Please open up to 2 Corinthians 1:3-10 and let’s read it together.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
Just pause there for a second. I know I just started, but I really need you to notice this: things weren’t going well for Paul, his missionary team, the other apostles, or the churches they had been planting.
Normally, at the beginning of his letters, Paul starts a bit more cheerfully by thanking God and pronouncing a blessing on the people he’s writing to, but he just sort of jumps in right here with the serious stuff.
If you remember our series in Corinthians you’ll remember that Corinth was a pretty rough place to be a Christian. It was full of temptations and pagan thinking, and as soon as Paul left town to plant other churches the Corinthian Church fell backward in a big way. That’s where we get 1st Corinthians. 2nd Corinthians was written to the same church, but things had gotten worse. Now, not only were false teachers taking over the church with unchristian teachings and practices, but those who had stayed faithful were facing all sorts of hardship. Nero had recently become emperor of Rome and we all know how much he hated Christians, so the persecution of believers was ramping up throughout the whole world.
Not only were there spiritual and personal problems within the church, but now Christians were starting to lose their jobs, get kicked out of the guilds, and having their ability to buy things for their family and sell things to make money stripped away. Their lives were in danger as they were being reported for false crimes, and their refusal to call Nero a “god” and bow to him as “lord” meant they were in danger of being tried and executed as enemies of the state. It was not a good time to be a Christian or a missionary.
So, when Paul opens up his letter here, he jumps right to what the Christians in Corinth needed to hear most. In light of all the danger, difficulty and frustration around them, he begins, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
What amazing words from a man who is afflicted, suffering, and “utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” – writing to people who were potentially suffering the same problems. Astonishing words from a man who thought he might die at any moment for the sake of the gospel – writing to people who might die at any moment because they believed.
Over and over these days we keep hearing that we are “living in unprecedented times” and need “unprecedented measures”. I googled that phrase – “unprecedented times” – and told google to show me results for only the past month. I got 15 million results. But these are not “unprecedented times”!
Even if we just go back 500 years we’ll see Martin Luther and all the doctors, politicians, and churches in his era facing the Bubonic Plague. Later, in the Fall of 1665 we see the “Great Plague of London”. Then, a couple hundred years later, in the fall of 1854, Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, faced a massive Cholera outbreak – and all of these were “as real and as impactful as what we are facing now”[i].
And, what’s interesting – but not too surprising when you think about it – is that you’ll read almost the same things from these pastors, doctors and politicians that you read in the news today: Make sure you wash your hands, don’t gather together in big crowds, and make sure you say your prayers. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9)!
The people who faced these times – whether it was Roman persecution or a pandemic – were just as confused and worried as we are.
That’s why it bugs me when people say these are unprecedented times. They’re not. Disease, sickness, and death are part of life. Suffering is the usual course of mankind. People being selfish and hoarding resources is nothing new. Watching politicians and rich people use the crisis to try to gain power, influence, and money is nothing new. Worrying over our families and neighbours because of unforeseen trouble is nothing new. And seeing people rise up to the occasion to spread hope, joy, and help to their fellow man, is also nothing new.
What Do We Do?
But it somehow always comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? Whether we get sick, someone we love dies, we get robbed, people try to capitalize on suffering, or the governing authorities mess up – we somehow always seem to react like it’s completely unexpected and has never happened to anyone else, ever. It seems to be human nature to get so myopic, so self-focused, so caught up in our own lives and moments, that we think that the whole universe not only revolves around us – but that we are so special that history began when we were born and no one else’s experience can compare to our own. But that’s not true, is it?
And so, with that in mind – taking the historical blinders off, opening our vision up beyond ourselves, and realizing that others have faced what we are facing – we must ask ourselves, “How did they get through it? How did they react? What did they stand on?”
Which brings us back to our scripture for today. Look back at verse 9. It begins, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” What did Paul do when he was faced with suffering, pain, sickness, persecution, and the threat of imminent death? How did he get through it? What words of hope did He give to the people he loved and served?
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”
Christian theology and belief is not separated from our real life experiences. The miracle of the Resurrection at Easter is not merely an historical event that we just fondly remember at this time of year – it is a truth that affects our daily lives. Christians exist, moment to moment, in light of the resurrection – and the further we get from that light, the less time we spend talking to God about it, meditating on it, reading about it, the more hopeless we become.
We’ve talked many times before about how important it is that we take what we know about the gospel in our heads and allow it to affect our hearts and our hands – how critical it is that we don’t merely say we believe, but actually live and think and love and hope, like the death of Jesus on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension, are the very air we breathe.
That’s why Paul could look at the “deadly peril” he was facing and say “There is some good to be found in this difficulty because it ‘makes us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead’”. And the more we rely on God, the better off we will be.
Paul said it this way in the 1st letter to the Corinthians:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)
Or to the Romans,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–32; 35–39)
These words were not written by a wealthy mega-church pastor, sitting in a clean office with an ensuite bathroom, surrounded by a bunch of middle-class church folks – these words were written by a suffering servant of Jesus who says his life felt like he was “being killed all day long”.
Where does that strength come from? Where can you find that kind of hope? How do you take another step, plant another church, face another shipwreck, do another day of travelling hungry, when the churches you plant are under attack, you’re constantly on the run from being stoned or lashed, and Emperor Nero, the cruelest ruler in Roman history, was only a few years away from burning Christians as human torches to light his dinner parties?
Or, for us today – how can you watch the news, read your Facebook feed, and live in the world today as the COVID19 Pandemic takes over our daily lives – as we lose more and more freedoms – as we told to isolate ourselves and live in fear? How do we face it?
If your hope is in “science” or “politicians” or “policies”, they will fail you. Their best attempts and intentions are still affected by human corruption and have yet to save the world from pain, disease, fear, and death. And they certainly haven’t shown themselves to have the power to raise the dead!
Your hope must be in the Risen Lord Jesus. You must rely, as our scripture today says, “not on yourselves but on God who raises the dead”. He is the only one who can deliver you from “deadly peril” – whether by preserving you from becoming ill, or by sending a miracle to make you well when you are sick, or by delivering you to heaven after you die. That is what is captured in the confident phrase of verse 10: “…and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” It is in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection that we find our comfort.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation, of everything else that Christians believe. All our theology – all our ministries – all our morality – all our preaching and teaching – all our values – our entire worldview rests on the historical fact that Jesus Christ really died on the cross, was really buried in a tomb for 3 days, and then really rose again from death to life, and still lives today. It’s the single, most important belief in Christianity – and it is constantly under attack by unbelievers, and sometimes even overlooked or ignored by those who claim to be followers of Jesus. They’re fine with Jesus as a good moral teacher, but they stumble over the resurrection. But when they do, they miss the entirety of the gospel.
The Corinthian church had this problem too, and Paul addressed it in 1 Corinthians 15. Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 15:12 and let’s read it together:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)
I don’t intend to go into the evidences for the resurrection, because that’s not really the point of today’s message – but I do commend you to read “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel or even watch the movie.
Today, I’m talking to believers, to Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are plagued with fear and worry about what’s happening in the world around them, to the people they love, and within their own hearts.
My message to you today is that when there is so much uncertainty in the air, so much misinformation and confusion, so many people grasping at temporary salvation through extreme measures and putting their hopes in human efforts, that you will remember that everything you are going through is an opportunity to remember that you cannot rely on yourself or anyone else to save you from death, or to bring you joy, or give you the hope that will bring you through this time – you must connect with and trust the God who raises the dead, the Holy Spirit He sent to live within you, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who has promised to deliver you. Are you talking to Him every day? Are you living in the light of the resurrection and the presence of the risen Lord?
Let me close with this: I want you to notice that there are three sources of comfort mentioned in our passage today that we should be availing ourselves of every day. Look back at 2nd Corinthians 1:3.
Of course, the primary comfort is the one that I’ve been talking about already – the comfort that comes from knowing our future is secure because of the Risen Lord Jesus – but there are two more.
The first comfort mentioned is the comfort of God the Father. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…” Every day, every moment, your Heavenly Father is ready and willing to grant you peace and joy in the midst of your trials. Are you coming to Him every morning, every afternoon, every night – reading His word, talking to Him in prayer, singing to Him songs of praise, sitting silently and meditating on His truths – so He can fill up your very, very leaky cup?
The second comfort mentioned is each other. “…The Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
We who are receiving comfort from God, are given that comfort not only for ourselves, but so that we can pass it on to others. When we feel lonely, afraid, weak, or sick – an then God meets us in our affliction, making us feel strong because God is strengthening us, it is our responsibility, to make purposeful contact with people who are weak. God meets us in our loneliness so we can share that grace with someone else who is lonely. God gives us hope and joy to combat our fears – and then tells us to go share what we have experienced with someone else who needs to hear it. God strengthens our feeble hands when they are weak so that we can serve others who need it! He doesn’t just meet us in our affliction for our own sake – but so that we will meet others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Are you being a source of joy and hope for your immediate family, for your extended family, and for the people in your church – even those not in your usual circle? Are you talking to God every day, feeling His presence – and then using that strength to making the phone calls, sending the texts and emails, and spread that hope and joy to others?
And to those who need comfort – are you allowing not only God but other believers to bring it to you? Are you making yourself available to them, picking up the phone, responding to texts, connecting wherever you can so that they can point you to Jesus?
This is how we will get through this time. By meditating on the resurrected Lord Jesus and the hope that brings us. By using that meditation to connect ourselves to God the Father through the Holy Spirit, the One who raised Jesus from the dead. And by taking the strength we receive from Him and spreading it to the people around us who need it.
It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there ever were heavens or an earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance – it was “Created”. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divinity with us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease was unheard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that something they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of good, they wanted the knowledge of evil too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, He can’t be in relationship with evil. He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of their decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that creation was tainted, marred, effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. And, as God had promised, they would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Now, even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started overusing Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we will even want to get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save Jacob’s family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God raised Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a couple hundred years, until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.
He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year, where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before the Fall.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just like the flood didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away from the Law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even praying to and making sacrifices to wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more saving work that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened but it was really just an endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But there was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even participated in child sacrifice. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law-giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that He picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
Humanity was in a miserable state and needed One who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built roads and laws and a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift – but He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) were looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge, and spread the good news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love, and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. God comes to save us – and we murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story.
Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than one who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire, it isn’t sickness or sadness… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.
Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.
This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.
Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?
That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!
And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.
This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.
It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.
Starving for God
Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)
He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.
Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.
There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,
“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.
If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.
1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 says this,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.
Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,
“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”
As Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)
This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.
The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.
Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.
But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.
What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.
I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.
“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)
How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.
But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.
Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
A lot of us are like those two followers walking down the road to Emmaus. They start out, perplexed, anxious, disappointed in how things have turned out, confused about God’s plan, talking to one another about things they don’t understand, and hoping that if they keep walking away, that somehow they will leave their problems behind them. They wanted God to solve their problems and make them happy, but somehow that wasn’t God’s plan. So they’re disappointed with God, with Jesus, and are walking away.
Some are like those two when they’re a little farther down the road when, even though Jesus is walking alongside them, even talking to them, they don’t recognize Him or His presence. They are believers, but because of their sin, doubt, fear, or pride – because their focus is on themselves and their troubles – are blind to the presence of Jesus, unable to see, hear, or understand what He’s saying. Even though Jesus offers His word and an explanation of the entire story from beginning to end, they don’t get it because their hearts are darkened to Him.
And then there are those who have had that “aha” moment with Jesus, where they’ve finally figured out who Jesus is, recognize His person and His power, realize He is the one that the whole Bible is talking about, and whose hearts burn within them to know more. In the story in Luke, once Jesus leaves them, they jump up and run back to the city of Jerusalem so they can find others to share their story of hope with.
Everyone is somewhere on this path.
Paul and Corinth
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 15:1-21. This passage is written by the Apostle Paul, a man who walked every part of that path with more intensity than any of us will ever experience. Paul is mostly known as a dedicated missionary of the gospel of Jesus who travelled all around the ancient world preaching, teaching, and planting churches in the name of Jesus. Paul was not always a missionary though. Paul wasn’t even his birth name. When he was born he was Saul, the son of a strict Jewish family who were also Roman citizens. When he was young he likely not only studied under a rabbi but also attended Greek school at the same time. Then, in his teens, moved to Jerusalem where he was given the chance to study under one of the most famous Jewish teachers of all time, Gamaliel. Paul eventually becomes a Pharisee – the strictest and most hard-core followers of the Law of Moses. And Saul was the top of his class. He was the most hard-core of the hard-core. It was the Pharisees that spent the most time antagonizing and attacking Jesus and Saul was most likely in Jerusalem when Jesus was there. It’s very likely that the two of them crossed paths, with Paul on the side of the Pharisees, not Jesus.
We are first introduced to Saul as a young man of around 20 or 30 years old, holding the clothes for an angry mob that were stoning the first Christian martyr, a man named Stephen. Saul hated Jesus and he hated Christians. He hated Jesus and his followers so much that he made it his personal mission to destroy them. He saw Jesus as a condemned and crucified blasphemer and anyone who believed in Him as worthy of the same punishment.
Acts 8:3 says that “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” He likely had his hand in the suffering and death of many Christians. Saul was a powerful, intelligent, influential, man on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. Until Jesus did.
Jesus didn’t come walking beside him though. There was no gentle invitation. Instead, as Saul was headed into another town to rout out the Christians, Jesus blasted a light from heaven, knocked Saul to the ground, and said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”. Not “my followers”, but “me”. Saul spent three days, blind and trembling. He couldn’t eat or drink. His whole life was turned upside down. Everything he thought he knew was wrong.
A few days later Jesus sends one of his followers, Ananias to cure Saul’s blindness and baptize him as a new believer. Over the next days and years, Saul would reorient everything he had ever been taught and realize it all pointed to Jesus. He had memorized the whole Old Testament and suddenly everything he thought he knew was wrong – but those scriptures and prophecies started to make a lot more sense. Jesus walked with Him and explained the scriptures, just as He did to those followers on the road to Emmaus. Paul meditated, prayed, and spent time talking and listening to Jesus until He had that “aha” moment about God’s upside-down kingdom. The crucified Lord made sense. The gospel made sense. The life of Jesus made sense. God as a suffering servant made sense. The only thing that didn’t make sense was why Jesus, the one who he hated so much, would save him. Why would Jesus show love to the one associated with the people who got Him crucified, and who had tried to destroy His people! Saul never forgot that amazing grace. So he changed his name to Paul and took that message to as many people as he possibly could – suffering every injustice and pain imaginable so more people could hear.
So that’s the author of our passage today. Now, consider the audience. Paul was writing to the Corinthians, a church in the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was a town full of pagan idols, temples, and activities. It was a cosmopolitan, port town with lots of money and people. Paul came into this town a bit of a wreck. He had some bad experiences on the road and when he got to Corinth he was almost ready to quit being a missionary altogether. But Corinth accepted him, listened to his simple messages, and a church was formed. And they were so excited too! Imagine living your whole life on the Las Vegas strip, surrounded by sin and lies and temptation, but add to that believing that the gods you worship are fickle, angry, at war with each other, even easily bribed. It is a life out of control. But then you hear the Gospel of Jesus. That there is One God above all and He loves you, accepts you, and wants to save you. That this God didn’t just love a certain group of people, but even loved messed up pagans like you, and was willing to not only save you from hell, but change your life here and now, to give you a hope and a purpose, and affect your life so utterly that you could put away all the garbage in your life and live with Him as your one God, through whom you would find true peace and joy.
Corinth was a city of darkness and Jesus came to them like a beam of light. Corinth was a land of spiritual thirst and Jesus came to them as the one who quenched that thirst.
But Paul had to move on to plant other churches, and it wasn’t long until the darkness crept into the church and started to corrupt it. They started letting pagan worship practices come in. They started arguing with one another. They fought and even sued one another. Then came the sexual temptations and drunkenness where people were using the freedom of the gospel to excuse all kinds of depravity, even worse than the pagan temples – and they were bad. Then the other side of the church overcorrected and started banning everyone from doing almost anything – no marriage, no meat, no holidays, no nothing. It wasn’t long until they started letting false teachers take the pulpit, men who would deny the resurrection of Jesus and draw people away. The church, in quite short order, became a mess of compromise, division, and corruption. Paul heard about this and though he couldn’t leave the church where he was, he wrote a letter to them. We call this letter 1st Corinthians.
The passage I’m about to read is in chapter 15. Paul has already been writing about how their sin was destroying the joy and peace they once had in Jesus, but he was building to something. In Chapter 12 he tells them that under Jesus they shouldn’t be divided but united – and not in a boring, cookie-cutter, sameness, but in appreciation of their differences. In Chapter 13 he tells them that the only way to do this is by letting the entire motive for everything they do be love. In Chapter 14 he gives more examples, but then in Chapter 15, right before he closes his letter, he tells them how, and why, they should take all this so seriously.
Why should they fight temptation? Why should they humble themselves and seek unity? Why should they study the Bible and get their theology and practice right? Why choose a life of humility, sacrifice, and temperance when all around them were opportunities for self-aggrandizement, power, and pleasure? And even if they wanted to, how could this wreck of a church actually come back to Jesus? Surely He was done with them. Surely they were too far gone.
But Paul remembers his own story, and how much it mirrored theirs. If anyone was “too far gone” it was him. And he knows that the amazing grace of Jesus, the gospel of Jesus Christ, has the power to utterly and completely change lives. The same power that rose Jesus from the dead, that turned him from Saul to Paul, was available to them. The hope and power they knew at first wasn’t gone, it was still there.
How could they access it? By remembering what happened on day one when Paul first arrived and preached that first message. By going back to what they first believed. By dumping all the garbage that had come up in their lives, their homes, their relationships, their church, their city, and their nation – and by getting back to the foundation of their faith. By seeing their sin for what it was, the ploy of the enemy to draw them away from Jesus toward their previous, hopeless, shame-filled life. To turn away from the mess that Jesus had saved them from and back toward Jesus. They had already been saved by Jesus, empowered by God, and had the presence of the Holy Spirit – but they had forgotten. All they had to do was remember.
And so Paul says in Chapter 15:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”
The Resurrection Is EVERYTHING
I saw an article online this week where BBC radio called 2000 people to ask them about their beliefs about Christianity for a program they were putting on Palm Sunday in 2017. They discovered that only 35% of the people that called themselves Christians believe the biblical account of the resurrection of Jesus, and only 61% even believed in life after death. Then what do they believe? Why are they even calling themselves Christians? And Canada isn’t so different in their statistics. Western Christianity is not so different from the Corinthian church 2000 years ago. We are just as affected by our culture, just as forgetful.
In our world today we sometimes forget why the Christian church exists. Some people think it’s here as a place to get together as a community once a week for some fun and support. Others see it as a place where morality is taught so kids can know right and wrong. Others see it as a political organization, a motivated group gathered to promote either conservative or liberal values, depending on whether you prefer talking about the economy or social justice. Some people see the church as a way to network so they can make friends and business partnerships. Others see the church as the keepers of culture and tradition, a place to be married and buried, maybe visited on important holidays, but not really something that affects daily life. Others see it as a place for idiots and rubes to get another injection of blind-hope and be duped out of their money by corrupt leaders.
Why do we exist? Why are we here today? Why are we making a big deal of this thing we call Easter, the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is it tradition? Is it just part of our culture? Is it to make some kind of allegorical point about sacrifice? Is it just an excuse to get together, sing some songs, think big thoughts, and eat some treats?
No, the Christian church exists to proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why we’re here. Everything else – our community work, good deeds, hospitals, orphanages, music, art, education, traditions, everything, is meaningless without the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do good works so people will see the risen Jesus. We open hospitals and orphanages and schools to give mercy and sacrificial care to needy people because Jesus has shown mercy to us when we had need, and so we can share the gospel with them, telling them that they don’t just need medicine and a home, but the healing of their souls. We create masterpieces of music and art not merely to celebrate the death of Jesus, but because of His resurrection. His death is only worth painting in the light of His resurrection. Otherwise, the story isn’t one of victory, but tragedy.
As Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If the resurrection isn’t real, if we’re just here for pancakes and some nice music, to read from a book full of lies and prophecies that never came true, to sing songs about a made up fiction, and to go home in the same condition in which we came – no closer to God, no more holy, no more meaning, no more hope – because the resurrection didn’t happen, then we are above all most to be pitied.
If Jesus isn’t alive, then there is no answer to sin, no meaning to our suffering, and we’re all doomed to either oblivion or hell. If Jesus isn’t alive, then sin and death have won. If Jesus isn’t alive, then everyone who has ever died is either gone forever into a meaningless void or has been doomed to hell because they died still condemned, because their faith was in the wrong person. If Jesus isn’t alive, and all this church has to offer is some false “hope in this life only”, and a few moral nuggets that you can take or leave, then what’s the point? Why live like a Christian if Jesus is dead?
Jay Adams defined Christian Preaching as “preaching that will get you thrown out of a synagogue or mosque.” Because for a message to be a Christian message, it must say something about Jesus that no one else says. A message that is not only distinct but radical and offensive to those who don’t believe it. A Christian life, a life lived in the light of the resurrection cannot look like a pagan life, a Buddhist life, a secular life. Our beliefs are not interchangeable. For a Christian life, and Christian message to be Christian, it must show that Jesus is unlike anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus is more than telling people to be good and moral and honest. It’s more than showing people how to do life. It’s more than learning bible verses that look good on mugs and pillows and tattoos. It is about finding our sufficiency in Jesus because Jesus is the only one who lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, and then rose again after being buried in a tomb, conquering sin and death, showing Himself to hundreds of witnesses, and creating a movement where so many people have met Him – have personally met the risen Lord – that they are willing to give everything, even to die, to share the message of salvation with others .
The Resurrection is E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.
This is why it is so utterly heartbreaking and aggravating to see Christians and churches that miss the point, who forget about living in the light of the resurrection so they can concentrate on other things. It’s like watching someone brag about how great their house looks, while it’s on fire. It’s like hearing someone brag about getting a new stereo in a car that doesn’t have an engine or wheels. It’s like someone saying how attractive their girlfriend is, even though it’s a corpse they covered in make-up and propped up against a wall. Christianity without the resurrection isn’t just pointless, it’s bizarre, even disgusting. It brings no glory to God and offers no hope to anyone. It’s an exercise is religious futility.
This is also why it’s so painful for us to see a life lived without Jesus, good or bad. Christians, you know this feeling. You know what it’s like to see someone that is either utterly wasting away because of their slavery to sin, or who have such wonderful gifts but are only using them for their own glory. Or, perhaps worse, you know what it’s like to watch a person grow up in church, learn all the lingo, go through the motions of attending Sunday School, saying the prayer of salvation and getting baptized – but then to realize their faith had no roots, and they never did know Jesus. They head into high school or college and before long you realize that it was all pretending.
Why does that hurt so much? If the point of Christianity was about giving some moral lessons and traditions, then what more can you ask? But if Christianity means having a living, dynamic relationship with the risen Lord Jesus Christ – then seeing people enslaved to sin, living an empty, secularly successful life, or knowing people who only pretended to be believers – is soul-crushing. Why? Because everything they do is still soaked in sin.
We see a life full of good things – but know that since they didn’t know the resurrected Jesus, they died under the curse and went to Hell. What a heartbreaking waste. We look at their impact, the followers they gather, the children they have, the work they do, how beautiful and successful people say they are – but then realize they spent their whole lives under the influence of Satan and that everyone who followed them was pointed toward death, and they stand in judgment before God for the people they corrupted.
The resurrection is everything because it is the foundation of reality, hope, purpose, meaning, and life itself. A life not lived in the light of the resurrection is a wasted life – a dangerous life – a meaningless life.
Why? Because if you don’t know the resurrected Jesus, then you are like those disciples on the road to Emmaus – walking away from Jerusalem – before Jesus came to them. You are lost, though you think you know where you are going. You are believing lies, even though you think you know the truth. You are trying to find meaning and security where there is none. You are trying to discern what to do with your life while living in the dark. You are trying to find purpose among utter chaos, direction with no compass. Without knowing Jesus, all of your efforts to find peace, hope, and meaning, is like using your own strength to pull light out of a black hole.
So, my question to you today is this: Where are you on the Emmaus Road?
If you are a Christian, are you living in the light of the resurrection? Do you live each day in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ? Living each day like He is real, available, present, and willing to walk with you every step of the way? Does your relationship with the living, Lord Jesus make a difference in your daily life? Do you talk to Him about your hopes, fears, worries, plans, needs, and desires, knowing that He is near and willing to protect and guide? Or do you live as though you believe a story that happened 2000 years ago? I challenge you to examine yourself. Are you walking with the risen Lord Jesus each day?
If you are not a Christian, have you looked into the most important event in human history? Have you spent time thinking about it, reading about it, and talking about it – even if it’s uncomfortable, even if you know that believing it is a terrible risk? Have you felt the Holy Spirit tugging at your conscience, placing people in your life to tell you about Jesus, pointing you away from sin and death, and inviting you towards life – but you’ve been pushing them aside because you are afraid, or because your pride keeps telling you that your way is better? My challenge to you is to study the resurrection, talk about it with people, and seek the truth – and then, when you have done that and realize that it’s true – to submit yourself to what God has been trying to do in you, accept that amazing grace, turn away from your sins, ask God’s forgiveness, believe that Jesus died for those sins and rose again to destroy them forever, and follow Him from now on as your Risen Lord.
“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
If you were to ask people what their favourite day of the year is, you’ll get a lot of answers. For some, it’s a holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween. For some, it’s tied to a cultural festival like New Years or Hanukkah or Cinco De Mayo. Others are more personal and will tell you it’s their Birthday or a special Anniversary that is meaningful to them. Usually, these days are chosen because of the events surrounding them, the pomp and circumstance, or the special memories that come to mind on that day.
But what if you change the question slightly? What if instead of asking people what their “favourite” day is you ask them what the “most important” day of the year is. That takes it out of the personal realm and makes people think more about how that day impacts others.
I googled “What is the most important day of the year?” and came up with some interesting answers. My favourite of which was from one dude on the internet. And he super likes this day. Can you guess which day it is?
And apparently, he really likes “Earth, Wind and Fire” too – but then again, who doesn’t?. When asked “What does September 21st mean to you?” His answer was: “Absolutely nothing. And hopefully it means even less in the coming years.” If that’s not commentary on modern life, I don’t know what is.
Good Friday or Easter?
If you ask a group of Christians what the most important day of the year is, you’d think you’d get a consistent answer, but you won’t. There are some pretty important days in the Christian calendar and it’s easy to make an argument for why they would all take the lead. Christmas was when the God of the Universe was incarnated as a human baby – that’s a pretty big deal. If there was no Christmas then there would be no Jesus, no New Testament, no Christianity, right?
Other believers will tell you that Good Friday is the most important day of the year. That was the day when Jesus died on the cross, having the wrath of God poured on Him instead of us, dying so anyone who would believe in Him would live. That’s a pretty huge day. If there was no Good Friday, there would be no cross, no salvation, no restoration of lost sinners to God, no freedom from sin.
We’re here today celebrating Easter as another super important day in history – the day that Jesus rose from the dead, proving everything He said to be true, showing Himself to be God and Messiah and Saviour. No one else has ever done that.
So you can see why Christians are torn on which day is most important and why we make such a big deal of this season – why our whole Christian year, our worship services, our songs, our sermons, our prayers, so many of our conversations and meetings, revolve around what happened over these three days.
If you were to ask the Apostle Paul what the most important day was, he would say it this way: from 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” What is of “first importance” to Christians? What’s the most important thing that all believers need to remember at all times? The death of Jesus on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. They are inseparable.
Of First Importance
Please open up in your Bibles (or the ones in the pew in front of you) to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and let’s look at that passage together. Verses 1-11 have already been read today and I want to spend some time going through this section to see why the events of Good Friday and Easter are so important – not only to Christians but to everyone.
Right off the start, from verse 1 we read,
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
This is the final section of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. He’s gone through a lot of topics so far. He’s spoken about everything from theology to culture, worship to family issues, and more, and now he’s come to the end of the letter and wants to make sure that above everything else he’s written they remember one thing: “the gospel”.
What is the gospel? It’s explained in the verses we just read. The gospel is the good news, the message about Jesus and which they received and believed – but had gotten off track from. They had messed up a lot of things in their life and church, and he had told them a lot of ways to fix it, but above all, if there was one thing that was going to bring them back from the brink it would be this: Remember the Gospel.
What does that mean? It means that even though that when Paul was with them he had taught them a lot about God, the Bible, life, and morality, there was one message that was over, under and around all of these things: the Gospel. One foundational message that everything else stood on: that God became a man, died, was buried and rose again.
The Foundation of Everything
If you’ve ever been on a sports team or been a coach or done anything at a competitive level, there’s one thing that you keep being told. Whether you are playing intermural floor hockey or competing for the Stanley Cup in the NHL there is one thing that stays consistent: “The Fundamentals”. When things go wrong at the highest level, what do they say: “We weren’t sticking to our game. We got too fancy. We forgot the fundamentals.” When they’re asked how they’re going to win, they never say, “Trick plays and fancy footwork”, right? No, that’s why the interviews and “keys to the game” are so repetitive and boring: “Stay focused, solid goaltending, get pucks on the net, execute the plays, do the fundamentals.”
That’s kind of what Paul is doing here. He just wrote them a huge, complicated letter addressing a lot of subjects, but then at the end he says, “Guys, none of this matters if you forget the fundamentals, the basics, the foundation of everything: that God loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to take your punishment, to die on the cross, to be dead and buried for three days, and then rise again on the third day. Everything else starts to make sense once you get that into your heart.”
And it does! Pick an issue. Pick a problem. Pick a crisis. Maybe you have a broken heart. Bad self-image issues. Maybe you live with anxiety, fear, depression, or anger problems. Maybe you are a child of divorce or were abused. Maybe you were the abuser, you did the bad stuff, you hurt people. Maybe you are lonely, or overwhelmed, or exhausted. Maybe you are childless, or your body is sick, you have needs, or you are going through a confusing situation.
It’s in these moments that our souls want to cry out to God for help, but then we stop ourselves because we aren’t sure if God listens to one person’s problems, if God cares about us, if God is real, if God is kind. Does God care about my feelings, how I look, whether I have friends? Does God know what it’s like to be anxious, afraid, sad, or angry? Does God know what it means to be abandoned and abused? What does God think of people who have done terrible, selfish things? What does God think of abusers? Are they beyond hope? Does God know what it’s like to be lonely and exhausted and overwhelmed? Has God ever been bent over with emotion, so exhausted that He couldn’t stand, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” to the point of sweating blood? Has he faced political problems, religious problems, relationship problems, sickness, tragedy, fear, pain, and death? The answer is yes. Jesus knows what that’s like.
Isaiah 53:3 describes him as, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Jesus, the Son of God to whom all glory is due, gave it up. Why?
Why go through that? Why leave heaven, leave the Father, leave the perfection of beauty and the worship of angels to face a life of pain, rejection, shame, betrayal, and crucifixion?
Isaiah 53:4 continues with the answer:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Jesus, the Great Shepherd, saw us as sheep that had gone astray, lost in the dark woods, torn to pieces by the wolves of temptation and sin, dead by our own choices – and then, the Great Shepherd became a sheep. He came into the dark, faced the wolves, and traded places with us. He died so we could live. In heaven he God has no grief, no sorrow, but Jesus came to earth to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows. All the wrath God had against sinners – all his hatred for those who had insulted Him, blasphemed Him, broke His laws, spread hate, destroyed others with their lust, stole from Him and each other, lied and murdered – would be placed on Jesus. Why?
For the love of sinners. He did it so it there would be no one who would not have grace available to them – no matter how bad they are, no matter what they’ve done – no one would be lost forever if they would admit they are a sinner, turn away from their sin, turn toward Jesus, and ask forgiveness in His name.
When we start at the gospel, building everything we know about God and this world on the foundation of the story of Jesus – when we start to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18), then everything else starts to come clear.
Are you loved and valuable? Is there someone who sees you as beautiful and worthy of kindness? Yes, so much God traded His one and only Son for you. Is there someone that knows what is going on in the depths of your heart, has faced the same issue perfectly and is willing to help you? Yes, Jesus stands ready at every moment to hear your prayer and help you. Is there someone who has seen the bad you have done, the sin you’ve committed, the hurt you’ve caused, and will still forgive you, clean you up, welcome you into His arms, and give you a new mission in life? Yes. Jesus died for your sins so you could have a new life in him.
And this understanding, this truth that we call the Gospel, fills us up and then spills onto others. How can we forgive someone who hurt us? By realizing how much we have been forgiven by God. How can we know our lives have meaning and purpose? Because God’s word says as long as we have breath, God has something for us to do. How can we know that our sufferings, the worst years of our lives, weren’t wasted? How can we find meaning in such deep pain? Because of the cross and the empty tomb. The worst day in human history, the day sinners tortured and killed the most perfect, most valuable person to ever live – the most unjust, cruel, terrible day ever, led to the greatest miracle, the most important day in history, as God attributed Jesus death to us. When Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday we see that the most terrible day become the most glorious day as man’s greatest enemies were utterly destroyed.
Look back at 1 Corinthians 15 all the way down to verse 54 and see the power of the empty tomb:
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Without Jesus we are perishable, swallowed up by sin, stung by death, overpowered by temptation, disloyal, changeable, fruitless and labouring in vain. But when we turn our lives to Jesus, everything changes: The fear of death becomes powerless. We are no longer slaves to temptation. We become stable, abounding in the knowledge that so long as we are following Jesus, no matter what happens, the labor is not in vain. Or in the words of John Newton from Amazing Grace,
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
But How Can We Know For Sure?
This all sounds well and good, but how can we know for sure this is true? Is it all based in our feelings? Are we simply to take it on faith? Is it all about that tingle in the spine, that twist in the gut? How do we know this isn’t just a comforting thought that someone came up to give weak, stupid people comfort?
Turn back to 1 Corinthians 15 and let’s read in verse 3 again,
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
We can know this is true for two reasons: First, because this was all “in accordance with the scripture” and second, because there were so many witnesses to the empty tomb.
In Accordance with Scripture
The passages I read to you from Isaiah 53, which accurately describe the events of Good Friday, were written almost 700 years before Jesus was born. God’s plan of salvation, Jesus dying on the cross and rising again, wasn’t an afterthought, wasn’t a way of making a bad situation into a good one – it was the plan since the beginning. We read about the coming of Jesus in prefigures and prophecies in every book of the Old Testament – from Genesis to Malachi. This shows the power and accuracy of the Bible.
Nothing is ever out of control for God. Even the worst day in history was planned out ahead of time and told about in scriptures. God gave His people hope by telling them how they would one day be saved. One way we can know that all of this is true is because of the Bible. It holds up to scrutiny and shows us that God is trustworthy and has a plan.
The Empty Tomb
The second evidence that everything I’m saying about Jesus is true is how many witnesses there were to crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is why the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday are both of “first importance”.
When this was written Cephas, also known as Peter, was still alive. So were the other apostles. You could literally ask them what they saw. But not only them, hundreds of other people saw Jesus alive after being dead and buried, and most of them were alive too. Jesus’ own family including James, his brother whom he grew up with, worshipped Jesus as the Risen Lord. (Consider what it would take for you to worship a member of your family as Creator of the Universe.) And Paul, who was an enemy to Christians, who hunted them down, tortured and even killed Christians, met the living Jesus and then gave His life to preaching the gospel.
This is no small thing. People don’t die for a lie. The apostles didn’t make this up so they would get fame, fortune, comfort, and power. No, instead they were despised, rejected, impoverished, faced many dangers, chased down, and then tortured and killed for sharing the story of Jesus. People don’t do for a story they made up.
And since that day, many, many more, have met the living Jesus. They have experienced the love of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the friendship of Jesus – not merely as feeling, but as fact. People have lived and died for Jesus – not because it was their “religion” or their “culture” – but because they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
My invitation to you this morning is to simply give your life to Jesus. Admit that you are a sinner, that you have broken God’s law, that you stand guilty before a righteous God, and that there is no amount of good you can do to cancel it all out. Once you admit that, ask for forgiveness from God for all you have done. Accept that Jesus died on the cross for that sin, that He traded Himself for you, that He did all the work necessary to save you, and accept His forgiveness. Agree that Jesus really did rise from the dead, conquering sin and death once and for all and that because of your faith in Him, death and sin have no more power over you.
And then, once you have done that – you need your make Him your Lord. Christians, this is a message to you too. Step off the throne of your life and put Jesus on it. Take your plans, your designs, your work, your family, your whole life, and give it to Jesus. Bow to Him as your Lord, your Boss, your King. The Bible says He already is your King anyway. There will come a day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10–11) Today is the day you are invited to do it by your own choice. Will you accept Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord?
We’re about to enter into a time historically known as “Passion Week”, starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday. It’s a week filled with history and meaning. This is the most important week of the Christian calendar. Centuries of history have revolved around it and believers from all manner of different traditions observe and celebrate it differently. Some people fast, others sing, some have prayer vigils, some read the bible from cover to cover, some even shave their heads. Each tradition has their own way to show worship by sacrificing something special in their lives to focus on God.
In their own ways they are living out what is written in Romans 12:1-2,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Before Jesus came, believers use to present sacrifices of animals or grain to the temple on certain days, but now, because of the work of Jesus, we have moved from presenting our worship and sacrifices in a certain building to living out our lives as sacrifices to him – still trying to make them pure, unblemished, holy and acceptable to God, but knowing that we can only do this through the power of God.
Please open up to Matthew 21:1-11 and we’re going to tie together our series on Stewardship with the sacrifices of worship we see in the account of Palm Sunday.
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.’ This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’”
Going Through the Motions
Our theme today is worship, particularly the importance of having a lifestyle of worship, but more than this – that worship in itself, true worship, is sacrificial – it costs us something. I just watched a clip of a sermon recently where Matt Chandler was gently confronting some people in churches in Texas with the understanding that just because you go to church doesn’t make you a Christian. He said,
“In the Bible Belt churches are jam-filled with people who have no mark of being Christians on their lives other than the fact that they attend once a week. No obedience whatsoever, no desire for obedience, no relationship with Christ, no seriousness about God…. You come, you check it, and you call yourself a Christian. And I want to lovingly tell you that if there is no desire for obedience and no obedience then you should not count yourself a Christian. You should consider yourself lost and in danger of damnation.”
That sounds like it could be harsh, but he’s right. He isn’t talking about “salvation by works” but the changed heart that comes when we turn our lives over to Jesus. He’s talking about sacrificial, lifestyle worship. There is no true faith without obedience, there is no true worship without sacrifice.
Most people here understand the concept of sacrifice. Parents know what it means to give up our time and resources for our kids. Military people know what it means to make sacrifices for their country. The disasters that keep coming at the world all have relief organizations that want some of our money to help people. Some people even donate their own blood for the sake of others.
I think we understand the concept well enough, but what we need to see is that to be a worshipper of God demands sacrifice. We see that all through the Bible: there is worship that God accepts and that God rejects, and most often the worship He rejects is the easy, mindless, going through the motions activities of religious people. Sing because it’s time to sing. Talk when it’s time to talk. Bow heads when it’s time to bow heads. Read the words written down because you’re supposed to. Look at the guy talking for as long as he’s talking. That disengaged repetition of mindless, religious activity is worship that God rejects.
But let’s take a look at some of the people involved in the Triumphal Entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. We don’t see people dropping money in a plate, reading a script, or doing anything in the temple in this story. What we see is some of the ways Jesus required them to sacrifice to Him as an act of worship.
The Donkey Man
First, let’s look at the man who gave up his donkey. Jesus had told his disciples to go to the village ahead and get a donkey that was tied up. The book of Luke (19:20-34) sheds a bit more light on this situation: Jesus says,
“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you untying it?’ tell him, `The Lord needs it.’ Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
Notice that little difference? The owner is in this one.
Imagine what was going on in this guy’s head. There he is, working on something around the house and some random guys come up try to walk off with two of his animals. The disciples are just being obedient, but what about the owner?
Consider yourself. You’re washing your car in your driveway. The door is open and the key is dinging away. You step into the garage for a moment to get something and a couple of guys walk up, get in the car, and prepare to drive off. You come running out and say, “Where are you going in my car?!” And the people inside respond, “The Lord needs it….”
Now it’s decision time, right? What do you do? Therein lay the sacrifice. The moment he heard that the animals were to be used by the Lord, his argument stopped. He sent his valuables, maybe his most valuable things, on with these strangers. Maybe God prepared this man in advance as he was praying, or maybe he didn’t. All we know is that when the Lord wanted something from him, he gave it up. He didn’t even know what Jesus was going to do with it.
The simple question for us is this: Would you or I have done the same? Would we have let the disciples take our car? We’re presented with this option more often than we think as God gives us the opportunity to sacrifice what we have for others. Someone gets into trouble, someone needs our time, energy, money, resources, and we are presented with the option to give. We feel the impression in our heart to do something. Someone calls us with a need. What do we do? We analyze the situation. We ask questions. We wonder about return on investment. We negotiate how little to give. We try to find other options. But what if the only reason we get is, “The Lord needs it”? Regularly giving up our resources is part of what a lifestyle of Christian worship looks like.
There’s another group that gives of their resources in the story too. Verses 7-8 tell us that there are folks who were spreading their cloaks on the ground. As an act of worship, a way to show their deference to Him, and also a way to acknowledge and declare that He is their promised Messiah and King.
These weren’t their old “Goodwill” or “Salvation Army” clothes either. They didn’t run home and get the jacket they never use anymore. This was whatever they were wearing. But even that doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice, right? A couple donkey hoof prints on there. But anyone who has ridden horses or has been to a parade knows that something else happens when animals go for a walk – there’s a reason the street sweepers follow the horses.
The point is that these people, upon seeing Jesus, started to worship Him and that worship required an immediate sacrifice of what they had. Honoring Jesus will require the use of our time and our resources. We cannot grow as a disciple of Jesus if we don’t spend our time and resources on Him. This, what we are doing here at church, is not the pinnacle of Christian experience and I feel sad for anyone who thinks it is. Sure, we have to get up, some people have to serve, but this is perhaps, the easiest sacrifice of our week. The real test of our Christian character, the real opportunities to give sacrificial, lifestyle worship come later in the week as we are presented with opportunities to give of ourselves to do what God wants us to do.
Consider St. Patrick, whose special day was just a few days ago. Despite the day now being about celebrating Ireland, wearing green, and generating green vomit, the story of St. Patrick is one we shouldn’t forget.
Patrick was born in northeast England, not Ireland, in the late fourth century. When he was 16 years old he was kidnapped by Celtic pirates, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave to a tribal chief who put him to work as a cattle herder. He was raised in the church but it wasn’t until he faced this level of suffering that his faith started to take root. Seeing the beauty of the Irish countryside caused him to worship God’s amazing creativity and it was in the total isolation of slavery in a foreign land where he really learned to pray.
He was held captive for 6 years until he escaped, made his way back to England, and joined the priesthood. He trained and served many churches but then, one day, at age 48 God told him that he needed to go and share God’s love with the unreached Irish Celts. This was unprecedented, totally controversial, and he gained little support – but after a time of negotiation the church finally, and reluctantly sent him off to the barbarians, likely to never see him again.
What was unique about the way Patrick did missionary work was that he didn’t go into the land and try to civilize it. He didn’t try to turn the Irish into good, English people, build English churches, and teach them English songs. He knew that wouldn’t work because he knew the people. So he gave up the way he was used to worshipping for their sake. He gave up his own style for their sake. He spoke their language, gave them his time, his prayers, his food and resources to the poor, and most especially his forgiveness. He gave his whole life to them.
It was this heart of sacrifice that enabled thousands of people to meet Jesus for the first time and gave rise to one of the greatest missionary successes of all time. Patrick was a man who knew what it meant to worship God by sacrificially serving others.
The Sacrifice of Reputation
There’s one more sacrifice I want to point out in the account of the Triumphal entry and that is the reaction of the crowds. Calling out “Hosanna!” to Jesus was dangerous. They put their reputation and their safety at stake. It was a thumb in the nose of the Jewish ruling class, the Sanhedrin. It offended the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day. And, perhaps most dangerous of all, it risked reprisal from the Romans who did not take kindly to anyone claiming to be another king, “the Lord”, or “the Highest”. Their worship required risk.
Consider our own societies celebrity worship culture. Society holds them up for all to see, watches them on TV, listens to interviews, seeks them out on YouTube, wears what they wear, eats what they eat, reads what they read, go where they go. People on the sidelines of the award shows often yell things like “I love you!”, and companies make contests of just spending one hour with a certain celebrity, but it’s all with very little risk. We can shout how much we love Jennifer Lawrence or Vin Diesel from the rooftops until we’re blue in the face and no one cares – but have you noticed what happens when someone stands on a rooftop in front of a crowd and shouts that they love Jesus? Doesn’t’ really happen, does it? Why? Because that’s different, isn’t it? That’s got risk.
When the people in Jerusalem that day were yelling “Hosanna” they weren’t yelling “I love you!” They were yelling, “Save me!” Hosanna is literally the word “save”. They were crying out to Jesus for deliverance. This wasn’t about His celebrity status, but about deliverance. Deliverance from their Roman oppressors, their corrupt civic leaders, and the mess that their religion was in. It was a cry for mercy, an acknowledgment that He was the Saviour.
It’s one thing to yell that you love Jesus in public – you might get away with that in North America – but it’s totally something else to yell out that Jesus is the only Saviour and Lord of the Earth.
We have a hard enough time asking for help, don’t we? We’re all about self-help, self-determination, self-esteem, do-it-yourself. For some people, it’s almost agonizing to ask even those closest to them for help. So many people suffer alone, and it requires a massive sacrifice of pride for them to admit they need help.
But when we cry out to Jesus, that’s exactly what we are doing. We are asking for His help, admitting that we are not enough, that we require His intervention. As Christians we first admit that we are sinners, bent away from God, serving ourselves and messing up our lives and the lives of others. Then we ask for forgiveness, something only God can grant. We cannot forgive ourselves. Then we ask to be reborn, remade, changed from the sinner that we were into a new creation that hates sin and wants righteousness. Only God can do that. And then, every day, we admit once more that we are not strong enough, wise enough, good enough, to accomplish even one right thing without God’s help.
Many come to God in prayer but actually refuse to admit they actually need His help. They use God like 911 or like Santa Clause, the last resort or the way to get something they know is a long-shot. Some treat God like a help desk, asking for a minimal amount of help when they get stuck and then telling God that they’ll take it from there. They believe they are 90% strong enough, and that God gives them the other 10%. That’s not how it works.
A Christian recognizes their deep need and falls before Jesus saying, “I don’t have anything to offer. I’m dead inside. Whatever I touch gets worse. Even my supposed good deeds are done selfishly. I am a sinner in need of a Saviour. Hosanna, Jesus. Save me.”
And there are some that will admit this in private – but these people were doing it in public. Listen to Luke 19:37-40:
“As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’”
The leaders of their city were offended and trying to stop them. Most Christians I know won’t even pray a simple prayer in public – they are too nervous, too ashamed, too worried about what others think. Some refuse to sing even in church because they’re worried what others think. Some go to work and literally no one knows they are a believer. Some won’t even say grace with their own families out of fear. But these people cried out for help right in front of their friends, the priests, the Pharisees, the Roman centurions.
According to Luke 19, as Jesus rode he wasn’t smiling, he was weeping because He knew what was coming. Jesus rode up to the temple, once again drove out those who were selling there, and then began to teach. Listen to what it says in verses 47-48,
“And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.”
The people turning their hearts and attention to Jesus, crying out for his help in public didn’t convert the city – but instead threw it into an upheaval. Their sacrificial worship, their willingness to cry out to Jesus in public, was the catalyst that made the city leaders want to utterly destroy Jesus. And they tried. And that persecution caused all of the believers, even the disciples, to flee.
When you call out to Jesus, people are going to think you’re crazy. There’s a risk. Calling out to the Saviour has risk. Your friends, your family, your fellow church people, may see you as a fanatic, may tell you to calm down, not be so serious, that there are a time and place for that sort of thing. That’s what the Pharisees tried to tell Jesus and his followers.
My conclusion is simply this: the worship God accepts requires sacrifice. It is a reflection of our thankfulness for Jesus’ sacrifice. He gave up everything, came to a world that would hate Him, reject Him and crucify Him, for our sake. He lived as a servant every day and still lives as a servant to His people. Our response is to do the same to Him by giving our lives to Him. Not just one morning per week, but every moment, every action, every decision of our lives. And that will require sacrifice. Without sacrifice, there is no worship.
Do you live a lifestyle of sacrificial worship? Do you spend your time, resources, and reputation on Jesus? Do you risk your time, resources and reputation to worship Jesus? Or does it only happen in closed rooms and dark corners? Does your worship require sacrifice?
Is there something God has asked you to give, some way He has called you to obey, that you’ve refused because it was too much, too risky? What if “The Lord needs it” from you?
And, finally, ask yourself if you ashamed to call yourself a Christian. Does your lifestyle, your words, your deeds, your conversations, your prayer life reflect that you are a believer? Have you cried out “Hosanna” in the streets? I’m not asking you to get on a rooftop this week or stand on a street corner – but how about this: does everyone in your life know you are a follower of Jesus?
At the very least, will you take the risk of showing your faith in a practical way this week? Pray in public, share your faith, tell someone that you are a Christian.