When we are saved by Jesus, He gives us a lot of gifts. One of those gifts is to become a member of His church, a family of believers spread throughout the world. All believers, everywhere are part of the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, the Universal Church both living here and in heaven. If you are a Christian you are part of God’s family. The church isn’t intended to be seen merely globally though, it’s most accurately seen and experienced locally as individual believers from the same geographic area choose to meet together to worship Jesus, fellowship with each other, learn and be discipled, and do good works to spread His love in their own neighbourhoods. Certainly, each church should be thinking about their global impact, sending and supporting missionaries and charities in countries that need help, but for most Christians, most of their impact, most of their work, most of their learning, most of their worship, most of their evangelism, is done at their home church.
The letters of the New Testament, though universally applicable, were mostly sent to individual churches: the church in the city of Corinth, in Philippi, in Rome. When Jesus gave John his great Revelation, he addressed it not to the universal church, but to seven specific, local churches. When God works, He doesn’t usually do it on a grand, global level, but instead chooses to work mostly through individuals like you and me in a local church just like ours. That’s the common, normal way God enacts His will in the world. Even the great, global impacts that we’ve seen some ministries have are part of a local church.
If you’ve read Purpose Driven Life, you’re reading a book written by a local pastor in Lake Forest, California. If you’ve listened to the band Casting Crowns, you’re listening to a youth pastor’s band from First Baptist in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Emotionally Healthy Spirituality book we’re going to do came from a ministry built over some years in a church in New York City.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, became a Christian when he was driven to a Methodist Chapel during a snowstorm. A substitute preacher, with not much training, was simply reading the book of Isaiah. He came to Isaiah 45:2, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else.”, stopped reading, pointed straight at 15-year-old Charles and shouted, “That young man there looks very miserable! Look! Look, young man! Look now!”. God worked a miracle in Spurgeon’s heart, he was saved, became a preacher, and went on to plant many more churches.
It’s not just preachers and writers that have great impact, of course. God sets up preachers and teacher for training others – it is the rest of the church that gets credit for doing most of God’s work in the world. The deacons who visit the sick and serve those in need. The small groups who meet to pray and to share. The ministry leaders who care for children, teens, and seniors. The old married people who take newlyweds under their wing. The families who adopt and foster kids in tough situations. The musicians, artists, and actors who point people to God through their art. The mothers and fathers raising Godly children, and the countless others who go to work every day and serve God’s will there, working hard, having meaningful conversations, and sharing God’s love. That’s how God usually works. Though believers like you.
We talked a little about that last week when we talked about how our church helps us change our lives for the better, and in a lot of our sermons last year on the Body of Christ. The church is an important place, a vital place, for believers to be.
Keep You From Church
But not all believers want to be here. It’s the truth that growing Christians want to be with fellow believers but backslidden and sinning Christians tend to run away from other Christians. My wife was given a Bible a long time ago and I found these words inscribed in it: “This book will keep you from sin, and sin will keep you from this book.” Turns out it’s a quote from DL Moody. I could adapt that to say, “The church will help to keep you from sin, and sin will help to keep you from the church.”
People that are working on their sins, want to learn more about God, grow in righteousness and be trained for ministry flock towards the church and it’s ministries. Those who are fill of unrepentant sins, have unforgiving hearts, are prideful, selfish, or bitter, tend to avoid coming under the leadership of the elders, avoid meeting with other Christians who try to get into their business, avoid places where they might hear something they don’t like. They stay on the outskirts of the church, and are often used by Satan to start church fights and splits. If you are full of guilt and shame, because you are refusing to repent before God for your sin, then you’re not going to want to be around a bunch of people who are worshipping Jesus, saying they have been forgiven, and are trying to do good – because it makes your shame and guilt feel all the more acute. When your heart is messed up with sin it’s easier to be with sinners than Christians.
It breaks my heart that more people aren’t availing themselves of the blessing of being part of a godly, local church. There are so many lonely, confused, addicted, afraid, stressed out, falling apart people out there that are either running all over the place trying to find something to help – or have simply given up and are just trying to medicate or entertain the pain away until they die.
There are people that long for intellectual stimulation, to serve their community, a place to find their purpose, a group of people that sees the world differently than anyone else and knows something they don’t know. They long for the presence of God, the healing and forgiveness that comes from Jesus, even if they don’t know it. Sometimes they do turn to God in their desperation, but most often they refuse Him when He shows up and invites them to turn to Him in their times of distress. Sometimes they do turn to God, and start to pray or are driven to read God’s Word, hoping that something the Bible will help – not realizing, or refusing to believe, that so many of their needs can be met by not only talking to God, but being with His people and joining a good, Godly church.
And of course, there are far too many people who call themselves believers who have divorced themselves from the church. Whether because they had a bad experience or because of their own pride, they now refuse to be part of a church, choosing to stay home and watch tv preachers, listen to podcast, and chat with people online – all the while growing in bitterness and being led astray by lies because there’s no one there to correct their thinking.
It’s sad because sitting at home alone isn’t usually where miracles happen. They happen when you submit yourself humbly to Jesus and choose to live your life with the people of God.
Blessed to Be Your Pastor
I believe we are a good, Christ honouring church, and that most people here work hard to ensure that we stay that way. We’ve gone through a lot together and I can say that the furnace of affliction has refined this church and that God is preparing us for something special in 2018. You are an open church, willing to accept people that are different than you. You are a patient church, showing love when frustrations and difficulties have come. You are a humble church, being willing to do all kinds of things without requiring recognition or reimbursement. You are a generous church, giving more than expected, taking care of each other’s, showering blessings and help on people who share their needs. You are a church that does the hard things to seek unity, having extra meetings, holding people accountable, and being honest with one another even when it’s hard. You are a good church, wanting to make sure God is honoured by what is done here. You are a Biblical church, consistently showing your love for God’s Word.
I am beyond blessed to not only be your pastor, but to have me and my family be the recipients of so much of your God-given grace. That tells me that God is showing you love, working in your heart, and doing good works in you. That He is fulfilling His promise that the good work He has started in you will be carried on to completion (Phil 1:6). It tells me that you are trying to be sensitive to His Spirit. Yes, we’ve had some struggles, and I know that each of you has their own separate and very real trials – but here you are, worshipping, giving, and being attentive to God’s Word and His people. Here you are, looking forward to small groups and study groups. Here you are, serving, training, loving and caring for people. I’m blessed to be your pastor. Anyone who distances themselves from you guys is crazy, because you are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
And so, we come to that part of the year when we read our Church Membership Covenant again. This is the document that every single member of this church has agreed to. If you’re not sure if you’re a member, then you probably aren’t, because it requires baptism, meetings, and voting. It’s a big commitment here.
Last week someone said that they appreciated when I share my own struggles during the sermon and I said that I’ve learned that whenever you are working with a group and are starting a project, ministry, prayer group, small group, or whatever, that it’s really important to set the bar upfront. People will look to the leader to see how things are supposed to be. This is how hard we will work. This is the quality that’s expected. This is how we will talk and act. This is the level of openness and honesty expected. This is the level of risk we’ll be taking. I strongly believe that, so I try to set the bar high.
But it’s not me that chooses where the bar is set, I’m just following the example and commands of Jesus. It is He that sets the bar. He’s our saviour and our model. When we want to know how respectful, kind, honest, open, hard-working, risk-taking to be, we read His word, witness His example, and listen to what He says. That’s all I try to do – imperfectly for sure, but that’s what we’re all shooting for, right?
And that’s why we have a church membership covenant. It’s our man-made, human way, to hold each other accountable to the bar that Jesus has set for us. He sets the bar, then we follow Him, and work together to help each other to keep following. There’s lots of reasons we have this document, Why Our Church Has a Membership Covenant, but this year I simply want to take time to read it and remind us as to what is in it, what we’ve agreed to and to remind us to hold each other accountable to it.
A good church reminds each other of what the bible says and holds each other to it in love. This is simply a summarized way to do that. Is it a perfect document? No. But we here believe that it’s helpful. Here’s what it says:
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God, to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, and on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we do now, in the presence of God, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this Church in knowledge, piety and godly living; to promote its spirituality in sustaining its worship, ordinances, discipline and doctrine; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the Church, its work against sin and injustice in the world, the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel throughout all nations.
We agree to promote family worship and maintain private devotions; to educate our children in the teaching and practice of our faith; and to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances. We strive to walk circumspectly in the world, to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all idle talk, backbiting and unrighteous anger; to practice temperance in all things; and to be zealous in all our efforts to advance the Kingdom of our Saviour.
We agree to strive to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
We covenant to watch over one another in brotherly love, to remember each other in prayer, to aid each other in sickness and distress, to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech, to be slow to take offence, always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the commandments of our Saviour.
That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Hard to live up to, right? This is why we thank God for grace and give grace to one another. Just as none of us will live up to the standard of being Christlike, or be perfect as God is perfect, or perfectly follow God’s word, until we finally get rid of this mortal flesh and receive our new bodies, so none of us will live up to this bible-based set of standards. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to try.
Being a Christian means taking responsibility for our own sins, our own attitudes, our own decisions, and our own actions. We own up to them. A lack of studiousness and godly living isn’t anyone else’s fault but our own. A lack of passion in worship or discipline isn’t because life is so hard, it’s because we’re sinners. A refusal to share the gospel with others, refusal to lead our family in a godly way, refusal to use our money properly, isn’t because our work is too busy, our kids are too much trouble, and our bills are too high – it’s because we’ve made poor, selfish, choices.
A Christian admits this. First we admit it to Jesus. We pray, “Jesus, I’m a sinner. I’ve messed up so much. The effects of the sin in my heart, my own selfish, stupid choices, have rippled out of my soul and affected everyone around me. Most of all, my sin has torn me away from you. Please forgive me, help me, heal me, put me on the right path, and help me stay there.” We admit to Jesus that we are sinners, and then we ask for His help. But it doesn’t stop there.
As we talked about last week, as James 5 says, we “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed.” We need to bring others into the loop. This membership covenant helps us do that. It helps us see how we fall short of God’s standards, and helps us to see some things we need to ask our church to help us with.
But it does something else. As Galatians 6:1-2 says, it helps us to bear one another’s burdens, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
This covenant drives us to confessing our sins to Jesus. It gives us a list of ways we can grow and ask others to help us. And agreeing to it gives others permission to hold us accountable. It gives them permission to say, “Hey, are you reading your bible? Are you praying? How’s your marriage? Are you resting? Are you working hard? Are you serving others? What are your needs?” or “Hey man, you’re thinking some wrong things about God and we need to talk about that.” Or “You haven’t been to church in a while, you’re not giving or serving, and that’s not spiritual healthy – what’s going on?” Hey, you are stealing – not doing your taxes honestly, taking cable from the neighbours, illegally copying music or movies, ripping people off – and the God’s Word says you need to stop.”
By becoming a member of the church you are agreeing that the elders, deacons, and other members have permission to ask you hard questions and hold you accountable. This is how we keep sharpening each other (Prov 27:10). We do it as 1 Corinthians 13 says we should do it, full of love – but sometimes that love means doing the hard thing like confronting the sin. This is how we remain a good, godly, Christ-honouring, church. This is how we all grow closer to God and more like Jesus, together.
I’m going to try to bring the membership covenant up more this year to keep it in front of us, but my encouragement to you is to keep this document in your bible, use it to spur yourself and others on. Read it in your small group, your family devotions, and go over it in your private study time. Use it to spur your prayer life, your conversations with other believers, and to motivate you to help others.
The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
This week Steve shares some scripture and devotional thoughts about Jesus as the Coming King. Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year.
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Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year. This week we present a full-length sermon from Pastor Al entitled “Jesus as Tabernacle”.
*AOTCN Followers: I’m double dipping this week so the sermon audio is also the CT audio! Sermon Text is below
Christmas time has a lot of symbols attached to it. In fact, marketing teams have worked really hard to try to attach logos and symbols to the various celebration days we have so that they can sell us targeted things. At Easter everything is covered in bunnies and colourful eggs. On Valentine’s Day everything is covered in hearts. Thanksgiving turkey, Halloween pumpkin, St Patrick’s clover. Each one gets a colour scheme too, right? St. Patrick’s Day is green. Halloween is orange and black. Thanksgiving is brown and orange. Valentine’s Day is red. Easter gets a bunch of pastels.
But Christmas seems to be a bit more difficult. If you asked yourself what the standard symbol of Christmas is, it’s hard to pin down. Some use the holly and ivy, others poinsettas, some use silver bells, others a Christmas tree, or gold stars. Some use snowflakes or Santa’s face or a present. The colour scheme seems to be all over the map too. Red and green and brown and white and silver and gold… it’s almost like no matter how hard the marketing teams try, the Christmas season is too big to be nailed down to one symbol or theme.
I watched some “man on the street” interviews where they asked people what Christmas meant to them and the general theme was getting together with family and eating, but that’s too generic. If you ask them what Thanksgiving or New Years or September Long Weekend was all about they’d probably give the same answer.
In the Christian church, we’d like to believe that we’ve got this nailed down, but we don’t. There are a lot of self-professing evangelicals reject even the most foundational Christian beliefs. Ligonier Ministries just did a huge survey of thousands of Christians across America and the findings were shocking.
Almost half agreed that God accepts worship from all religions, not just Christianity. Half believe that they have to do good deeds in order to get to heaven. Most of the people, well over half, said that God won’t punish people for little sins. Christians are confused too. Over half believe Jesus was God’s first creation. Half of the people who said that God is the author of the Bible also said that modern science discredits what the Bible even says. So it’s no surprise that when the interview said, “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”, that the results were split down the middle with half agreeing and half disagreeing.
After all, if you believe that God doesn’t really punish sins, that we save ourselves through good deeds, that Jesus was just another created being, and that science has basically discredited the Bible, then why bother telling anyone about Jesus at all?
Christianity, and Christmas, to most people, even though they love the season – and most would say Christmas is their favourite time of year – has been almost completely drained of meaning because Christianity has been almost completely drained of theology. Which is likely why, when we ask the question: “What is the Christmas symbol? What is Christmas all about?” all we get from most people is an array of plants, presents, pretend things and some vague statements about family get-togethers.
Expecting a Saviour
Turn to Luke 1:31-33. We must, as Christians, settle in our hearts the real meaning of Christmas and be absolutely clear, laser focused, on what we are celebrating and why. If we are not, if we allow the vagaries and trappings to overtake us, we not only risk losing the story (as we talked about last week), but risk losing the Gospel, the story of salvation, the only way to be saved from Hell. Let me explain what I mean.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been setting up the drama of Christmas. The people of God living as the least important province of a pagan nation, in some kind of miserable half-life, facing famine, enemies, luke-warm worship, corrupt priests, and declining faith… to which the prophet Malachi’s brings a message that God save them and restore them, and to watch out for the forerunner of God, the one who would come before, who would be Elijah.
We then wait 400 years in silence, between the Old and New Testaments, until an angel comes to an old priest named Zachariah, who has an old, barren wife named Elizabeth, who is told that he will be the father of John the Baptist, who would come in the spirit of Elijah. And the drama continues to build when 6 months later, in a small town in the middle of nowhere, an angel tells a young, unmarried girl named Mary, that the promised forerunner has come and she has been chosen to be the mother of the promised Saviour. The angel says,
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
As I said last week, these words have become too familiar to us. So familiar that we almost dismiss them, but you must understand that this wasn’t what anyone was expecting. The promised Saviour of the world, the One who has been promised for thousands of years, was never expected to come this way.
Thinking of this from our own perspective might help. We are used to Jesus as the great moral teacher, Jesus as the Saviour on the cross, Jesus as the social revolutionary who changed all the rules, Jesus as the friend of sinners. We are used to the Jesus who did impossible things like raise the dead, calm storms with a word, feed thousands from a child’s lunchbox. Jesus turning over tables in the temple, Jesus staring down and calling curses upon the corrupt Pharisees, Jesus surrounded by sinners and social rejects. We are familiar with all those pictures of Jesus – and they very much reflect what Israel was expecting.
They expected a miracle worker, a military conqueror, a superman who would overthrow the evil government, rebuild the great temple, and take over as King of the planet with the Jewish people in their rightful place as the nation of priests for planet earth. They expected Moses mixed with Elijah mixed with David mixed with Solomon, exploding on the scene draped in majesty and wielding unstoppable power.
That’s generally what we expect too, when we stop for a moment and get honest with ourselves. That’s the Jesus we would write into our story. We want the Jesus who stops our problems in a second, who gives us everything we want in a moment, who destroys everyone who has ever wronged us, who showers us with pleasure and comfort and prestige and success – and we, like the nation of Israel, don’t understand, and react very poorly, when Jesus comes in a very different, much quieter, much more patient, much more humble, much more time consuming way. Incidentally, that’s one of the reasons we know that this wasn’t made up, because no one – literally, no one – would have come up with this.
Jesus Broke Expectations
Mary was promised a son who would be named Jesus. Jesus means “Saviour”. She was told that he would be “great” and be called “the Son of the Most High”. That was a name for God that went all the way back to Genesis 14. Jesus wouldn’t be a man like every other human being, who had a sinful, human father, but would be like Adam, created perfectly by God without a sinful nature.
And this One who was Son of God and Saviour would be given the “throne of… David”. Remember the state of the nation: conquered, under corrupt pagan rule, taxed almost into oblivion, unable to do anything without going to Rome for permission. King David was the great, conquering King who conquered the enemies of Israel and united the nation, ushering in the greatest time of peace and plenty in Israel’s history. And a long time before Mary, David was promised that Someone would sit on his throne forever, that one of his descendants would inaugurate a Kingdom would be established forever, that it would be unconquerable. Jesus would “reign over the house of Jacob”, meaning all twelve tribes of Israel would be united again, and that kingdom would have “no end”.
That was everyone’s picture of the coming Messiah, and though it perfectly describes Jesus, He didn’t arrive the way they expected, He didn’t live the way they expected, He didn’t do what they expected, and He didn’t conquer in the way they expected. Which is one reason why so many people rejected Him.
Jesus own family, even Mary, and Jesus’ closest followers took a long, long time to wrap their heads around what Jesus was doing and what it all meant. They simply didn’t have a box to put Jesus in, they had no template prepared that could fit the real Jesus. All of their preconceptions, all of the things they had assumed about God and God’s plan, all of the things they had been focusing on up to that point needed to be completely reorganized, completely re-understood, because of Jesus.
Now, it’s important to know that Jesus was doing anything wrong! He didn’t come and change anything. He didn’t just reinterpret the Bible in a weird way that no one had though tof. No, it wasn’t that Jesus was trying to be counter cultural – it was that everyone’s assumptions about Him were all wrong. They had created their own Saviour template, created their own God-box, and thought Jesus would fit into it.
Sometimes we think that we need to live up to other people’s expectations. We change ourselves to fit what other people think about us, or we do things that we thing other people expect us to do. We succumb to peer-pressure because we want to be accepted, we stop doing things we actually like because the crowd says we’re weird. We stare at our closets, our car, our homes, and we wonder how we can make things more acceptable and impressive to others.
I know, for myself, I often feel pressure to fit the mould that people have designed for me. Some people think I’m smart, and I like that, so when I don’t know the answer to something, it’s tempting to dance around and try to make something up. Some people think since I’m a pastor there are things I should and shouldn’t do, so it’s tempting to be hypocritical and fudge parts of my life so that I live up to their expectations. I’m sure you’ve felt the same way, changing how you talk to sound more like the crowd, leaving out information about yourself because you’re embarrassed to admit certain things to that group of people.
God isn’t like that. God does not feel constrained by our assumptions about who He is or how He should do things. He is not swayed by democracy or popular opinion. He doesn’t change Himself to gain more followers or try to impress His constituency or His fan base. God doesn’t answer prayers He doesn’t want to answer because you have correctly manipulated Him. God is immutable, unchangeable, perfect.
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son…” The plan to send Jesus Christ on that day, in that way, to live that life, and die that death, was exactly what He had intended to do all along. It’s just that humanity wouldn’t, or couldn’t, understand or accept it. But that wasn’t going to change God’s plan.
Jesus Tabernacled with Us
With this in mind, turn with me to John 1 and I want to read the Christmas story from a completely different perspective. Normally we read the beginning of Luke and Matthew at Christmas time, and that’s appropriate, but that’s not the only Christmas story in the Bible. There are others that teach us about Jesus from other perspectives.
John’s gospel, for example, was written some decades after Matthew, Mark and Luke, and therefore teaches us a lot about Jesus that we don’t find in the other gospels. And the way He introduces Jesus is different than the other three. Matthew and Luke start at Jesus birth. John backs up the story to help us understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God by starting the story before the beginning of time, introducing Jesus with the same words as the start of Genesis, showing us that Jesus is God, uncreated, existing with God, as God before time, before He was named Jesus. Let’s read it together:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And then, like the other Christmas stories, we start with the end of Malachi, the coming of Elijah, John the Baptist. Verse 6,
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”
Who is this “true light” which the darkness cannot overcome? John continues by giving a brief summary of the life of Jesus as it reflects Israel’s relationship with God. God is perfect, the source of life, but was continually rejected by Israel, just as Jesus would be. Continue in verse 10:
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So, how do we receive him? What do we need to believe? How are we born again? Now comes the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of John, in verse 14:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is God, and is the Word of God, and at one point in History, which we call Christmas, God took on flesh. “The eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, holy Son of God took on a human nature and lived among humanity as one who was both God and man at the same time, in one person.”
The words, “dwelt among us” are super-important and introduce a critical concept that gets lost in translation, and if we don’t understand them we completely miss the whole point of the Christmas story. It literally means that when the Word, the Son of God became flesh, he was “pitching his tent among us”.
Every Jewish person reading this would immediately know what this meant. It was a picture of the Tabernacle, the tent that God lived in among the Israelites. In the beginning God created both Heaven and Earth, two complimentary places designed for one another, with the Garden as God’s meeting place and Adam and Eve as the ones who cared for it. But now because of sin, that connection was broken and an impassable wall, an uncrossable chasm was now between them.
But, in God’s grace, no matter where Israel wandered, no matter how far humanity would fall away, there would be one place on earth where Heaven and Earth would touch, a sort of Heavenly embassy, a single holy place where God would choose to condescend and dwell so we would not be utterly without contact or hope. That place was the Holy of Holies in the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, and instead of Adam and Eve attending it, it was Aaron the High Priest and his family the Levites.
When Israel finally stopped wandering and had taken back most of the Promised Land, God allowed King Solomon to change the portable tent into a more permanent home called the Temple. It too would be the place where Heaven and Earth would touch and where God could be found. If anyone in the world wanted to meet God, offer sacrifice, and gain forgiveness, the only place they could come would be God’s embassy, God’s one house, the Temple. This is why the Temple is the heart of Israel’s national life, and why it’s destruction was so utterly disheartening to the people living during the Babylonian exile.
But remember why it that happened. The meaning of the Temple had been lost. Just as so many have lost the meaning of Christmas and turned it into a dozen different symbols and vague traditional recollections around food and songs, so had they done to God’s Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant, which was God’s Throne, the Holy of Holies, and the Temple itself had turned from a Holy Place where one could meet God and be cleansed from sin – into a talisman, a lucky charm, a national tradition – a mixture of symbolism and superstition that had very little to do with a relationship with God – just like Christmas is today. The chief priests became worldly and wealthy, kings would use the temple as an excuse for violence and warfare, and by the time of Malachi (as we said before) God had basically left the Temple. It was just an empty hall surrounded by hypocritical religious people going through empty ceremonies. Much like Christmas for most people.
And then, 400 years later, when everything was at its darkest, “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26–27) A light pierced darkness, for the darkness had not overcome it. “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” The Son of the Most High, the Word of God, “became flesh and [Tabernacled, pitched his tent] among us, [so] we [could see] his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
No longer would the presence of God staying in one place, instead, the Holy of Holies would move around again, but in a completely different way. Now, instead of walls of canvas or gold or stone, human flesh would be the tent in which God would dwell.
Jesus, the baby we celebrate at Christmas time gives us everything God requires for Salvation. Jesus was born as the perfect Adam and never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Israel who never wandered from faith. Jesus is the perfect prophet and priest who always and only spoke the words of God. Jesus is the perfect temple, the very incarnation of the love of God in the world, face to face with humanity. And Jesus is the perfect temple sacrifice, taking God’s wrath against sin, dying on the cross in place of sinners, shedding His blood as the spotless, Passover lamb, so we might be saved.
This is what Christians celebrate at Christmastime. This is what we must never forget: Jesus of Nazareth, born as a baby in a manger was the climax of God’s salvation story, the fulfilment of every symbol in scripture, the living embodiment of God.
 ESV Study Bible notes
*Sorry, no audio this week.
People, as much as they are creatures of habit, are also addicted to novelty. I think it’s part of the coming of sin in the world that humans not only hate change but we get bored if things stay the same for too long. Have you noticed this?
We have things we consistently like– traditions, foods, favourite toys, certain authors, or styles of movie – and we will get quite put out if someone messes with them, right? But then, at some point, we look at that thing and we’re just sick of it and want something else. We wait all year for some special Christmas treat, but after a couple days we don’t ever want to see it again – but somehow it’s not Christmas if it’s not there.
This happens in pop-culture all the time. Right now, in Hollywood, a lot of people are wondering if we’ve reached peak saturation with superhero movies. No one was making them 10 years ago and this year we had 6 of them, and together they made over 4.5 Billion dollars. But everyone is wondering when the bubble will burst. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. This happened years ago with Westerns too. First, there were none, then they were being cranked out by the dozens, and then audiences got tired of them.
It’s that same give and take we just talked about. We love it for a while but end up getting tired of seeing and hearing the same story over and over, so we want something new. But ironically, it’s not even that new. If you think about it, there’s a lot of similarities between the old westerns and the new superhero movies, right?
There are clear distinctions between good and evil. The problems are usually solved with some mashup of personal sacrifice and violence. The archetypes are similar. There’s the very good guys, like the lawful sheriff and then the antihero outlaws. The good guys are usually traditional North Americans and the bad guys are often people with different coloured skin – then it was red or brown, now it’s purple. And then, at some point, instead of lone ranger defending one place, they put a whole bunch of them in the same movie.
So, it’s not that we get tired of the story – what we get tired of the package the story comes in. We still want a story about good conquering evil, heroes overcoming villains, the strong protecting the weak, and people sacrificially working together for a common cause that is greater than them. We just want the packaging to change.
Bored with The Christmas Story
Christians believe that the Christmas story is one of the most important stories in history and that we need to keep telling it. The incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby, announced by angels and miracles, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, fulfilling thousands of years of prophecy, is a really big deal – but, after so many years of telling it, we somehow get tired of the story.
I think this is how we end up with so many retellings of the Christmas story from so many different perspectives. We see it from the perspective of Mary and Joseph, like in the Bible, but after that we get bored. So then we watch it from the perspective of the Shepherds, King Herod, or even the Wise Men (who weren’t even there when Jesus was born). But then we get tired of that, because it keeps coming around to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in some cave or barn somewhere and we want even newer packaging, so we stretch things. Then we get the story from a few more obscure characters that don’t have a lot of backstory, like the Angels, the citizens of Bethlehem, or the man running the overfilled Inn.
But then that gets boring, so where else do we turn? Well, then it’s time to start really getting creative by changing the story a bit, making it funnier, sending people back in time to have adventures – and then finally of course, we come to where we are today – a non-Christian celebrity voiced, comedic version of the Birth of Jesus from the perspective of some random animals who are tasked with using their animal kung-fu skills to save Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And the main song they use in the trailer is by Stevie Wonder and is about how what Christmas really means is “lots of mistletoe, kissing, pretty trees, and snow”.
Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade because I like stupid Christmas stuff too. I’ve told you guys over the past month how tired I am of disliking things, right? My personal motto has become “Take serious stuff serious and not serious stuff not serious”, and I’ve always liked silly stuff anyway. I think dumb songs about red-nosed reindeer and magically animated snowmen are fun. I think that watching a movie with Santa in it is fine, the Grinch is awesome, and having an upside down tree is cool, so whatever.
But, from a pastoral perspective, I think there is a spiritual danger to getting bored by the actual Christmas story and concentrating not only on the peripherals, but everything else. Why do I think this? Because the current problem of the day isn’t that we have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are too familiar with it, but that we’ve spend so much time on the edges of it that we’ve forgotten the actual story.
We don’t know the prophecies being fulfilled, why it was in Bethlehem, why Joseph being of the house of David matters, who Gabriel was, the actual meaning of the name Jesus means, or the other titles He’s given in the Christmas story. We’ve lost the drama of the virgin being with child and then almost divorced and what an incredible person Mary was. We feature Shepherds and Wise Men in our Christmas play, but have forgotten Zachariah and Elizabeth whose story is interwoven with, and takes up just as much space in scripture, as the birth of Jesus. It is not that we are too familiar with the Christmas story, it is that we think we are too familiar, but many have actually forgotten it.
The Nativity Story
Turn with me and let’s read Luke 1:26–55. We talked a bit about John the Baptist last week, the forerunner of Jesus, and if you scan back a little bit you’ll see that his story is told first, before Mary and Joseph are even introduced. If you recall, the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth was the natural place to start the story after the last lines of Malachi 4, because John the Baptist was the one who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:11; Luke 1:17). The story of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist are interwoven in the first chapters of Luke. But for today we are going to start with the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel. Look at Luke 1:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’
And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
There’s a lot packed into that part, some of it is pretty amazing.
It begins, “In the sixth month”. That’s the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not the sixth month of the year, because it’s tying the two stories together. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, an angel also came to one of her relatives, a young girl named Mary. Gabriel connects these two women together by informing Mary that God is already at work and has worked miracles to prepare for Jesus to come. Mary’s worry is to wonder how this is going to come about since she’s not married, nor has she ever been with a man before, and the angels response is, “The Holy Spirit will take care of that part. Do you know your old, barren, relative Elizabeth? She’s pregnant too. Nothing’s impossible with God!”
Mary and Elizabeth would have a very special relationship. The much older woman would be a great support to the nervous, young Mary whose life had been completely shaken up by God’s gift. In fact, Mary almost immediately goes running to Elizabeth for support.
Look at verse 39:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
We have no indication that Elizabeth knew Mary was coming, and it was unlikely in that culture that Mary’s pregnancy news had travelled that far so quickly, so it must have been so encouraging to hear these words of prophecy about her obedience, God’s plan, and the truth of who her baby would be coming from someone she knew and trusted.
The mother of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of Jesus, and the mother of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, coming together to care for, support, and wonder at God’s work together. It’s a beautiful picture – one I don’t see very often in many Christmas stories.
And what is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s encouragement? One of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture: one that we call “The Magnificat”. She says,
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World
That’s a beautiful song of faith from a young woman in a very difficult situation. There’s so much happening in this story, but I want to point at just one thing I think we can learn from today. I want to notice that God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Up Our World.
The coming of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, was the best news in the world, but it wasn’t news that made everyone’s life comfortable. Jesus coming into the world sent shockwaves everywhere and caused a lot of problems for a lot of people – but it was still God’s perfect plan and was the way He would work out our salvation.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, that meant they were engaged but not living together, and both of them would have to wait a year and remain pure while they got their house in order for the marriage. Jesus’ birth messed all that up. Now Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, Joseph almost divorced her, and there was no doubt – even though it doesn’t say it in the story – that the family faced fallout from that for a long time. We know from second century writings that the Pharisees wrote in the Talmud that Jesus was the son of adultery. Another anti-Christian writer of the second century said Mary cheated on Joseph with a Roman soldier. Some people even take some of names the Pharisees called Jesus during their arguments as indication that there was a rumour that Jesus was an illegitimate child (John 8:41; Matthew 13:55)
Not only Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down, but everyone around Jesus. Remember that after the Wise Men went to King Herod his response was to murder all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old (Matthew 2:16) causing Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to flee and live in a foreign land for a few years.
The faithful words of Elizabeth and Mary stir our hearts, but we must remember the context. The coming of the Lord, the long awaited Saviour, is good news, but it brought much trouble to those who God blessed to be part of the story. Mary declares that God will feed the weak, save the powerless, bless the nation – but it doesn’t happen immediately. Mary declares that she is blessed, and certainly was, blessed beyond all other women, but at times that blessing brought a lot of trouble.
And when baby Jesus was only 40 days old, and comes to the temple to be dedicated, what does Mary hear from Simeon? “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34–35). The greatest blessing in the world comes with a sword to the heart.
Hebrews 11 says faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I’m amazed at young Mary’s strength and even more amazed at her faith. She is troubled by what she hears from the Angel but doesn’t argue or demand a sign. She accepts God’s plan immediately – with her only hesitation being a quite natural wondering about how it’s going to work. She relents to God’s plan because she is sure she can trust Him. She doesn’t understand, but believes is convinced God knows what He’s doing.
Over and over, from the moment Jesus’ came into her life, everything got more complicated and more frightening. There’s the nervousness of being pregnant. Joseph almost divorces her. Then she walks three days to Elizabeth’s house and when she gets back it’s not long until she’s big and almost nine months pregnant, and then there’s the census requiring her and Joseph to travel a 10 day journey to Bethlehem! Then there’s nowhere to stay and she ends up giving birth in a stable and laying her baby in a feeding trough, maybe with people helping, maybe not. Then there’s some weird shepherds visiting and a month later Simeon’s bad news. Then, when Jesus is only 2 years old, they have to flee the country for a few years on fear of death, staying away until the heat dies down.
Sometimes God’s plan for our life is as complicated and troubling as it is amazing. Mary’s faith was in something she hoped for – the Salvation of the world through her Son Jesus, but it took years and years, from the manger to the cross to the resurrection, for her to start to understand God’s real plan – and then some troubled years as a persecuted Christian after that – and sure, maybe she had moments of doubt (Mark 3:21) (though so did John the Baptist!) – but overwhelmingly we have the story of a woman who trusted God, trusted Jesus, kept the faith, and knew that no matter the trouble, believed God knew what He was doing.
For us today, this application is pretty clear and important. God’s plan of salvation is amazing and life changing. Having Jesus in our lives is an incredible blessing, but His coming also stirs everything up. There’s nothing like the knowledge and hope that comes from being a Christian – to know we are saved from sin and death, forgiven of everything we’ve ever done wrong, adopted into God’s family, and secure in Him forever, is amazing and it is right for us to worship and be excited about that – but it doesn’t mean that our life is necessarily going to get easier and more comfortable. In fact, the more we follow Jesus, the more we act in faith, the more our life is going to look like His – and He had a lot of trouble, right?
But that’s why we turn to scripture and prayer (I’m sure Mary did a lot of praying!) and other believers (like Mary did), because it is how we are reminded that God is faithful. For every trouble that came to Mary, God had a way to save her. When she was young, alone, and under great stress from Gabriel’s news, God provided Elizabeth. When Mary was about to get divorced, Joseph had a dream. When the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, God warned them to leave. When it was time to come home, God brought them. Mary was never in the wrong place because she and Joseph were always following God’s leading. Sure it was tough, but God always saw them through.
That’s the simple message today. First, don’t get bored with the Christmas story and miss out on what the Bible actually says, because in doing so you will miss out on the best parts that help our faith in Jesus to grow. And second, remember that whenever we follow Jesus, exercise our faith, step out and do what God has asked us to do, it’s going to bring trials and troubles and shake up our world, but that’s normal and God has it under control. Our job is to trust Jesus each step of the way, lean on each other, and keep going, accepting whatever method He provides to help us.
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and shines like a beacon in a dark place. And those who first heard it really needed a beacon because even though things weren’t at their darkest, it still wasn’t a great time in the life of Israel.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene in the years after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system, but things were still pretty bleak. Though things were going ok for the generation that had come back to their homeland of Judah things were far from perfect. The prophets that had encouraged them to rebuild their temple had given promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, peace, that would come when God’s glorious presence would once again come to the temple.
But when they looked around at their life they were disillusioned – it wasn’t anything like that. Sure, they were no longer being oppressed in a foreign land, but the glory days of expansion under King David and the peace and prosperity under King Solomon were long distant memories. Now they were the least important territory in Persia under Artaxerxes, were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, and were constantly fighting with their neighbours.
It wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them, there was also a spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt, but it was much smaller and spiritually inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple that the miracles would automatically rain down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
Of course, the problem wasn’t that God was gone, but that their hearts were far from him. Their worship was lethargic and empty of love or passion. They constantly complained about God’s lack of love and how he was unjustly punishing them. They even withheld their tithes because they were worried they wouldn’t have enough. It can be summarized in Malachi 3:13-15, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? What’s the point of following God? Where’s the gain in following all God’s rules, doing things His way, which is almost always harder, and then things just getting worse? God is the “Lord of hosts”, the “God of gods”, the “God of angel armies”, but where is He? The arrogant, self-willed, atheistic, non-believers all seem like they are doing better than us. And people who are outright committing evil, mocking God to His face, are getting away with it! What’s the point in believing in God when He never does anything to make our lives any better?
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. They were tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God and then losing every other battle to those which they used to conquer easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing, so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi doesn’t allow for that. Malachi comes to God’s defense. He reminds them that God is more than happy to bless them, but refuses to bless their sin. He reminds them that God was the one that chose Israel and has stayed committed to them, showing them great love even when they had completely turned their backs on Him, and then restored them back to their land. And what was their response? To worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? No… it was to grumble, complain and dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings – to withhold their worship, love, and obedience – to commit sexual sins, divorce each other, and marry unbelievers – to dishonour and live unjustly towards one another – and to live as hypocrites who say one thing and do another.
He tells them that they aren’t receiving God’s blessing right now because their hearts and lives are a mess… which is a story we’ve all heard so many times, right? Almost to the point we’re tired of it. I know I can start to feel that way.
God, where’s the good news!? Why is everything so hard? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. This world is a whole other thing. I don’t understand what the government are doing, corporations seem to be getting more powerful and sometimes more evil, people seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have crazy scientists who are doing all sorts of terrible things like creating human embryos and then destroying them, messing with human genetics, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
Our spirits cry out to God, we hit our knees, we cry out to God and nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for an hour or two, but invariably it all comes crashing back on us. Or worse, we come into church hoping for an uplifting message with some answers and just hear once again how our problems are somehow all our fault – and we go home feeling even more miserable. Seems to be the same story over and over, right?
Then it’s easy to slip into the mindset that Malachi was writing about: What’s the point of all this religious stuff? What’s the point of believing in God if things are just going to be miserable anyway? Where is God when all this insanity is going on? We hear stories about amazing things happening in India, China, and Florida – but what about Beckwith, or Ottawa? And like Israel, we get disillusioned and disappointed with God and start to back off our faith.
Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little more back each week because we are worried about the budget. We think, “God hasn’t given us enough money, so how can we afford to tithe?”
We start to skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries – after all, there’s lots of work to be done and attending church hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises about “finding joy in suffering”.
We start to indulge a little more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – and it gives us that little rush we weren’t getting when we were trying to connect with God. Sure, it produces some shame… but if we keep at it we know that the shame will eventually be quieter.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music, because it all just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either just as miserable or better off– and I don’t want to hear from either one of those people.
So we head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution, and they are more than happy to give us something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it just produces more guilt and we rarely pray, except to complain to God about how unfair life is, how He’s not doing His job, how if He’d just fix things then we’d come back to doing what we’re supposed to. But the prayer bounces off the roof, nothing changes, and we start to contemplate not only why we started to believe in the first place, but whether God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. That, by definition is hopelessness, and that’s not only where a lot of people are today, but where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, except for a few people, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? The simple answer is hope. “Hope that does not disappoint”, as Romans 5:5 puts it. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart and who were losing hope? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Open up to Malachi 3:16. After all the complaining and faithless and disobedient had had their say against God, another group immerges:
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God, there was one group that was still faithful, one group who had not bowed their knee to another god, one that had continued to remain obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How?
Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”. I’m sure most of you have gone camping and had a camp fire. These days they make you buy your wood from the store at the campground, and it’s really expensive, so you really need to enjoy every little piece. You start with a nice fire, but as the night wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, until there is only one little charred block, with a tiny flame, surrounded by orange embers. So what do you do? You stoke the fire, right? When the flames are dying down, and you’re all out of wood, what do you need to do to make sure it doesn’t go out? You bring the embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should be drawing together to keep the flames of faith alive. And what did they do? They spoke with one another. What did they speak about?
Hebrews 10:23-25 shows believers who were in a very similar situation. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
They confessed their hope to one another: “What brings you hope this week? How have you seen God this week? What do you remember of God’s covenant to us? How has He been faithful to you this week?”
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. “How have you been doing this week? How can we help you? How can we help others? Have you been caught in sin? How are you doing with forgiveness?”
What else did they speak about? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but you’re doing great. I know you feel lonely but I’m here. I know you feel your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I know you feel stuck, but I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it. Don’t give up!
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” Which all makes sense right? Sinning by drinking or doing drugs isn’t really going to help, right? But look what he says next, because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
Verse 19, “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? When the fires are going out in your heart? Satan will tell you to get alone. Turn away from God, away from friends, away from prayer, away from church, away from your spouse and children, to get alone – so you are an easier target. What does God say? Not just “Speak to each other.” But “sing to each other!”
He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, get together and sing to each other! Sing your praise, sing your thanks, sing about God, sing about Jesus… but not just to feel better, but out of submission and reverence for Jesus. When we sing songs of faith together our hearts knit together, and then fall before Jesus.
How do you fire up dying coals? Blow on them! So how do you encourage yourself when you feel your faith is dying? Draw together with other believers and speak and sing!
Elijah is John the Baptist
Let’s close by reading the end of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament, starting in 3:16 again,
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”
I can almost hear the words of the faithful in response to this, “Yes God! We will keep meeting together, keep remind one another, keep speaking your name and singing your songs. We believe you will completely save us one day. But when, God? When will you come and deal with the evil once and for all? When will you come and raise up your people like the sun? When will healing come? When will you tread down the wicked and cause us to leap for joy?
And God tells them the sign to wait for in 3:5 that will kick off this glorious time,
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Who was this one that would come right before the “great and awesome day of the Lord”? Who would come to prepare the land so it wouldn’t be “utterly destroyed”? According to the Bible and the words of Jesus it was John the Baptist, who would come and proclaim Jesus’ coming as Son of God and Saviour of the world. (Matthew 11:7-14; Luke 1:17).
Choose to Meet
Next week we enter into the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing ourselves for Christmas. I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you are looking forward to, and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know that for some of you, you’ve got so much going on in your life and in your souls that even the idea of celebrating Christmas seems like more of a chore than a blessing.
My encouragement to both of you is to keep doing the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then that’s great, come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses for people to get together and invite those from outside your usual circles so more people can encourage one another. And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations so you can be with your fellow believers more and more. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, and to find ways to sing and talk with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, that’s the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 Acosta, D. R. (2016). Lord of Hosts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.