man and women. That section concludes with the application, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) The relationship between man and woman, under God, makes its application in marriage.
In Exodus 4, God calls Moses to the burning bush to tell him that he’s going to be His messenger to Pharaoh. Moses comes up with a bunch of excuses about how he can’t talk good, which God refutes with a bunch of theological truths, and then says, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Exo 4:12)
And of course, the New Testament is full of them, especially Romans. It’s a deeply theological book, teaching a lot about how God works, but it almost always ends in an application.
Romans 1:22–23 concludes a long theological statement about how sin leads to idolatry and darkness of heart: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” We then read what happens when that darkness of heart is applied: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…” Idolatry of heart leads to the impurity of mind and body.
But in Romans 4:24-25 we read the theological truth claim that Jesus work on the cross did everything necessary to appease God’s wrath against sin, “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Which leads to the practical application of the next verse, 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If what this says about what Jesus did is true, then the application of our faith to it means that we are no longer under God’s wrath, but are at peace.
That’s why we stop for a moment whenever we read a “Therefore” in the bible. It’s usually a key point that’s about to be made.
So here in our passage today we read the theological truth claim comes before: Worrying about your earthly treasures will fill you with darkness and cause you to hate God. Concern about your treasures in heaven will fill you with light and cause you to love God.
So what’s the practical application of that thought? Let’s read the whole thing together:
“Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
So, what’s the “therefore” there for? What’s the practical application? “Don’t be so worried about your treasures – or don’t be anxious about your needs.”
From the world’s perspective, and unfortunately, many Christians share this perspective, living without worrying about money is insanity. I think especially of the kids that are graduating high school soon, or within the next few years. Within the culture, there is this automatic reflex to ask these kids what they are going to be and to lay upon them all the anxieties of the world.
If we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up we used to give them latitude to give any answer they like: fireman, veterinarian, astronaut, doctor, scientist, race car driver, bus driver, an artist, a dinosaur…. but at some point, not too long in their future, many adults around them start to feel like it’s their responsibility to tell them the economic reality of that decision.
“Sorry, Johnny, I know the big yellow bus is cool, but being a bus driver doesn’t pay enough. And being a race car driver isn’t realistic, the lessons cost a lot of money, so do entry fees and travel and the car is worth millions, so you shouldn’t do that either. Being an artist doesn’t pay at all, so maybe do that as a hobby once you get a real job. And sure, you could be a doctor or an astronaut, but that means going to school for a really long time, and school costs money… and that’s why, Johnny, you can’t have a new bike.”
But the pressure gets worse in High School. As they reach graduation age all these 17-18-year-olds are not only supposed to know what they are going to do for the rest of their lives but also commit to training in a career for 3-4 years at the expense of tens of thousands of dollars – usually loaned to them. And heaven-forbid they say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”… or worse, get two years in and realize that they don’t want to do that anymore, because then their 19 or 20 years old, have no job because they’ve been going to school, and are 20 thousand dollars in the hole.
So, starting when their 15 or 16, the guilt trip starts, right? How does every conversation go? “Mom and Dad, can I go to the movies tonight?” “No, you need to get your rest because you need to do better in school, because you need to get better grades, so you can get into a good university, so you can get a good career, so you can make lots of money, so you and I never have to worry about your financial future.”
“Mom and Dad, I’m really tired and stressed out. Can I spend time with my friends?” “Sorry, honey, that’s how life is. You don’t see me hanging out with friends, do you? You’re on 2 sports teams and in three clubs and doing after-school programs and volunteering because – you need a good transcript, so you need to get into a good university so you can get a good career so you can make lots of money….”
“Mom and Dad, I’m freaking out. I got so stressed out that I developed an eating disorder, got addicted to drugs, and started hanging out with some stoners that just let me exist rather than stressing me out and guilt tripping me all the time.” “Oh, no! Now your grades are bad, and your transcript is bad, and you’ll never get into a university, and you won’t get a good career, so you can’t make lots of money…. You have to clean up your life!
“Why, Mom and Dad? What does a cleaned up life look like?”
“Well, honey, it looks… anxious, stressed out, money and career driven. It looks like being a good consumer, making lots of cash so can buy lots of things and run away from your job for 2 weeks per year to go somewhere warm. It looks like a failing marriage, distant children, shallow friendships, and an empty spirit. It means not being able to sleep because you’re worried about the bills. It means ruining your reputation so you can get ahead.
It means yelling at your family and making them the enemy whenever things get tight. Who threw away the bread crust?! Why do you use so much toothpaste?! Why are all these lights on?! You’re not allowed to be sick today, I have to go to work! Don’t you know how expensive these things are?
It means putting off enjoying everything until some magic day in the future. Don’t enjoy your teen years because you need to worry about your future. Don’t enjoy your 20s because you need to be worried about your grades and career. Don’t enjoy your 30s because you need to worry about your job and accumulating enough stuff to impress your friends and hopefully a mate. Don’t enjoy your 40s because you need to worry about paying your bills and feed your family. Don’t enjoy your 50s because you need to worry about retirement. Don’t enjoy your 60s because now money is tight because you didn’t save enough or you added mortgages and a bunch of debt in your 40s and 50s so you need to find a job as a Walmart greeter or fast-food cashier. Then you can, maybe, spend your evenings watching tv. That’s the life I want for you, kid. Doesn’t that sound great?”
That’s insane, isn’t it? Why do we do that to our young people? Why do we do that to ourselves? But that’s what life looks like when our treasure is on earth and our greatest anxieties are about money. Instead of raising children of good character, and instead of pursuing good character ourselves, what do we pursue – career, money. Career wins over character in so many of our homes. I overhear it in so many conversations.
How many of you can say this: “I don’t care what my child or my grandchild does. I don’t care if they pump gas, pick garbage, dig ditches, or flip burgers – just so long as they are people of godly character who love God and love others.”
Now make it about you. Can you honestly say this about yourself: “I don’t care what I do for work. I don’t care if I stock shelves, sell used cars, or mix paint at home hardware – just so long as I’m developing godly character and have the opportunity to worship God and love others.”
Can you say that? Most can’t. Why? Because they are anxious about their life, what they will eat, what they will drink, about their bodies, and what they will wear (Mt 6:25).
Relieving The Anxiety
So how do we get out of that trap? How do escape the culture and relieve the anxiety of having to worry so much about money, career, future – and stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and others? Why shouldn’t we be anxious?
Because Jesus says not to be. Because we believe Jesus’ “therefore”. We believe what Jesus says. We trust that Jesus is telling us the truth here.
Let’s follow the argument that Jesus gives here, starting at verse 25. What is Jesus’ first premise? Your life is about more than food and clothing. What’s Jesus second premise? Look at verse 26. God knows your needs and will provide them.
Then, after giving evidence for this truth claim using nature as His example – God feeds the birds and you’re worth more to Him than a bird. God clothes the lilies, and you’re worth more to Him than a flower. – Jesus ties the two premises together by restating the theological truth claim as a conclusion in verses 31-32. If all this is true about God, then “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.”
And then we read the practical application of what this looks like when the rubber hits the road in verse 33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
The “But” there is mean to contrast what the gentiles (or unbelievers, people who don’t know God) do. Instead of being anxious like an unbeliever, act like a believer. What does acting like a believer look like? Seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
So, let’s put that all together with some simpler terms. Premise 1: Life is about more than money. We demonstrate that by where we put our faith – God or money. Premise 2: God knows what you need. We demonstrate that by allowing God to provide rather than being anxious. Therefore, if we believe that, then we must say that God’s priorities are more important than ours. Therefore, if we follow God and pursue righteous living (seeking God’s kingdom), then God will provide for us. Therefore, the righteous don’t need to be anxious about their needs.
This is how, logically, what we believe about God is directly connected to our anxiety about money – which is directly connected to our attitudes and behaviours. If we have faith and trust God, then our anxiety decreases and our attitude and behaviour improve. If we lack faith and don’t trust God, then our anxiety increases and our attitude and behaviour get worse.
Why Should We Be Anxious?
Sometimes it helps if we look at the contradictory, opposite logic. So, let’s do that. We’ll work through the same premises, but in mirror. So, why should we be anxious?
Premise 1: Life is about the survival of the fittest, gathering food, clothing, shelter, and stuff to protect us – and competing with others for those resources.
Premise 2: God doesn’t know our needs and refuses to provide.
Usually, these people give evidence in nature too. Fire, floods, earthquakes, famine, drought, wars. The planet is out of control and tomorrow may bring ruin.
When we tie those together, all the stuff that God and the Bible say about righteousness, good living, being generous, trying to be holy, is ridiculous and makes zero sense.
Therefore, the only way to be safe is to lie, cheat, steal, enslave, use people, ruin our relationships, and selfishly hoard things, and do whatever is necessary to keep it safe. Therefore, since it’s survival of the fittest, the first thing to seek is whatever makes you more powerful and secure, and to sin in whatever way you can to get ahead, because we’re all on our own. Therefore, everyone should be way, way more anxious about not only today but tomorrow – because we have no idea what’s coming.
Which way do you live? Anxious and stressed out, cutting corners and cheating to get ahead, not sharing, avoiding spiritual development because it’s wasting your time, not caring about your purity, because it doesn’t matter since God doesn’t know or care.
Or, do you trust Jesus when he says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Mt 6:33)
Jesus says it this way to all us anxious people later in Matthew 11:28–30 is, “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.”
Let’s close: In the desert, the Israelites were given manna from heaven every day. They couldn’t store it up because it would go bad at night. They had to trust God every day. They grumbled and complained and tried to make piles of it, but it rotted – and every day God still provided. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11) because a believer acknowledges that this is all we need. Too much or too little poisons our souls. In Proverbs 30:7-9 the wise teacher prays, “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
His prayer is simply for God to give him what is necessary to live a holy and righteous life – because anything else is spiritually dangerous.
The final thing I want to show you this morning is a clip from May 20, 2000. It’s one of the most famous modern sermons, known as John Piper’s “Seashells” message. This message exploded off the platform and has ripple effects to this day. I want to end with this clip which I hope you will watch prayerfully.
We’re about to enter into a time historically known as “Passion Week”, starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday. It’s a week filled with history and meaning. This is the most important week of the Christian calendar. Centuries of history have revolved around it and believers from all manner of different traditions observe and celebrate it differently. Some people fast, others sing, some have prayer vigils, some read the bible from cover to cover, some even shave their heads. Each tradition has their own way to show worship by sacrificing something special in their lives to focus on God.
In their own ways they are living out what is written in Romans 12:1-2,
“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.”
Before Jesus came, believers use to present sacrifices of animals or grain to the temple on certain days, but now, because of the work of Jesus, we have moved from presenting our worship and sacrifices in a certain building to living out our lives as sacrifices to him – still trying to make them pure, unblemished, holy and acceptable to God, but knowing that we can only do this through the power of God.
Please open up to Matthew 21:1-11 and we’re going to tie together our series on Stewardship with the sacrifices of worship we see in the account of Palm Sunday.
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.’ This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’”
Going Through the Motions
Our theme today is worship, particularly the importance of having a lifestyle of worship, but more than this – that worship in itself, true worship, is sacrificial – it costs us something. I just watched a clip of a sermon recently where Matt Chandler was gently confronting some people in churches in Texas with the understanding that just because you go to church doesn’t make you a Christian. He said,
“In the Bible Belt churches are jam-filled with people who have no mark of being Christians on their lives other than the fact that they attend once a week. No obedience whatsoever, no desire for obedience, no relationship with Christ, no seriousness about God…. You come, you check it, and you call yourself a Christian. And I want to lovingly tell you that if there is no desire for obedience and no obedience then you should not count yourself a Christian. You should consider yourself lost and in danger of damnation.”
That sounds like it could be harsh, but he’s right. He isn’t talking about “salvation by works” but the changed heart that comes when we turn our lives over to Jesus. He’s talking about sacrificial, lifestyle worship. There is no true faith without obedience, there is no true worship without sacrifice.
Most people here understand the concept of sacrifice. Parents know what it means to give up our time and resources for our kids. Military people know what it means to make sacrifices for their country. The disasters that keep coming at the world all have relief organizations that want some of our money to help people. Some people even donate their own blood for the sake of others.
I think we understand the concept well enough, but what we need to see is that to be a worshipper of God demands sacrifice. We see that all through the Bible: there is worship that God accepts and that God rejects, and most often the worship He rejects is the easy, mindless, going through the motions activities of religious people. Sing because it’s time to sing. Talk when it’s time to talk. Bow heads when it’s time to bow heads. Read the words written down because you’re supposed to. Look at the guy talking for as long as he’s talking. That disengaged repetition of mindless, religious activity is worship that God rejects.
But let’s take a look at some of the people involved in the Triumphal Entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. We don’t see people dropping money in a plate, reading a script, or doing anything in the temple in this story. What we see is some of the ways Jesus required them to sacrifice to Him as an act of worship.
The Donkey Man
First, let’s look at the man who gave up his donkey. Jesus had told his disciples to go to the village ahead and get a donkey that was tied up. The book of Luke (19:20-34) sheds a bit more light on this situation: Jesus says,
“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you untying it?’ tell him, `The Lord needs it.’ Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
Notice that little difference? The owner is in this one.
Imagine what was going on in this guy’s head. There he is, working on something around the house and some random guys come up try to walk off with two of his animals. The disciples are just being obedient, but what about the owner?
Consider yourself. You’re washing your car in your driveway. The door is open and the key is dinging away. You step into the garage for a moment to get something and a couple of guys walk up, get in the car, and prepare to drive off. You come running out and say, “Where are you going in my car?!” And the people inside respond, “The Lord needs it….”
Now it’s decision time, right? What do you do? Therein lay the sacrifice. The moment he heard that the animals were to be used by the Lord, his argument stopped. He sent his valuables, maybe his most valuable things, on with these strangers. Maybe God prepared this man in advance as he was praying, or maybe he didn’t. All we know is that when the Lord wanted something from him, he gave it up. He didn’t even know what Jesus was going to do with it.
The simple question for us is this: Would you or I have done the same? Would we have let the disciples take our car? We’re presented with this option more often than we think as God gives us the opportunity to sacrifice what we have for others. Someone gets into trouble, someone needs our time, energy, money, resources, and we are presented with the option to give. We feel the impression in our heart to do something. Someone calls us with a need. What do we do? We analyze the situation. We ask questions. We wonder about return on investment. We negotiate how little to give. We try to find other options. But what if the only reason we get is, “The Lord needs it”? Regularly giving up our resources is part of what a lifestyle of Christian worship looks like.
There’s another group that gives of their resources in the story too. Verses 7-8 tell us that there are folks who were spreading their cloaks on the ground. As an act of worship, a way to show their deference to Him, and also a way to acknowledge and declare that He is their promised Messiah and King.
These weren’t their old “Goodwill” or “Salvation Army” clothes either. They didn’t run home and get the jacket they never use anymore. This was whatever they were wearing. But even that doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice, right? A couple donkey hoof prints on there. But anyone who has ridden horses or has been to a parade knows that something else happens when animals go for a walk – there’s a reason the street sweepers follow the horses.
The point is that these people, upon seeing Jesus, started to worship Him and that worship required an immediate sacrifice of what they had. Honoring Jesus will require the use of our time and our resources. We cannot grow as a disciple of Jesus if we don’t spend our time and resources on Him. This, what we are doing here at church, is not the pinnacle of Christian experience and I feel sad for anyone who thinks it is. Sure, we have to get up, some people have to serve, but this is perhaps, the easiest sacrifice of our week. The real test of our Christian character, the real opportunities to give sacrificial, lifestyle worship come later in the week as we are presented with opportunities to give of ourselves to do what God wants us to do.
Consider St. Patrick, whose special day was just a few days ago. Despite the day now being about celebrating Ireland, wearing green, and generating green vomit, the story of St. Patrick is one we shouldn’t forget.
Patrick was born in northeast England, not Ireland, in the late fourth century. When he was 16 years old he was kidnapped by Celtic pirates, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave to a tribal chief who put him to work as a cattle herder. He was raised in the church but it wasn’t until he faced this level of suffering that his faith started to take root. Seeing the beauty of the Irish countryside caused him to worship God’s amazing creativity and it was in the total isolation of slavery in a foreign land where he really learned to pray.
He was held captive for 6 years until he escaped, made his way back to England, and joined the priesthood. He trained and served many churches but then, one day, at age 48 God told him that he needed to go and share God’s love with the unreached Irish Celts. This was unprecedented, totally controversial, and he gained little support – but after a time of negotiation the church finally, and reluctantly sent him off to the barbarians, likely to never see him again.
What was unique about the way Patrick did missionary work was that he didn’t go into the land and try to civilize it. He didn’t try to turn the Irish into good, English people, build English churches, and teach them English songs. He knew that wouldn’t work because he knew the people. So he gave up the way he was used to worshipping for their sake. He gave up his own style for their sake. He spoke their language, gave them his time, his prayers, his food and resources to the poor, and most especially his forgiveness. He gave his whole life to them.
It was this heart of sacrifice that enabled thousands of people to meet Jesus for the first time and gave rise to one of the greatest missionary successes of all time. Patrick was a man who knew what it meant to worship God by sacrificially serving others.
The Sacrifice of Reputation
There’s one more sacrifice I want to point out in the account of the Triumphal entry and that is the reaction of the crowds. Calling out “Hosanna!” to Jesus was dangerous. They put their reputation and their safety at stake. It was a thumb in the nose of the Jewish ruling class, the Sanhedrin. It offended the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day. And, perhaps most dangerous of all, it risked reprisal from the Romans who did not take kindly to anyone claiming to be another king, “the Lord”, or “the Highest”. Their worship required risk.
Consider our own societies celebrity worship culture. Society holds them up for all to see, watches them on TV, listens to interviews, seeks them out on YouTube, wears what they wear, eats what they eat, reads what they read, go where they go. People on the sidelines of the award shows often yell things like “I love you!”, and companies make contests of just spending one hour with a certain celebrity, but it’s all with very little risk. We can shout how much we love Jennifer Lawrence or Vin Diesel from the rooftops until we’re blue in the face and no one cares – but have you noticed what happens when someone stands on a rooftop in front of a crowd and shouts that they love Jesus? Doesn’t’ really happen, does it? Why? Because that’s different, isn’t it? That’s got risk.
When the people in Jerusalem that day were yelling “Hosanna” they weren’t yelling “I love you!” They were yelling, “Save me!” Hosanna is literally the word “save”. They were crying out to Jesus for deliverance. This wasn’t about His celebrity status, but about deliverance. Deliverance from their Roman oppressors, their corrupt civic leaders, and the mess that their religion was in. It was a cry for mercy, an acknowledgment that He was the Saviour.
It’s one thing to yell that you love Jesus in public – you might get away with that in North America – but it’s totally something else to yell out that Jesus is the only Saviour and Lord of the Earth.
We have a hard enough time asking for help, don’t we? We’re all about self-help, self-determination, self-esteem, do-it-yourself. For some people, it’s almost agonizing to ask even those closest to them for help. So many people suffer alone, and it requires a massive sacrifice of pride for them to admit they need help.
But when we cry out to Jesus, that’s exactly what we are doing. We are asking for His help, admitting that we are not enough, that we require His intervention. As Christians we first admit that we are sinners, bent away from God, serving ourselves and messing up our lives and the lives of others. Then we ask for forgiveness, something only God can grant. We cannot forgive ourselves. Then we ask to be reborn, remade, changed from the sinner that we were into a new creation that hates sin and wants righteousness. Only God can do that. And then, every day, we admit once more that we are not strong enough, wise enough, good enough, to accomplish even one right thing without God’s help.
Many come to God in prayer but actually refuse to admit they actually need His help. They use God like 911 or like Santa Clause, the last resort or the way to get something they know is a long-shot. Some treat God like a help desk, asking for a minimal amount of help when they get stuck and then telling God that they’ll take it from there. They believe they are 90% strong enough, and that God gives them the other 10%. That’s not how it works.
A Christian recognizes their deep need and falls before Jesus saying, “I don’t have anything to offer. I’m dead inside. Whatever I touch gets worse. Even my supposed good deeds are done selfishly. I am a sinner in need of a Saviour. Hosanna, Jesus. Save me.”
And there are some that will admit this in private – but these people were doing it in public. Listen to Luke 19:37-40:
“As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’”
The leaders of their city were offended and trying to stop them. Most Christians I know won’t even pray a simple prayer in public – they are too nervous, too ashamed, too worried about what others think. Some refuse to sing even in church because they’re worried what others think. Some go to work and literally no one knows they are a believer. Some won’t even say grace with their own families out of fear. But these people cried out for help right in front of their friends, the priests, the Pharisees, the Roman centurions.
According to Luke 19, as Jesus rode he wasn’t smiling, he was weeping because He knew what was coming. Jesus rode up to the temple, once again drove out those who were selling there, and then began to teach. Listen to what it says in verses 47-48,
“And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.”
The people turning their hearts and attention to Jesus, crying out for his help in public didn’t convert the city – but instead threw it into an upheaval. Their sacrificial worship, their willingness to cry out to Jesus in public, was the catalyst that made the city leaders want to utterly destroy Jesus. And they tried. And that persecution caused all of the believers, even the disciples, to flee.
When you call out to Jesus, people are going to think you’re crazy. There’s a risk. Calling out to the Saviour has risk. Your friends, your family, your fellow church people, may see you as a fanatic, may tell you to calm down, not be so serious, that there are a time and place for that sort of thing. That’s what the Pharisees tried to tell Jesus and his followers.
My conclusion is simply this: the worship God accepts requires sacrifice. It is a reflection of our thankfulness for Jesus’ sacrifice. He gave up everything, came to a world that would hate Him, reject Him and crucify Him, for our sake. He lived as a servant every day and still lives as a servant to His people. Our response is to do the same to Him by giving our lives to Him. Not just one morning per week, but every moment, every action, every decision of our lives. And that will require sacrifice. Without sacrifice, there is no worship.
Do you live a lifestyle of sacrificial worship? Do you spend your time, resources, and reputation on Jesus? Do you risk your time, resources and reputation to worship Jesus? Or does it only happen in closed rooms and dark corners? Does your worship require sacrifice?
Is there something God has asked you to give, some way He has called you to obey, that you’ve refused because it was too much, too risky? What if “The Lord needs it” from you?
And, finally, ask yourself if you ashamed to call yourself a Christian. Does your lifestyle, your words, your deeds, your conversations, your prayer life reflect that you are a believer? Have you cried out “Hosanna” in the streets? I’m not asking you to get on a rooftop this week or stand on a street corner – but how about this: does everyone in your life know you are a follower of Jesus?
At the very least, will you take the risk of showing your faith in a practical way this week? Pray in public, share your faith, tell someone that you are a Christian.
Most of you who have been here for the whole series knows that the book of Habakkuk is essentially a prayer conversation between God and one of his priests. Habakkuk’s country is going through some difficult times and as he’s bringing his concerns to God, the Lord inclines to answer him – in surprising ways.
The third and last chapter of Habakkuk is a little different than the first two in that though it is still a prayer, God doesn’t respond. What we see in chapter 3 is the prayer of a man of faith, who has chosen to trust God even though God’s answer to his prayer means that there will be more difficult times ahead.
My intention when I sat down to write the sermon this week was to go through this prayer together, but as I wrote, I realized that I needed back up the conversation a little. So instead of outlining this prayer together, I want to pull back and talk more generally about prayer itself. So, we’re going to take a little break from Habakkuk and do an extended introduction , by looking at a section of scripture in the New Testament where Jesus teaches about prayer.
Why Don’t We Pray More?
Prayer, though practiced around the world, and absolutely vital to the Christian life, doesn’t seem to come easily for people. If you ask any believer about their prayer life – and I would imagine this applies to any of us here today; me included – the most consistent evaluation would probably be “It could be better…”. Right?
It’s a bit of a strange thing though, isn’t it? Prayer seems to be something of a human reflex. When something either good or bad happens, whether it’s sickness and pain or a sudden piece of good news or uplifting experience, there’s something in the human spirit that wants to take that moment and connect it to something greater than ourselves, even if it is only a quick, “Thank God”, or “Oh my God”, or “Good, Lord”. These are often said in an almost instinctual way – not really prayers of the mind, heart or soul, but more of an unthinking impulse to raise the significance of that moment to God.
And yet, as instinctual as prayer seems to be, there’s also something incredibly difficult about fostering and developing what might be called a “deep prayer life”. Humans have been trying and failing at it for millennia!
Which is sort of ironic. The same people that will claim to be such ardent believers in God and the Bible, defending their faith and their right to worship, don’t actually dedicate time to talk to the Person they say they worship and obey. I’m not trying to guilt trip here – at least not yet. I’m lumped in here too. I’m merely stating that it’s a little surprising that we are a people who claim that God is the Source of all there is, the One who gave His Son to save us from eternity in Hell, is the great provider of all good things, performs miracles, knows us better than we know ourselves, and the One whom we are looking to spend eternity with… but most of us struggle to spend even 10 minutes, one-one-hundredth, of our waking hours talking to Him.
It’s not that we don’t need to. If we take a minute to think about it, there are lots of reasons we should be coming to God for help. We have struggles with our faith. We need direction and advice for how to make decisions. We are beset by temptations and keep falling into the same destructive patterns of sin. We lack resources and need help. We have physical sickness and pain. We have worries about the future, and baggage from our past.
Most people, when you get to know them – believers included – are lonely, afraid, confused, angry, bitter, depressed, and worried about a good many things. And if you to talk to them about their concerns for their spouse, parents, children, extended family, friends, church, work, neighbourhood, country and world, their list grows and grows and grows.
We Christians, though we know all of this – most of us pray very little. And worse – this is one of my pet peeves – when we finally do get together to pray and someone asks for prayer requests, a lot of people will say, “I’m good. You don’t need to pray for me.” That boggles my mind! Really? Nothing? Your physical body, spiritual life, finances, personal relationships are all exactly how you want them and there is nothing that you think the Saviour of your Soul, the God of the Universe, could do about any of them? Are you sure?
I know part of it is that people don’t like looking weak, admitting they have needs, or letting others in on their business. I get that. But why should that stop us from getting as many people to bang on the doors of heaven for our sake as we can? If prayer is as universal and important as we believe, or at least the Bible says it is, what is preventing us from doing it?
Reasons Not to Pray
There’s a few answers, I think.
First, some people think God doesn’t care about them. It’s not that God doesn’t carea bout anything – it’s just that they’re assumption is that God doesn’t really get involved in the minutia of their life because He’s only worries about big things like war and plagues, and helping widows, orphans and struggling missionaries. So, they conclude, why bother praying since if my prayers aren’t important enough?
Others think that God is like Mr. Scrooge; a penny-pinching, stingy, miser that doesn’t want to help anyone even though He could. They see God’s preferred method of dealing with His people as making them suffer, so if they want anything good out of life – any help, comfort or peace – then they have to go get it themselves. If they pray, God will just tell them to suck it up or make it worse. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “Don’t ask God not to send you to that country, because He definitely will!” “Don’t ask God for patience, or He’ll make your life worse!” So, they think, why pray if God’s just going to say no anyway?
Others think that getting answers to prayer is more akin to winning the lottery. Sure, some people get answers to prayer, but most people just pray and pray for their whole life and get nothing. So, why waste time praying if the chances of getting an answer are so infinitesimal?
Some believe that there’s no point in praying because they are too sinful to be listened to. They say things like “I don’t pray because I haven’t been much of a pray-er, and God only listens to people that pray, so I can’t pray because I don’t pray.” Or, “My life is too messed up for God to take me seriously. And every time I do pray, I just end up going out and messing up again and proving to God that I don’t deserve whatever I’m praying for. So I just quit because praying just made me feel guilty all the time.” They think, what’s the point in praying if He’s either not listening, or thinks you are a constant disappointment?
Others think that they do it wrong, so God’s not happy with their prayers. They’ve heard other people pray and it sounds so sincere, so intimate, so beautiful – and when they do it, it just sounds weird and fake. They’re not using the right words, they can’t quote the bible, they don’t even know whether to use “God”, or “Jesus”, or “Father”, or “Lord”, or “Sir”, or what! The whole concept of prayer is confusing and overwhelming to them. So, why bother praying if you don’t know how to do it and you just sound like an idiot, right?
I could go on, but you get my point, right? There are a lot of internally generated reasons why we don’t pray. That’s what those all are – internally generated reasons why we don’t pray. Things we’ve come up with to prevent us from praying. They don’t come from outside us. We are blessed to live in a country where we can pray anytime and almost anywhere. No one is stopping us from praying – most of the problem comes from within us. It’s all about the guilt or inadequacy we feel, or the false perception we have of God.
If any of those reasons resonated with you, what I want to do today is challenge you to consider that you are wrong about God and about what God thinks of you? I want you to consider one of the main ways that the Bible describes God: as a Good Father.
Talking to God, the Good Father
Turn with me to Luke 11:1-13 and I want to show you something about how Jesus talks about prayer. Let’s read it together, but we’ll take it apart on the way:
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
Two quick things here: First, notice that Jesus prayed. Our perfect model for life and faith is the Lord Jesus Christ. We want to pattern our lives after His. He prayed quite a lot. If for no other reason than to obey God and follow after our Lord Jesus, we ought to be a praying people.
Second, the disciples asked to learn how to pray because prayer is something that can be taught. The disciples were asking Jesus to teach them how He prays, so they could model it, and could be sure they were getting it right. They saw the power He had and knew it must be because of His close relationship with God, and they wanted a piece of it. That came through prayer.
And so, in response to their desire to learn, Jesus moves from modeling how to pray to teaching them how to pray, and does it in the form of “the Lord’s Prayer” and a couple of teaching stories. His lesson starts in verse 2:
“And he said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
Now, this prayer isn’t necessarily meant to be the only way to pray, repeated verbatim, word for word – though it is absolutely fine to do that. It’s also not an incantation or magic spell that forces God to do whatever you want. What the Lord’s Prayer is meant to teach us is the pattern for all Christian prayer. It contains the pieces, or the categories, that make a complete prayer. And so, in the interests of learning how to pray, let’s look at them a piece at a time:
Our Hallowed Father
First you have the word “Father”. Notice that this prayer doesn’t start with a list of problems or requests, but with acknowledgment that this is a conversation between a Father and His child. This is hugely important for us to realize today. All of our prayers, indeed our whole experience as a Christian, needs to start here. We must ask ourselves, before we pray: Who is God? Who is God to me? What’s He like? Who does scripture reveal Him to be?
It is crucially important that when we pray, we pray to the right God! What do I mean by that? Remember last week when we talked about idolatry. It is entirely possible for us to be praying to a god of our own design. All those things I listed before that block our prayer life – that God is absent, greedy, random, hard to talk to –come from our understanding of who God is. But, do they line up with who God really is? Or, are those ideas things we’ve made up in our own minds? We have to ask ourselves, where we got those ideas, and whether they line up with reality? Am I praying to the God of the Bible, or a God I made up for myself?
The word that Jesus uses, “Father”, is the Greek word PATER, but would have been spoken as the Aramaic word ABBA. That’s a hugely important word, and is used in other parts of scripture that teach us how to pray (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), because even the early Greek believers used that Aramaic word to talk to God. The Jewish people would never have used that word– in fact, it was only the pagan nations that called their god’s “father”, so it was even less palatable for them. Yet Jesus introduces God not as YAHWEH, the One you cannot look upon and the Name you must not say, but as ABBA, a special, intimate term only used by family members.
Think of it as the way we use “Dad”. The only people in the world that call me “Dad” are my kids. No one else. That’s what Jesus invited us to call God. Not just “GOD” or “LORD”, but “Dad”. Keep that in mind because Jesus comes back to it.
In the next part of the prayer Jesus moves from our relationship with God to our first request of Him… and what is it? For food, safety, health? No: “Hallowed be Your Name”. Our first request, and the beginning of all Christian prayer, is not for God to meet our needs, but that we would partner with Him to bring Him glory.
We start by asking our Father in Heaven to cause His name to known as holy, special, unique and worshipped as the One, True God. In this request we acknowledging that the chief end of this world is not to fill our bellies or bring us comfort, but to bring glory to our Father.
This is the flip-side of addressing God. We call Him “Dad”, but we also call Him “God Almighty”. It’s sort of the ultimate “My Dad can beat up your Dad”. God Almighty is my Father. He’s perfect and sinless, but loves me anyway. He laid out the plan for the entire universe, and brought everything into existence with the power of His Word, but He also knows my heart and takes time to listen to me. He is in Heaven being worshipped by angels, but He also speaks to me with patience and love. We want everyone to know about this Father God we hallow!
Those thoughts naturally lead into the next part that says, “Your Kingdom Come.” In other words, “We can’t wait until we can be with You! Father, may your Kingdom Come to more people as you grow your Kingdom on earth! May our whole lives be lived sharing Your love and bringing You glory, until you establish your perfect kingdom forever!”
Asking For Our Daily Needs
The whole first section is about getting our hearts in the right place, realizing who God is, who we are, what He’s done, and what we’re here to do. It forces us to lift our eyes off of our problems and gaze upon the splendor of our Father the King. It changes our perspective of our problems and places God in charge of everything. It reorients our priorities. In short – these are words of worship and praise.
Next Jesus turns to teaching us to ask for our needs. Remember, Jesus isn’t teaching us an incantation that gets us whatever we want from God, but showing us the categories of prayer. And the two things we need to pray for most are our physical needs and our spiritual needs:
“Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins… and lead us not into temptation”.
This part of the prayer is an acknowledgement that we are utterly incapable of doing life ourselves. We are the receivers of God’s necessary care. We cannot fulfill our own physical or spiritual needs. We may think we can – which is why a lot of people don’t pray – but we can’t. The body you have, the time you get, every breath you take, your physical strength, your mental capacity, your emotional stability, your ability to talk and move – they are all gifts from God.
In this part of the prayer you are telling God that you believe He is the provider of your physical needs! You are alive because God kept you alive. He gave you what you needed yesterday, and you are coming to God to say “Thank you, Father. May I have what I need for today?” You pray in expectation that your Dad will certainly feed you.
When kids wake up every morning, it likely doesn’t occur to them that I might decide not to feed them that day. Why? Because when my kids are hungry, I am concerned. Their lack causes me to do something, and I want them to have what they need.
Secondarily, we are acknowledging our spiritual needs. We don’t just need “daily bread”, but daily forgiveness for our sins and protection from our spiritual enemies. Again, we are acknowledging that we cannot forgive ourselves or protect ourselves. We cannot excuse our own guilt and we are not strong enough to fight temptation. We cannot make peace with God by ourselves, but need Jesus for that, and we know that we are in a spiritual war and need His help. This part of the prayer is a form of surrender to Him. “God, ultimately, I can’t do anything without you and anything I do myself is pitiful in comparison to what You can do through me.”
Don’t miss this point! As we pray, “forgives us our sins”, we are telling God that we believe we are sinners, people who don’t deserve His grace! We’re not coming to “the big guy in the sky” as equals, marching up and demanding things, or arguing with Him and trying to prove a point. We are simply saying, “I’m wrong. I’ve made mistakes, hurt people, fallen for Satan’s deceptions, stolen Your glory, broken my promises, taken what isn’t mine, abused my body, and neglected to do the good things I was supposed to do. And I’m not worthy of your presence – but here I am anyway, Dad… because you said you’d forgive me and help me.” It’s an admission that we are fallen and need Someone greater than ourselves.
But, the question remains for many, will God give us what we need? The answer to that question is what keeps a lot of people from praying. They’re not sure if God will forgive or give them what they need. They don’t want to be disappointed by yet another person who says they will do something and then not follow through. They don’t want to come to God, ask Him to forgive them, ask Him for help, and then be told “No.” It would hurt too much to be rejected by God, too.
What Kind of Father is God?
Jesus knows that’s how a lot of people feel, and He addresses it right away. Look at verses 5-13. The unspoken questions are: “What kind of Father is God, because there are some really terrible fathers out there? Is he the stern kind? The stingy kind? The abusive kind? The angry kind? Is he the kind that lets people get away with anything and everything? Is He the absent kind? What kind of father is He?”
In answer to this, Jesus tells two stories that are meant teach us something about God. The first is from verses 5-9,
“And he said to them, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
What’s the point of this story? Simply this: God is a better friend than we are. In the story, you have a whole bunch of friends. One friend drops by unannounced and wants a midnight snack. Another friend runs out in the middle of the night to ask his friend for bread.
Everyone in the story is annoyed. The first friend is going hungry, the second friend is running around at midnight trying to get a snack together, and the third friend has been woken up by someone who won’t stop knocking on his door asking to eat what was going to be his breakfast.
And yet, what happens? The man gives up the bread and the host gets to feed his guest. The question is this: Do you believe God is a better friend than those guys? The reason that the third friend finally gave up the bread wasn’t even because they were friends, but he was impudent, or persistent, or bold enough, to bang on his door at midnight.
Now keep reading in verse 9:
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The implication of these stories is this: If that’s how it works here on earth, among sinful, selfish people – how do you think it works with God? God doesn’t just provide the basics, but is willing to go all out and even give the presence of His Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of everyone who asks! God Himself, living in each one of us, speaking to us, helping us, convicting us, guiding us – that’s the greatest gift God can give!
These story lessons from Jesus are meant to shake up our understanding of who we think God is and tell us that God loves it when His people are bold enough to come to Him and ask Him for what they need, because they know they are His children and they love their Father in Heaven.
- Moses and the nation of Israel are thirsty and God has him hit a rock with a stick, and BOOM! water.
- Samson completely ruins his life, and yet at the end he prays for strength and God answers it.
- Elijah is hungry and a widow is starving. He prays that the oil and flower never run out, and they don’t.
- Elijah asks God for a public miracle where God would bar-b-cue an entire bull by blasting it with fire from the sky. Before God answers, Elijah douses the whole thing with buckets of water. And God not only answers, but does so in such a fashion that the fire totally consumed the wood, the bull, the rocks and the water!
- Countless people came to Jesus and asked for help with disease, demons, and death and He stopped what He was doing to help them. More than once he saw that people were hungry and fed them before they even asked.
God’s answers to prayer aren’t just bound to scripture! There are lots and lots of accounts of God providing for people throughout history. One of my favourite stories is about a man named George Mueller. He died in 1898, but was a man of great influence during his time. For those who know the names, he worked with DL Moody, preached for Charles Spurgeon, and inspired Hudson Taylor to be a missionary! (source)
He spent most of his life in Bristol, England as a pastor, but this story comes from his time as the patron of a series of orphanages. He refused to go into debt by borrowing any money and truly believed that God would meet the needs of the children if they just prayed. The story goes like this:
One morning the children woke up and came downstairs for their morning meal, but the plates and cups and bowls were all empty. There was no food in the cupboards and no money to buy any. The children were standing and waiting for breakfast, wondering what to do, when Mueller said, “Children, you know that we must all be in time for school.” He then lifted his head and prayed, “Dear Father, we thank you for what you are going to give us to eat.”
As he sat the children down at the empty table there was a knock at the door. There stood the baker who said, “Mr. Mueller, I couldn’t sleep last night. Somehow I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So I got up at 2am and baked you some fresh bread.” Mueller thanked the man and no sooner had he closed the door than there was another knock. He opened the door and there stood the milk man who announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage and he would be happy to give the kids his fresh cans of milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it.
This was no isolated incident either. This type of thing happened over and over in his life. In his life he claims to have seen over 50,000 answers to His prayers for help. So much so that he became known as “the man who gets things from God!”
God still answers prayers today: I personally know what it’s like to have my prayers answered. I’ve been in ministry for almost 12 years now and I’ve never gotten a job by sending out a resume. He has always brought me to places through mysterious means. I’ve seen God literally provide my family with money out of nowhere when we only had ten cents in the bank and prayed for help. I’ve asked God for guidance on decisions that would alter the course of my family’s life, and then flipped open my Bible and received the exact answer. And I believe that every day, as I read His Word and talk to Him in prayer, that He not only listens to me, but also speaks, and meets my physical and spiritual needs.
Are You Praying About That?
I wish I could get into more scriptures about God and prayer, because I think this is an incredibly important topic, but I’ll close with this: There’s a reason, throughout all of the thousands of years that believers have been around, that there have been faithful men and women who have been repeating the same thing over and over and over to those who come to them with their struggles. Prophets, priests, elders, deacons, and pastors have been asking the same question and giving the same advice forever: “Are you praying about that?”
Why do mature Christians always go back to that question? Because we know that so many troubles come from messed up prayer lives. James 4:1-3 says this:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Your fighting and worrying and arguing and desire to sin has got you all messed up… why? Because you aren’t talking to God. Your passions are out of control because you won’t get on your knees and say “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” “Not my will, not my name, not my kingdom… Yours.”
You covet and quarrel to get things that you think you need, terrified you won’t have enough, worried to the point of hurting those around you to get it. Why? Because you’re not talking to God and saying “…give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation.”
James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…” In other words, your life is messed up because your prayer life is messed up. You have real needs – but your desires are all wrong. Your Father wants to help you, but you want all the wrong things! God offers forgiveness and daily help, but you won’t humble yourself enough to ask. “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…”
Let me encourage you to take a very close look at your relationship with God by taking a very close look at your prayer life. Your beliefs about prayer will tell you a lot about your faith in God.
And after you’ve looked at your prayer life, make some changes. Commit that you will pray every day this week, that you will read the Bible, and get to know who God really is – not content to believe who you think He is. I promise you that He will speak to you, meet your needs, and draw you to Himself.
“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…”
We’re currently on week 8 of our 3 week series on the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, and this week we’re concluding our study of the five Woes Against the Chaldeans that we find in chapter 2.
If you remember the other sermons in this series you’ll remember that we’ve seen quite a downward spiral over the past series of weeks as we’ve been looking through this chapter. We’ve seen that the Chaldean nation was full of pride, fueled by addiction to alcohol and sex, which had them thinking that the world existed for their pleasure and conquest. Their addiction became a voracious appetite that required them to break out from beyond their borders in order to consuming the people around them – including Israel – eventually becoming one of the greatest empires in history; the Babylonian Empire. (Greatest in size, not in quality!)
As they conquered nation after nation, tallying up victory on victory, God Himself was making his own tally of the sins they were committing. Habakkuk pronounced woes against them, and all those who would follow their pattern. Remember, a “woe” is simply a pronouncement of judgement against people who don’t realize how dangerous their situation is. The Chaldeans, later called Babylonians, thought they were the kings of the world – but their whole nation was built on sin and God was saying that He would exact justice on them soon.
The first woe was against their out of control greed that drove them to take things that weren’t theirs from their neighbours. The second woe was against their sense of self-security, where they believed that conquering the people around them and building piles of wealth would bring them safety. The third woe was against their self-centredness. All that they had was covered in the blood of their neighbours and they didn’t care. And the fourth woe was against their abuse of others – anyone who didn’t join them in their addictions would be either killed or exploited for their pleasure.
For each of these woes we have drawn parallels to our own nation and individual lives. We’ve been confronted by our own greed and selfishness. We’ve been forced to evaluate where we find our security, and in what ways we act self-centredly, using people to feed our own appetites, instead of loving them as God intends us.
The Real Problem is Idolatry
Today we’re going to look at the fifth of the five woes and it is perhaps the most damning of the bunch. It shows the central problem that all people have that drives them to the sins of greed, pride, addiction, self-centredness and exploitation. The real issue is idolatry.
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:18-20)
What makes people assume that they can do whatever they want and get away with it? What would make the leaders of a nation think that the world exists for their conquest and pleasure, and that it doesn’t matter how they treat their fellow man? What causes someone to think that they can commit criminal acts, covet and steal what others have, harm those around them, commit murder, cause fights, lie, gossip, slander, disrespect authority, insult God, boast in their own accomplishments, invent new ways of committing evil, disobey their parents, and live foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless lives? Where does that come from? (Based on Romans 1:28-31)
The answer is all over scripture, and the answer is idolatry. For the Chaldeans, they had many god’s and literal idols that they had carved to represent them all over their land. They had gods for the elements, for storms, the sun, the moon, the air, for love and war – all kinds.
As Habakkuk points out, these false gods were merely human inventions. They were shaped by human stories and then carved of wood, metal and stone. They had no real power. They were “speechless idols” who could neither give wisdom nor strength.
God, through the prophet Habakkuk, pronounces woe on these people because they look at a piece of wood that they have carved and tell it to “wake up!” or “get up!”, thinking it might actually work. The woe is against those who have placed their faith in their “own creation” and actually believe that it will be able to “awake” or “arise” at their command. But it’s just a piece of wood with some gold or silver overlaid on it. “There is no breath at all in it.”
The consequences of this woe come from the folly of asking their “own creation” to teach them. “Can this teach?” Habakkuk asks. It’s the foolishness of circular reasoning. “I’m doing this because my god told me to, and I know exactly what my god wants me to do because I’m the person that invented that god, carved the image, and wrote down what it he would say.”
That’s the danger of creating our own idols – that we are merely creating a god for ourselves that will parrot back to us whatever we want it to say. The answer to the question, “Can this teach?” is obviously, “No!”. You cannot gain more wisdom or information from something you have created yourself! If you invent a god and then write your own holy book, there is no way for you to gain any more teaching than you had before. Woe to that fool.
But God is Real
“But”, verse 20 says, “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk says to all these idolaters: Your gods are dead, but the LORD is both alive and awake. He’s not powerless like one of your human creations. He’s powerful and self-existent. He doesn’t require us to command Him to awaken or arise. He has wisdom, knowledge and authority beyond our human capacity, and is therefore able to teach!
Therefore, Habakkuk says, “let all the earth keep silence before him.” That’s Bible talk for “SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN!” That’s another phrase we find a few times in the Bible. In Psalm 46:10 we read one of many Christian’s favourite passages: “Be still and know that I am God.”, but most people don’t know the context. We read it with such sterility and quietness, but that’s not how it was written! Let’s read the context:
“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’” (Ps 46:6-10)
The picture is of God, with a word, wiping out every human power we have, shaking the foundations of the planet, melting the very earth with his voice, causing every piece of weaponry to explode into flames before Him as he shouts to the word, “Be Still!… See and witness the truth of who I am… KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that I AM GOD. Not you, not your kings, not the idols that you have fashioned – ME. And I alone will be worshipped.”
This is what’s behind the words of Philippians 2:9 that says:“
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It’s not talking about just Christians – but everyone, from His human enemies to Satan himself –will bow their knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They won’t have a choice. At His voice the earth will melt.
It’s not talking about just Christians – but everyone, from His human enemies to Satan himself –will bow their knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They won’t have a choice. At His voice the earth will melt.
Woe to anyone who has their allegiances in the wrong place when Jesus comes and kindles his wrath against them. (Psalm 2)
Mocking The Folly of Idolatry
There’s an amazing section of scripture that illustrates this and mocks those foolish enough to worship idols. Turn to Isaiah 44:9-20 and let’s take a look at a truly funny passage of scripture, dripping with irony and sarcasm:
“All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.”
This is similar to what we’ve just been talking about – how these idols, in reality, are incapable of helping anyone. But next we see Isaiah show how lost, stupid and utterly blind to their own foolishness these people are. Continue in verse 12:
“The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint.
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.
Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’”
Is this not the height of irony and irrationality? Isaiah starts with a picture of an ironsmith, using his own muscles and sweat to make his idol. He gets hungry and tired, looks around and sees no water. He is dying of hunger and thirst as he creates the god that he’s supposed to pray to for his food. How ridiculous!
The picture then shifts to an expert carpenter, using his skills to design a beautiful idol for his home. He too uses his mind and strength to plant and harvest the wood he will use… and he gets hungry too. So he gathers his own meat, and makes his own fire so he can roast it himself. But there’s a problem: which part of the tree he has just cut down is is the part that he’s supposed to burn as fuel for him to cook over and which part is the god he’s supposed to say grace to?
By verse 18 you can almost see Isaiah face-palming. These dummies are so blind – in their eyes and their hearts – they don’t even consider what they’re doing. They have no discernment, no knowledge, to even understand of how stupid it is to think that half of the tree is fuel and the other half is god!
He closes by saying, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” This guy should be looking down at the idol he just crafted and think, “Hey, maybe I’m wrong here! I’m such a dummy for thinking that this piece of wood has any kind of power! How stupid is it to think this dead thing I just created can somehow bring hope and joy to my life? ” But nope – we keep on fabricating our own idols generation after generation after generation, and we still don’t get it.
So my question to you today is this: Are we any different? Perhaps you’re not sitting in your blacksmiths or carpentry shop carving little wooden and metal images to decorate your home, but are there things in your life that basically have the same function?
I was teaching my class at the Christian School this week and we were talking about “The Christian Ninja’s Source of Power”. The whole point of that class was to get the students to ask themselves one thing: What is the main motivation for what I do?
For a Christian, our “source of power” and reason we do what we do is our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:5) and we’re ok with that. He’s our source of strength, wisdom, knowledge, help, courage, conviction, and whatever else we need. We turn to Him because He’s our source.
However, there are a lot of people, including Christians, who find their strength in other places. We all have a source of power, a source of strength, or an overarching motivation behind what we do, and we could easily call that our god. Some people have religious motivations, others are driven by more selfish pursuits, but we all have them.
Some people use astrology, Wicca, paganism, deism, and other forms of human religion as their source of strength. They seek help in this world by believing they can use the spiritual realms to manipulate the world around them for their own benefit. It’s all demonic, but they’re also idolaters who are crafting their own rules about the universe and then live by them, often picking and choosing what they want to believe, based on what makes them feel good, or what makes sense to them, sometimes even making it up out of thin air. These people are deceived, not only by their own blindness, but by the demons they turn to.
Other people are less religious terminology, but they still put their faith into things of their own making – their weapons, money, possessions, technology, or medicine. They elevate these dead, man-crafted things to the level of deity, placing their faith in them, sacrificing a lot of their life to them, in the hopes that the idols will ultimately save them.
They stockpile their weapons and make great walls to keep out the bad-guys so they will be safe. They save and invest and purchase more and more believing that the more they have the more secure they will be. A lot of people today worship science and scientists as their gods, believing that the salvation of the world, the gift of eternal life, and a utopian future is just around the corner with the next medical or technological breakthrough.
But they make the same mistake as the blacksmith or carpenter that Isaiah is mocking. They’re doing the same thing that Habakkuk is pronouncing a woe against the Chaldeans for. They’re putting their faith into something man-made. They believe that man can make something that transcends man. That we can think up something that goes beyond human knowledge. That we can create something that has the power of a Creator.
But are they not merely “feeding on ashes”? They shout at their creation to “Awake! Feed me! Clothe me! Keep me safe!”, but it sits there silent – or only repeats back to them what they have commanded it to say. They cry out, “Arise!”, but it can only go as high as it has been built to go.
We know in our heads, when we take a moment to think about it, that “there is no breath at all in” our hand-crafted idols, our horoscope, our pagan rituals, our security systems, money, possessions or technology – so then why do we keep turning to them over and over for hope, joy and salvation?
The Source of Idolatry
Turn with me to Romans 1 and we’ll read the answer together. This is a complex bit of scripture, but taken as a whole it both makes sense and explains why we have such a penchant for crafting our own idols. The reason is simple: We love our sin and sin makes us blind to the truth.
Read Romans 1:16:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ states two very important things: first, that we are great sinners condemned to eternal death, and that the only way to be saved from the consequences of our sin is to believe in Jesus, our great Savior. A lot of people are “ashamed of the gospel” because they don’t like one or both of those ideas. They don’t think thinking that they’re sinners, or they want their salvation to come from Jesus alone. The Gospel, as presented in the Bible doesn’t allow for that. To be saved, we must believe we are sinners and come to Jesus alone for Salvation.
But instead of confessing their sins and coming to Jesus, most people embrace their sins and then fashion for themselves another god that tells them what they want to hear.
Keep reading in verse 18:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
In other words, every human being knows right and wrong because they have a conscience that condemns them, and they know that God exists because the whole of creation testifies that there must be a Creator. “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
But, they hate this truth. The existence of a moral law and a Moral Law Giver that holds them accountable is detestable to them. They hate the idea that they can’t make up their own rules and judge themselves based on their own ideas of right and wrong so they “suppress the truth.” Every time they have a twinge of conscience, they stuff it down deep and pretend that they didn’t feel it. Every time their mind says, “Wow, this is something transcendent about this universe, something beyond my ability to comprehend, maybe there is a God after all”, they crush that thought and refuse to listen to their own minds.
Keep reading in verse 22:
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
This is what we’re talking about today. They’ve denied that the real God exists, but they need something in His place. They can’t simply say that they are the creator of their own universe, so they must supplant the true Creator, and find something that will explain why everything exists and how everything is supposed to work.
So they invent a god of their own design and have it say whatever they want it to say. Now they can have their cake and eat it too – they get to worship a god, and call themselves faithful, and claim to have a relationship with a higher power – but don’t actually have to listen to God, the actual Moral Law Giver. They can write their own moral law.
Now look at verse 24 and we see God’s response to this folly:
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
God’s judgment on these idol makers is a simple one: “Ok, have it your way.” Sometimes God does give us what we want, and in this case, He gives those who create their own gods exactly what they wanted. He “gave them up… to impurity”.
There stands the One, True God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and humanity has turned their back on Him to worship a created thing. Why? Because they don’t like the way God does things. God was preventing them from doing what they wanted to do with their bodies, so they preferred the lie to the truth and the created to the Creator. You’ve heard the phrase many times: “My body, my choice. No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” Well, God says that He wants to tell you what to do with your body. The only option is to find a different god.
Now look at verse 28, where you’ll see the words “God gave them up” again, and it shows the outcome of what happens when we worship gods of our own design. We go from a dishonouring of our bodies to a debasement of mind… :
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
This is what ultimately happens when we worship creation rather than creator. I asked at the beginning, after we had talked about the ancient sins of the Chaldeans and the Babylonians, “What makes people assume that they can do whatever they want and get away with it? What would make the leaders of a nation think that the world exists for their conquest and pleasure, and that it didn’t matter how they treated their fellow man?” And then I read you this list.
The answer to why we think pornography, abortion, human trafficking, gluttony, rage, hatred, greed, consumerism, gossip, and all the rest are okay, is because we take God off the throne, throw out His Moral law, and put our faith in things that humanity creates for itself. The only trajectory when we do that is the downwards spiral of sin. When we create our own gods to tell us what we want to hear – all that we will hear is: “Do whatever you want.”
Identifying Our Idols
The worst sin that humanity can commit is not drunkenness, covetousness, violence or injustice. The greatest and most dangerous sin, the source of all our other sins and all human suffering, is idolatry – worshiping a created thing instead of the Creator. It’s literally the first commandment. (Exodus 20:3)
Now, in your mind, you might still be thinking of an idolater as a member of a far-flung tribe bowing down to carved, wooden or golden statue. But that’s not right, is it? An idol is, potentially, anything we give our time, energy, resources, attention to. It’s what we put our hope in and turn to in times of desperation or celebration. We may not give blood sacrifices to giant metal statues, and pour incense on altars, but we do worship idols every day.
Here are some questions to help you identify your own idols:
- Where do you turn for comfort when you are feeling lonely, weak or sad? Food, alcohol, shopping, tv, porn, or just going to sleep? That’s your true source of power, your idol, your god.
- What, if it is damaged or taken away from you, makes you feel angry, depressed, anxious, or afraid? Your home, your money, your car, or another possession, or perhaps even a friend or spouse? Think about the last time you blew up at someone, or got really scared – which of your idols was threatened? What couldn’t God supply for you that that false-god provided?
- If you were surprised by a $20 windfall, what’s the first thing you’d want to do with it?
- What man-made idols do you pray for that are meant to stand right by Jesus in your heart?
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you keep me and my family healthy.”
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you keep me comfortable.”
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you pay all my bills.” (source)
- What would cause you to be angry at God if He decided to take it away?
- What do you complain about most?
- What makes you happiest?
- What do you dream and fanaticize about in your private thoughts?
- If you had one wish, what would it be for? Money? Fame? Sex? Popularity? Revenge? A better body? For someone to come back to life?
Conclusion: Consider The Folly of Your Idol
Whatever your answer is, I want you to take time this week to consider the folly of worshipping that idol.
- Why are you giving your time, resources, energy and attention and hope to something that is dead or dying in favour of the God who is alive?
- Why would you bow your knee to someone or something that has less power than Jesus?
- Isn’t it utterly irrational to elevate ourselves so high that we think we can actually create something greater than the One, True God — that we can invent something to overthrow and replace Him!?
Every time we turn away from God, our life begins to dry up. We walk away from the stream of life (Psalm 1), or remove our branch from the Vine, and we plant ourselves somewhere else. We begin to hunger and thirst, physically and spiritually, and our souls cry out for more. It is that moment that we have a choice: Turn back to God, or keep asking the false-god-of-our-own-making to feed us, heal us, bring us joy, and strengthen our spirits.
Think of the damage and devastation that comes to our lives when we seek hope from, and obey the words of, false gods that we have created for ourselves. They only feed us ashes and tell us what we want to hear.
So, which will you turn to? To Jesus Christ who offers the only path to a relationship to the One, True and Living God, or side with the dumb, blind, mute and dead god-of-your-own-making. You cannot save yourself – you need Jesus.