Please open up to Luke 10:25–42, but before we read it I would like you to notice something as we read. I want you to notice that even though we are going to read two seemingly distinct stories, happening at different times and in different ways, they are actually very similar. Both are quite famous parts of scripture, but it’s sometimes forgotten that they give the same message. The first one is pretty easy to understand but the second one is more subtle. Let’s read it together.
“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.'”
So pause there a second. The beginning of this story makes it pretty easy to understand what’s going on, doesn’t it? Up comes a lawyer, who we already know is probably a bad guy because lawyers and Pharisees and Sadducees often came against Jesus to try to trap Him, trick Him, embarrass Him, or discredit Him – but they always end up losing to Jesus – until the end of the story where they break their own laws to crucify Him. So, by the fourth word we can have a pretty good idea that some shenanigans are about to go down.
What’s the context here? Everyone is sitting down somewhere and Jesus is in the middle of teaching when suddenly a Lawyer stands up to “test” Jesus. We don’t necessarily know his motivation is bad until we read the next verse, 29, which says,
“But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”
This lawyer had come to hear Jesus teach, and had either been impressed by Him or was getting progressively more upset at Him, but at some point pops up out of the group to ask Jesus the most difficult, important question he can think of: “How can I inherit eternal life?” Or, how can someone be saved from sin and death?
Remember, this is a Lawyer and in his mind, and in the mind of many Jewish people at the time, because of the teachings of the Lawyers and Pharisees, the way to impress God, to make God happy, to gain favour with God, to get eternal life with Him, was to obey the Laws of Moses.
That’s why they had devised so many extra laws on top of them. God said, “Don’t use my name in vain.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees said, “Ok, no one is allowed to say the name of God at all, ever, or even write it down.” God said, “Rest on the Sabbath.” So the Lawyers and Pharisees devised lists and lists of rules about every part of life – how far to walk, how to eat, how to wash, how many knots you can tie in a rope. So many rules that God’s “day off to rest and worship” became a terrible burden and frustration to the people. But if God wanted obedience and eternal life was at stake, better safe than sorry, right?
So that’s the mindset that this man had when talking to Jesus. Rules and laws make people holy and win God’s favour. So Jesus’ answer to Him is perfectly tailored: “What do you think God’s Law say about Eternal Life?” And the Lawyer gives the right answer. “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbour as much as you love yourself.”
But here’s the thing, and this is something everyone here understands and struggles with – me included. Knowing the right answer and understanding what it means are two different things. And then, understanding what the right answer means and then living by that truth are two different things too!
I’m reading through Pilgrims Progress again and just finished the part where a character named Faithful has had a conversation with someone he meets on the road named Talkative. It’s a really interesting encounter and I highly recommend you read the whole book, but it essentially goes like this. The main character, Christian, is walking with his friend Faithful and they’ve been having a great conversation. As they walk, they catch up to a man named “Talkative” who Christian knows but Faithful doesn’t. Christian hangs back so as to not have to walk with Talkative, but Faithful trots on ahead to strike up a conversation. Things seem to go pretty well because Talkative is really good at talking – and doesn’t care what the subject is. Faithful is quite impressed with how godly and religious Talkative is and falls back see what’s up and invite Christian to join the conversation.
Christian grins at his friend and says, “This man whom you are so taken with is fooling you just as he’s fooled so many before.” Faithful is surprised because Talkative seems like he knows so much about God and religion and faith, but after a while Christian basically says, “If you want to see what Talkative is really like, go ask him to talk not only about religion but ask him plainly how his belief Jesus has changed His heart and life.”
Faithful does so and it doesn’t take long until Talkative gets so offended and angry that he takes off. It seems that even though Talkative loved chatting about religion and theology and faith – he had allowed none of it to penetrate his heart and change his life.
It’s the same with this Lawyer, and most of the other religious leaders Jesus bumps into. They knew a tonne of scriptures, had memorized the entire Old Testament and had been trained to be experts in debate and interpretation – but as much as they knew about God’s Law, they had completely missed having a relationship with the Lawgiver. As much as they worked hard to obey the Laws, they had forgotten Who had written them and why they had been written in the first place – not to burden God’s people but freedom, not to separate them from God but to show them how to grow closer to Him, not to be a hammer to pound on their fellow citizens but a guide to help them know how to love one another and get along.
Who Is My Neighbour?
Jesus responds saying essentially, “Yes, your words are exactly right. If you love God and everyone else you come in contact with perfectly, you will have eternal life.” Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Our sinful nature makes this impossible. We can’t love God or anyone else perfectly because our sin not only clouds our judgement but makes us selfish and lazy. We cannot live in perfect love with anyone.
Notice that in the next part we see that the Lawyer jumps right past the “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” part because he thinks he does that already. Like the Rich Young Ruler, he believes that he has obeyed the entire law perfectly. Therefore, he assumes, he must love God perfectly. But, then, maybe because his conscience has been tweaked by something he’s done, or because he wants to impress the crowd or trap Jesus, the Lawyer asks one more question. “…who is my neighbor?”
Why did he ask this? Because as a Lawyer, he wants to know the boundaries of the law. What’s the limit, the line, the border that can’t be crossed? How far can I go before I’ve broken the law? It’s the same with us, right? Just consider when we’re driving. The speed limit is 70, but how much can we get away with before we actually get in trouble? 75? 80? How much checking our cell phone is too much? How far do I have to go before I absolutely have to wear my seatbelt? How long does the red light have to be red before I’m in trouble? What if it turns red as I’m driving through? Our question isn’t “How can I obey this law perfectly?” but “How much can I get away with before I’m in trouble?” That shows the sin in our heart. That’s what the lawyer was doing here.
“Ok, so I know God says I’m supposed to love my neighbour, but who, technically, does that include? How big of a circle can I draw before the people outside of it don’t matter? Who can I offend without worrying about it? Who can I ignore without God caring? Who can I hate and despise while still being able to say I love my neighbour?” From verse 30 Jesus gives the very famous answer.
“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’”
Jesus tells the story of The Good Samaritan and gives a lot of details. Everyone would assume the victim was a Jew, and everyone knew that the trip between Jerusalem and Jericho was full places where people could get mugged and left for dead. Then come two good, law-abiding, religious, Jewish leaders, a priest and a Levite, who knew that God’s law said that if they touched a dead body they would be defiled and ceremonially unclean and therefore unable to perform their duties in the temple. So, better safe than sorry, they ignore the man so they can keep doing their jobs in the temple. Seems harsh, and the average person would have thought this wasn’t very nice, but the Lawyer, presumably, completely understood. But then the story takes a weird turn. Next comes a Samaritan. Jews hated Samaritans with pure, racist hatred. For a Samaritan to be the hero of a Jew would have been scandalous. But there it was.
If you’re having a tough time grasping the story, maybe think of the story this way: A man who had just finished working late at night in downtown Ottawa was walking up the stairs of a parking garage. It was Saturday at 2am, he was tired and already had his keys in his hands, when suddenly a group of men came through the door, mugged him, beat him, took his car, and kicked him down the cement stairs.
Not long after another man, a surgeon at CHEO who had been called in to do emergency surgery on a child came up the stairs and saw the unconscious bleeding man. He knew he couldn’t risk infection or contamination, and was in a hurry, so he stepped over the man’s body and headed to his car. Next came the pastor of a local mega-church. He had been doing some late night counselling and was headed home for some much-needed rest before he had to preach in the morning. He saw the beaten man, stepped over him, and walked away.
Next, up the stairs, came another man, a pimp. He had spent the evening collecting money from the women under his employ and shooting scenes for his porn website. He was a little drunk, a little high, and his knuckles still hurt from having to get a little rough while he was collecting his dues. But when he saw the man lying on the stairs, he had compassion. He lifted him up, brought him to the hospital, made sure he got a room and then went to the gift shop to buy some magazines for when the man woke up. He even told the nurse that if no one came for the man to give him a call on his cell phone so he could help out.
Now look at verse 36,
“’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You go, and do likewise.’”
Jesus forced the Lawyer to answer his own question. He was looking for the borders and loopholes in the law and Jesus closed them tight. Who is your neighbour? Who does God want you to show love, compassion, and care to? Everyone.
The priest and the Levite were encumbered by their interpretation of the Law. In no way was God’s Law meant to be frustrating, burdensome, and an excuse to prevent someone from showing compassion, and yet they somehow managed to make it that way. Jesus wiped all that nonsensical interpretive garbage clean and forced the lawyer to admit the truth. The way to love God is not to nit-pick laws so you can find loopholes and excuses, but to love God by loving everyone as your neighbour.
Mary and Martha
But now we turn to the next story in the passage. Let’s read it, starting in verse 38,
“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’”
Do you see the echoes of the previous story? Jesus is teaching a group of people when someone stands up and asks Jesus a question that is very close to their heart. For the Lawyer, it was a question about the Law, but for Martha, it was a question about priorities. And both ended up the same way. What was the Lawyer trying to do when he asked, “Who is my neighbour?”? He was trying to justify himself. And what was Martha trying to do? To justify how busy and distracted she was.
But this story is much more subtle. In the first one, it’s a Lawyer – booo. He’s testing Jesus – booo. What’s Martha doing? She’s serving. And not just serving, she’s serving Jesus and the disciples! Martha welcomes Jesus, the famous Rabbi, and all of his disciples into her home. They would all need to have their feet washed, to be made comfortable, and to have a meal prepared for them. We don’t know how much help Martha had, but she clearly didn’t think it was enough. She was frazzled and distracted and anxious and getting angry.
But she wasn’t a bad guy like the Lawyer, was she? She was doing a good thing! Just like the Lawyer, she felt justified in her actions. He obeyed the law; she was a great and wonderful hostess, preparing extra special things for her guests. How could anyone look at Martha and criticize her? How could anyone compare her to the Lawyer? It’s easy to criticize the Lawyer, but super-servant, super-frazzled, Martha? Isn’t she just trying to do a good job for Jesus?
But what does Jesus say? Verse 41,
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’”
This whole section is telling the same story. How does one gain eternal life? Loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. How do we show that? We love our neighbour. Who is our neighbour? Everyone. How did the Jewish people mess this up? By believing that the way to love God is to work so hard to obey His Law that they actually offend, hurt, and ignore loving God and their neighbours. They became more concerned with how many knots they could tie, and how ceremonially pure they were, or how far walked – that they forgot to worship and enjoy God or show love and compassion for their fellow man.
Martha makes the same mistake. She has prioritized hosting, serving, and working, over loving Jesus and Mary. Was she doing something wrong? No. Was she breaking laws? No. But where was her heart? She was working so hard to serve her guests that she was no longer able to find joy in it. She wasn’t fuelled by love. She was fueled by frustration, anger, pride, and jealousy. She forgot that Jesus Christ, the miracle-working Son of God, the source of light and life, was sitting in her living room. She didn’t care what he was saying. She didn’t care that Mary had the privilege of listening. She only cared about her own plans and priorities to the point where this wonderful, gracious, generous host, who was so excited to have Jesus over – actually comes into the room and yells at her sister in front of Jesus, accuses Jesus of not caring, and then tries to tell Jesus what to do! “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” “C’mon Jesus. Chop chop! I clearly care more about these people than you do, Jesus. I clearly have a better grasp of what’s important. Tell my sister to stop listening to you.”
Her priorities were as messed up as the Lawyer’s. She wasn’t serving out of love. She wasn’t loving God – who was sitting in her living room – or loving her neighbour – who included her sister and Jesus. That’s why Jesus responds as he does. He says her name twice, probably to get her attention and to show dissatisfaction with her (He does this with Peter and Paul too (22:31, Acts 9:4)). And then He essentially says, “You think you’re priorities are right, but they’re not. You are so worked up, so upset, so troubled and anxious about all the serving you are doing that you have forgotten the most important things – to love God and your neighbour. All this serving is only driving you away from your guests, away from your sister, away from love, and away from Me.”
Martha was doing exactly what the Priest and the Levite did – using a good, legal excuse to be able to ignore loving someone. “I can’t love Mary right now, the sandwiches need to be made. I can’t listen to the teachings of Jesus right now, I have too much to do. I should walk in there and give Jesus and Mary a piece of my mind. I’m in the right here. Jesus is wrong.”
And not only were her priorities a mess, but she actually tried to suck Mary into her whirlwind. “Jesus, tell Mary to stop listening to you, stop learning from you, stop sitting in your presence, stop letting her sit in front of a Rabbi, doing something very few women were ever allowed to even do, and force her to be as distracted and upset as I am.”
Jesus says, “No Martha. You’re not right. Your heart isn’t right. Your priorities aren’t right. And you’re not going to cause Mary to stumble into your own sin.”
So what does that mean for us today? I think this is an appropriate message for the beginning of the year because the lesson here is something we all struggle with. Regardless of whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, we all are trying to figure out what’s wrong with us and how to improve our lives – whether that be our spiritual lives, our health, our relationships, or our careers. And as we try to come up with the game plans what will fix everything, it’s really easy to get our priorities out of whack.
The lesson in what we’ve read today teaches that a godly life doesn’t start with a list of rules and regulations, more knowledge and willpower, or trying to cut out all the toxic things in our life. Those aren’t bad things – just like Martha wanting to serve people and the Lawyer obeying the Law weren’t bad things – but they aren’t things that lead to eternal life, that lead to grace and hope and joy and peace.
What did we learn today? That in order to live a life of love, of service, sacrifice, obedience, and holiness, doesn’t come from a list of laws – it comes from a changed heart.
So before you do anything, before you decide on a diet, exercise routine, schedule, life plan, bible reading plan, spiritual retreat, marriage counselling, personal counselling, killing a habit, battling an addiction, or anything else, remember that it will be meaningless, even cause your love to grow cold and become callous to the things of God if you are not connecting with Jesus as your first priority. If you don’t, it won’t be long until you are either looking for loopholes like the Lawyer, or trying to drag other people into your personal tornado like Martha.
What does that look like? Well, consider that the Samaritan was a man living outside the Law of Moses but still had a heart for the things of God. So, it’s not about white-knuckling through the Bible-In-a-Year, or forcing yourself to wake up at 6am, or fasting so many days per week, or promising to be more generous and forgiving. It’s about connecting your heart to God, trusting that He will guide you, lead you, and help you.
Once you’ve settled in your heart that you need Jesus’ presence in your life more than anything else, things fall into place. When you come to a moment when you need self-control, you won’t trust your own rules and laws and willpower but will lean on Him and ask for help. As you trust His guidance, you’ll learn that sometimes your personal rules and outlook actually prevent you from doing his will – like the priest not helping the man who was attacked. You’ll learn how to be flexible, kind, and generous because you’re living by God’s priorities and not your own. And when you inevitably mess up, you won’t see yourself as a failure or a victim who should just give up, but as a sinner in need of a Saviour, a work in progress that God is ever forgiving and always willing to help.
My hope for you in 2019 is that you will begin by cultivating this attitude and mindset of faith. That you will know that life comes from loving God and others, but that love is not simply a list of rules and anxiety driven service driven by your own willpower and personal agenda – but a heart that has experienced the love of God and is allowing it to flow into the rest of your life. First to yourself, your family, and then to the world.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.
I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
Doing your devos discussed! We talk about what devotions are (and are not), why they’re important, and some practical ways to spend time with God.
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