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Please open up to John 5:1-18 and let’s read it together:
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath.
So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
A Desperate Situation
A while back I said that as you read through John, to put yourself in the place of the people that Jesus interacts with. I want you to do the same with this passage – we are the invalid and we are the Jews.
Let’s start with the first part of the story. Sometime after Jesus had healed the Centurion’s son, Jesus was headed up to Jerusalem for one of the three feasts that all Jewish males were required to attend. We don’t know which one.
While Jesus was at this feast He chose to head to the Sheep Gate. Jerusalem had all kinds of gates. The Old Testament mentions 17 different gates for the first temple, and eight for the temple that was rebuilt by Nehemiah and added to by Herod. And each gate had a different name and theme. There was a Fish Gate where the fisherman brought their catches through to be sold, the Valley Gate that opened up to the Valley of Hinnom, the Dung (or Garbage) Gate where Jerusalem had their burning waste dump. This gate was called the Sheep Gate and was historically where the sheep and lambs were brought through for the ritual temple sacrifices.
One day, Jesus, the One John the Baptist recently called “The Lamb of God who takes away the Sins of the World” (1:36), decides to come up through the Sheep Gate. Don’t miss that, because there’s a lot going on. The Lamb of God entering through the Sheep Gate where the sacrifices come through, which was about 200 meters from where Pilate would condemn Him to death, only a hundred or so more meters to the Via Dolorosa, which was the road Jesus would take to Calvary.
Near the Sheep Gate there was a pool called Bethesda meaning “House of Mercy” or “House of Outpouring” and verses 2-3 gives us a picture of what this place looked like. There was a pool there – (actually by the time of Herod there were 2 pools, one above the other) – with a series of columns holding up a roof that would provide some protection from weather. Instead of being fed by a spring, this pool system was designed to be filled up when it rained. A long time before, this pool was likely used to wash the sheep that were coming into the temple area after being herded from whatever place they had come from, but now it had become a place where sick, desperate people would congregate in hopes of getting some kind of mercy, charity, and maybe even a miracle.
If you have an ESV Bible you’ll notice something interesting in verse 4 – it’s interesting in that there is no verse 4. In other translations you’ll see a verse 4 which give an explanation that the reason sick people congregated there was that there was a superstition that sometimes an angel would come, stir the pool, and the first person to get in would be immediately healed. The reason the ESV doesn’t include this verse is because the oldest, most trusted manuscripts, actually don’t have that line. It was inserted sometime after by a scribe who felt it necessary to add an explanation. But since it’s not in the best manuscripts, a lot of modern translations leave it out. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong – in fact, verse 7 tells us that the stirring of the waters is exactly what the man was hoping for.
But the picture here is one of blind, sick, lame, paralyzed people who were living in a time when they were considered cursed, unclean, and didn’t have a way to take care of themselves. And, if they didn’t have family to take care of them, these people would often become street beggars. And as society condemned them, forgot them, and pushed them aside, they would become more and more desperate.
And desperate people tend to be more easily manipulated, more willing to believe lies and superstitions, more self-centred, selfish, and protective. Jesus walks into an area filled with hurting, forgotten, broken people who – because of their suffering and how they’d been treated – had basically given up on their neighbours, families, friends, religion, priests, and God. They were now a group of superstitious people whose whole lives revolved around waiting for some kind of supernatural stirring of some magic water, which would then lead to a mad dash competition to beat each other to the pool in hopes of some kind of miracle.
We are often no different than these people. Fear, sickness, betrayal, disrespect, being forgotten, living in pain, financial struggles – especially when it carries on for a long while – often leads to a myriad of temptations. When the trouble first starts – the pain begins, the sickness sets in, the emergency happens, the betrayal occurs – we handle it ok. We talk to friends, read the Bible, pray to God – but then it doesn’t go away, the situation doesn’t get better, and sometimes it gets worse.
So, sometimes we press in harder. We call our friends for help, tell our church to pray, spend more time in the Word and in Prayer. But it still doesn’t get better. The pain is worse and more complicated, the doctors can’t find a cause. The betrayals start to stack up as more people believe lies. The bills keep coming but the income doesn’t get better. The emergency keeps affecting you, the stress being drawn out for days, weeks, and months. The sickness doesn’t go away, and you find out its chronic and untreatable.
Then, as friends and family and the church stops calling, stops asking how you’re doing, stops giving you support, and the trips to the doctor all end with the same bad news, and people seem to move on to the next thing – you’re still stuck with the same pain – it’s easy to start to become discouraged and even desperate.
And we are tempted to do what this man did. Go away from people, start skipping church and eventually just leave altogether. Stop praying because it doesn’t work. Leave the Bible on the shelf because it doesn’t help. Start to gather with other sick, pained, miserable people… not because they encourage you, but because they feed your misery and affirm your bad decisions.
And then, as you distance yourself from God, His word, and His people, Satan starts to present you with more and more dangerous ideas on how to feel better. He dangles bait in front of you, leading you toward destruction. He offers you drink and drugs, pornography and entertainment, gambling and garbage food. He offers you loans, and new credit cards, and opportunities to steal. He helps you find people who want to commit adultery with you, hurt others with you, do illegal things with you.
And he shows you stories of people who got the miracle they wanted… through televangelists, superstitions, cults, pagan practices, witchcraft, the occult, moral compromise. Things that would have been unthinkable, ridiculous, and laughable before – start to become more reasonable. The more desperate you get, the more reasonable they become. After all – Christianity didn’t work. God didn’t fix your life when you asked. The Church left you behind. The doctors can’t help, friends can’t help… why not try… crystals, horoscopes, healing services, bank loans, divorce, chemicals, abuse, or maybe even sending money to the guy on TV who promises to send you magic spring water from Russia that will force God to fix your body and fill up your bank account. And if you don’t believe me – then you’ve probably never heard of Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, or Peter Popoff.
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s too extreme, Pastor Al. I don’t do that. I would never do that.” Well, maybe today – but that’s at least one direction the road of spiritual compromise goes. So ask yourself – what ungodly, unbiblical, unfaithful things are you doing right now because stress, fear, lack, sadness, worry, has been pressing in on you.
Are you drinking a little more? Are you distancing yourself from certain godly people because they make you feel guilty? Are you reading and watching videos about how to get miracles and give yourself special spiritual powers? Is your debt creeping up as you use money you don’t have to try to solve your problems? Do you find yourself doing little, superstitious things – wearing a cross for luck, carrying a little pocket angel, repeating special “words of power” that have worked for other people, or adding other spiritual things to your life in hopes of twisting God’s (or the universe’s) arm to make things go your way?
Those are the path to danger. You don’t start as the kind of person who believes God puts sick people in competition with one another to see who can get in the magic angel rain pool… that happens gradually as hopelessness, fear, worry, and sadness take over you faith, trust, and obedience to God and His word.
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
In verse 5 we see that this man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years – longer than many people’s lifespan back then. To everyone, even to himself, he was a hopeless case. His faith was gone, his friends were gone, his family was gone, and to him, God was gone, grace was gone, hope was gone, and he was too weak to even try to work within his own superstition.
Jesus asks a peculiar question: “Do you want to be made well?” It almost sounds sarcastic, doesn’t it? He’s standing in a place full of misery and suffering, surrounded by the most desperate cases imaginable. They were sitting beside what they thought was a magic healing pool. Why else would they be there other than to be made well?
But this man’s understanding of God and spirituality was completely warped. Remember, there stands Jesus, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, the Creator of the Universe. He is God. His question forces the man to declare what His faith is in.
We read elsewhere of Jesus asking people questions before healing, and many declare their faith in Him for a miracle. The leper comes and says, “If you choose, you can make me clean!” (Mark 1:40) The woman with the years of bleeding said, “If I but touch His clothes, I will be made well.” The leader of the synagogue came and said, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” (Matt 9:18)
But how does this man answer? With nothing but negativity and hopelessness and blaming others: “It’s impossible. God’s abandoned me. People have abandoned me. The only hope I have is the magic rain water and I’m too weak to get there. For decades now, people have pushed me aside and ran before me to get the miracle. No one cares. Nothing can help me.” Bad attitude, bad faith, bad logic, bad spirituality, and bad theology.
What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t argue. There’s no lecture, no teaching, no correction, no sermon. Just the command, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” In fact, as we read, Jesus doesn’t even introduce Himself! At first, after the miracle, the man didn’t even know it was Jesus who healed him!
The man’s greatest expectation was that, perhaps, this stranger might stick around long enough to, maybe get him to the pool. When he answered, there was zero faith in Jesus, zero faith in God, and the thought that He was about to walk out of that place perfectly healed hadn’t even crossed his mind. He’s lying there before God Himself – and didn’t even know it.
What Does This Tell Us About Jesus?
I want to pause the story there this week, even though a lot happens after the man is healed, and I want to ask the question: What does this tell us about Jesus?
First, that Jesus is compassionate. Matthew 12:18-21 quotes Isaiah 42:1–3, which is a description of Jesus’ attitude towards hurting, abused, forgotten, hopeless people: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” He weeps with those who weep, and understands the suffering of hurting, abused, forgotten, slandered, weak people better than anyone. He has empathy, compassion, and kindness. Jesus hates pain, suffering, and sickness because Jesus hates sin – and they are all a result of sin. That’s why He came to die on the cross – to reverse the curse, to destroy the effects of sin, and to make a path for anyone who would believe in Him to be free of those effects forever. The first thing we must see here is that Jesus is kind and compassionate to people who are suffering.
The second thing we ought to see is that Jesus gives grace to whom He decides to give grace. Grace, by definition, is undeserved merit, undeserved favour. Did this man deserve to be healed? No. Did He deserve a conversation with Jesus? No. What did He deserve? As a faithless, hopeless, superstitious, sinner, He deserved nothing more than being condemned to everlasting torment in hell. That’s what he deserved.
I’ve had a few people text me lately that some of the things that have happened to me were “undeserved”. “You don’t deserve this.”, they say. My response is always, “What I deserve is Hell – anything above that is grace.” And I mean it.
This man did nothing to deserve a miracle. I think of Romans 9 which talks about what theologians call “divine election” or “God deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.”
Turn to Romans 9:13–24 and let’s read it together. We’re jumping into the middle of an argument here, but the first line is a good summary, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Think of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. Esau was older and should have gotten the blessing, but instead God worked it out so Jacob did. Neither was a particularly good person – Esau arrogant, Jacob a liar – but God overturned tradition and expectation and chose the young liar to be His chosen servant. So Paul asks in verse 14,
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
What is the biblical answer to “Who gets chosen for heaven and who goes to hell?” Simply, “Whoever God decides.” No one deserves heaven. No one deserves grace. We’re all vessels of wrath prepared for destruction – and some of us get plucked out of the flames and given a place of honour. Why? Because God decided to show us love and grace. That’s it.
The second thing we need to learn about Jesus is that He shows grace to whom He shows grace. He walked into a place full of sick, desperate, superstitious, and selfish people – and decided to save one of them. That’s His prerogative. He’s God, we’re not. Anyone one of us who is plucked from the flames, healed, and adopted – should spend our whole lives praising Him for His undeserved grace!
Third, Jesus has His own schedule. Thirty-eight years that man waited. Until he was utterly hopeless, forgotten, and bitter. God is not obligated to any of us. And He’s not obligated to hurry up and do things on our timeline. God allowed this many to be sick, allowed him to be hopeless, and placed him in that spot – specifically so Jesus could use Him for His glory and purposes on that day. And, as we read, that purpose was to show that Jesus claimed to be God, that Jesus had the power of God, that Jesus had the divine authority to properly interpret and apply all of the laws of scripture – which presented the option to the Jewish leaders to either turn their lives over to Jesus – or to hate Jesus so much that they wanted to kill Him all the more. God isn’t obligated to give us grace – and He always does things on His own timeline for His own perfect purposes. The only question we are asked is if we will trust His timing and His purposes?
And fourth, Jesus’ invitation is always to faith, repentance, and obedience. Jesus did everything. He came through the Sheep Gate, walked to the pool, came up to the man, and offered him healing. When the man answered Jesus’ question with bitterness and hopelessness, Jesus still healed Him. Jesus had the power and did all the work. All the man had to do was get up, grab his bed, and walk.
Every miracle Jesus did required a faithful action – sometimes before, sometimes after – but always contained the invitation to trust Jesus and obey Him. This man went from hopeless to faith in Jesus in a split second – and demonstrated that change by standing up and walking away. He didn’t even know who Jesus was! Jesus didn’t require that – yet – but in His divine plan, Jesus knew that the man would know eventually. All Jesus required at that time was for the man to stand up, grab the bed, and walk away.
That’s the Christian faith in a nutshell. As I said, we are all this man. Lost, hopeless, superstitious, bitter, forgotten, doomed, and unable to save ourselves. Then, the Lamb of God walks into our lives, unbidden, uninvited, and says, “Do you want to be made well?”. Our theology is usually messed up, our expectations confused, our testimony unimpressive, our hearts still torn by selfishness, temptations, and the effects of sin – but Jesus comes anyway, and offers to completely change our lives. But that invitation always comes with an order to believe, repent, and obey Him.
Look at John 5:14–15 again,
“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.”
It’s always the same story. Jesus comes and gives undeserved grace to a doomed and broken sinner. He offers healing and demands obedience. The person obeys and is told, “Ok, you’re mine now. Walk with me, trust me, repent from sin, and obey me.” And then we are used to tell the world who Jesus is and what Jesus does – often in ways we could never have planned or expected.
To say it’s a strange time is an understatement. As this pandemic looms, and the lockdown enters its second month, it’s very interesting to see how people are reacting. While some sit at home bored, others, like front-line and emergency workers, are being run off their feet. The educated professionals that are used to having “important jobs” have been told they are “non-essential” while the service and retail workers who they used to look down on are now treated as vital “essential workers” who put their life on the line every day serving the public.
I’m 100% sympathetic to how difficult it must be these days to be a doctor, nurse, or other medical workers – but as a former Wal-Mart stock-boy and cashier, I have a special spot in my heart for the people at the grocery and department stores whose lives are all now far more complicated, much scarier, and way more difficult. Imagine for a moment being a 16-year-old grocery store cashier. It’s your first job and you just started a couple months ago. It seemed pretty straightforward. The main parts of the job were to know where stuff is, get the money right, and be polite to people.
How must they feel now? All of a sudden they are given surgical masks and gloves, are stuck in a Plexiglas cage, and have a dozen new rules to follow. The public is panicking and the management doesn’t know exactly what to do. And, they’re told that if they don’t get it right they could be held responsible for spreading a deadly virus. What must it be like as a parent to send your teen off to work these days while you are forced to stay at home?
Coping with Stress
No matter who you are – everyone in every arena of life has been affected by this. And, as the internet churns out more information, the government makes more announcements, the 24-hour-news-cycle generates more stories to grab your attention, and the weeks continue to wear on and on — everyone having to deal with more stress, anxiety, fear, confusion, loneliness, and worry.
How are people coping? I saw an interesting graphic this week put out by Stats Canada[i] talking about what Canadians are doing to deal with the challenges the COVID-19 situation has brought. As it turns out they’re watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, surfing a lot of internet, and drinking a lot of alcohol. I would imagine that if Stats Canada dug a little deeper they would find that Canadians are dealing in a whole lot of other self-destructive ways too.
Consider your own life over the past few weeks. How have you reacted to increased stress, decreased accountability, more time on your hands, or more responsibility dumped in your lap? What have you been doing to “cope” with your stress? More arguing and controlling? More alcohol or food? More pornography and non-stop media? Or are you sleeping more, avoiding life, zoning out? What have your interactions online looked like during this time? God honouring, faith-producing, helpful posts that point to truth and hope – or are you spreading fear, argument, and gossip?
Trial by Fire
Stressful times, and not just during global pandemics, bring out the best and the worst in people. The Bible talks about times like this being like going through a “fire” that either causes you to be refined like gold in a furnace, showing and helping you remove the negative dross in your life – or causing your whole life to burn down as you realize that everything from your foundation up was just made of matchsticks.
And I’m not talking about just the difference between believers and non-believers – though that is certainly the case too. I’m talking about Christians.
Turn with me and consider 1 Peter 1:3–7:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter is talking to Christians here who were going through a very difficult time of persecution and trial. He reminds them that their salvation is because of God’s “mercy” – meaning that He didn’t have to save them, but chose to anyway. He reminds them of what their present faith is in – the God who gives them a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. Then, like the verse we read last week in Romans 8 that says nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Jesus Christ, Peter then reminds them that because of God’s mercy, and the finished work of Jesus Christ, nothing can ever take away that hope because it is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”.
He tells them that it is in remembering those things – the love of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ, their security in Heaven – all the things we talked about last week – that, as the meditate on their salvation in Jesus, they will find the strength and desire to pray, worship, trust, serve, and “rejoice”, even in the midst of their “various trials”.
But look at verse 6 again where Peter says that their rejoicing will be mingled and mixed with grief. “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…” Christianity doesn’t say that as soon as we get saved all our earthly problems are solved. That’s a false gospel. If anyone has ever told you that the reason that you are going through a bad time – grieving, suffering, hurting, sadness – is because you don’t believe in God hard enough – they are not telling you the gospel. That’s not Biblical truth.
Think about John chapters 13-17, the discourse in the Upper Room. On the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, He told the disciples a lot of important things about what was coming and how they should respond. He washed their feet and then told them to serve one another in love. He told them that their faith in Him would let them see and experience the presence of God. He told them how to pray and that if they need something they only need to ask in His name. He told them of the importance of obedience and how the presence of the Holy Spirit would help them to know Him, follow Him, and would connect them to Him in the most intimate way imaginable.
And He gave warnings, telling them to stay connected to Him or their life would be weak and meaningless. He said,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Then He warned them that living like that would make the world hate them, just as it hated Him. But, no matter what, He would never, ever leave them alone – and would always comfort and help them.
Then He warned again them about his imminent death, and the great sorrow they would feel – but that, after He rose again, their sorrow would turn to joy, and that joy would be greater than they had ever experienced before.
And then, after talking for hours, right before He prayed for them – and us – in His “High Priestly Prayer”… as He was rising to leave to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to face that death, He said this:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
That’s the gospel. In this world you will have trouble and trials and struggle and difficulty. This world is still affected by sin. As Peter said, “For a little while” meaning, in this life, we will be “grieved by various trials” – but “but take heart; [Jesus has] overcome the world”.
Testing the Genuineness of Your Faith
That’s what the next verses in 1 Peter 1:6–7 basically say: “…now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
These trials and difficulties, all the frustrations we are facing, the worry that has come over us – whether it’s the death of a loved one, our own sickness, a financial or job loss, dealing with loneliness, or having our work become harder, more complicated, and have more risk – are part of what Peter means when he says “various trials”.
What do these do? He says they “test” the “genuineness of your faith”. In other words, these times force you to see whether or not you really believe what you say you believe. At the same time, while it tests the strength of your faith – the strength of your convictions – it also shows you what your faith is actually in.
God uses trials like this to refine and reveal. He refines your faith, strengthens your faith, purifies your faith, by forcing you to see and remove what is weakening it – and it reveals things in your life, showing you things about yourself and others, that you didn’t even know were there.
Bear the Fruit of Repentance
Turn with me to Luke 3:1–20. I want to share something that I think God was telling me this week about myself, and that might help you:
This is the introduction to the ministry of John the Baptist, a man sent by God – the final Old Testament style prophet – who was meant to prepare the way and announce the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”
So there’s the general tone of John the Baptist’s message: “The Messiah is coming to begin the final work of salvation, so get yourselves ready for it.” Remember a couple weeks ago I preached the “Epic” sermon about the various phases of God’s plan of salvation? Here’s the announcement of God’s final and greatest phase: The Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the Judge of All Mankind, is coming into the world – with an axe in one hand, a winnowing fork in the other, and the refining fires of the Holy Spirit to purify the world before God’s wrath, God’s refining fire, sweeps through the whole world burning away the fruitless trees and worthless chaff.
He preached this with power and conviction and as he said, “Get ready” he would invite people to repent. To repent means to change your life, turn around and go the other way, acknowledge you are wrong and start doing right. And to show that repentance he invited them to be baptized – an external washing to show their desire to be clean on the inside.
But, some were coming for baptism that only wanted the outer sign, not to change their ways. But John wasn’t interested in numbers – he wanted people to really change and get ready for the coming of Jesus. He wanted the hard soil of their hearts to be tilled up, made soft, and made ready for the seeds of the gospel that Jesus would be coming to preach.
But some people just wanted to go through the motions. They wanted to say they had been baptised, but they didn’t actually want to repent. For whatever reason – out of fear, peer-pressure, religious devotion, or misunderstanding – when they came to John they didn’t want to change their hearts and prepare themselves for Jesus – they didn’t care about their sin – they just wanted to get wet.
John hated that hypocrisy because it was the same hypocrisy that completely dominated the whole Jewish religion at that point. So He looked at the crowds who were all excited to be baptized and said, “You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? I see your motives and I know that you’re not here to give your hearts to God and submit to the Messiah – you’re here for your own selfish, stupid reasons. You make excuses for your sin and think you’re going to escape God’s wrath because of your religious traditions or because you’re going through some religious motions. That won’t work! Religious devotion, devoid of repentance, devoid of hatred of sin and submission to God, will still lead you to hell.”
And when Jesus came, and the religious people saw Him and heard his message of repentance and submission to Him, they didn’t repent – they hated what He said and murdered Him so they could keep being religious hypocrites. The presence of Jesus was the fire, the trial that revealed their sin –and showed everyone how evil they really were.
The crowds, seeing how serious John was about making sure their hearts were right with God before they participated in any sort of external sign, said in verse 10, “Ok, then what shall we do?” If we’re not supposed to be just doing religious stuff – getting wet, singing the songs, saying the prayers, doing the sacrifices, bringing the tithe – if none of that actually matters to God, then what are we supposed to be doing? We’re here to get baptized because you told us to get baptized or God will be mad at us… so what are we supposed to do?
John’s answer was the one that we saw in verse 8. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”. In other words, make your life show that your repentance is real – that you sin and want to be godly. Real repentance will require changed life, changed behaviour, different priorities, and different ethics. It reminds me of the famous passage in Micah 6:6-8,
“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That’s basically what John was saying, right? “If you’ve got extra, share. If you’re in a position of power, be kind and fair and honest. Show God you love Him, that your repentance is real, that your faith is real, that you want Jesus in your life and trust His way is the best way – by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly as a servant of God.”
Herod the tetrarch didn’t like this message. He was caught in a bunch of public sins that went against God’s commandments, and John called him out on it. What was Herod’s response? Arrest John and lock him in a room where he couldn’t hear him anymore.
That’s my conclusion today: During this time you are going to be faced with all kinds of temptations. Some in your home, others at work. Some online, others face to face. There will be temptations to overuse things that bring you comfort, to overindulge in addictions, waste your time, and use self-destructive behaviour. Some of you will face the temptation to live in fear and to be a fear monger, spreading bitterness and paranoia. Others will be tempted to be selfish and greedy or to make personal gain on the back of the suffering. Some will take their fear out on convenient people that don’t deserve it. Some will face emotional struggles worries rise up. Others will face spiritual struggles as they neglect prayer times, study times, and fellowship opportunities. Some will be tempted toward hopelessness while others will try to live in denial.
The list of temptations is endless – but what I want you to see is that this strange time that we are going through is also an opportunity for God to refine your faith and reveal your weaknesses and strengths.
When it happens, and God shows you your sin, feel the guilt and shame – but don’t be overwhelmed by it – just turn that sin over to Jesus, accept that He died for that sin too, accept His forgiveness – and then repent. Change the behaviour, put up a wall between you and the sin, tell someone else about your struggle, do the opposite of it, and then bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
Then, if you choose to humbly reflect on your life, admit that you need a lot of help, listen to the voice of God, and allow Him to make some changes, God will refine you and you will be a stronger, more faithful, more joyful, person on the other side of this.
Or, you can respond like Herod. When God’s Spirit convicts you, when He shows you your sin – tell Him to shut up, lock that voice away, pretend you didn’t hear it, and persist in your sin – and then come out the other side of this time more addicted, more afraid, more bitter, more controlling, and more hurtful than when you went in.
I don’t want that for any of you. Please, submit to God. Listen to His voice. Cut out the things that are hurting your soul. And bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
**Sorry, no audio this week**
“So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:18–25)
We talked last week about the cleansing of the temple and how important that event was – and how it’s connected to the miracle of water to wine during the wedding in Cana – but we never got to the response from the people. In John, the miracles of Jesus, whether it was water to wine, healing the sick, or raising the dead, are called “signs”. “Signs” are meant to point to something greater than themselves. So when Jesus does a miracle it’s never just about the thing He was doing – it’s a sign that points to more. We’ve talked about that a lot over the past few sermons, so I won’t belabour that further, but it is important to remember.
This whole section here is about how people are responding to the signs Jesus was giving them – the nature of their belief. After inaugurating His Kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, Jesus travels to Jerusalem with a few of his disciples and walks into the temple with a whip and starts flipping over tables, releasing the animals from their pens and cages, and telling people to stop turning His Father’s house, the place where the nations were to come and meet Him, into a shopping mall that exploits the pilgrims. It offends God on a deep level and Jesus demonstrates that in no uncertain terms.
“The Jews”, meaning the religious authorities like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin, were obviously offended by this because the whole shopping mall was their idea. So they demand that Jesus demonstrate His authority to tell people to take the things away and call the temple His “Father’s House” by showing them some kind of spectacular miracle that would convince them that He was a prophet. Jesus refuses. From the context, and the rest of the gospels, we know that it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Whenever Jesus did a miracle, the Jewish Authorities never responded with faith and humility, but instead more hatred and another plan to try to kill him.
His response, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” was a multifaceted answer that required a lot of digging and interpretation.
First, it was Jesus saying that He knew exactly what the Jews were planning to do with Him. He would spend the next couple years demonstrating in no uncertain terms that He was God in the flesh, and they would respond by murdering Him. They would never accept His authority.
Second, it was an indictment against their religious corruption, implying that the temple and their whole religious structure was so corrupt that it needed to be torn down completely and that He was the only one who could rebuild it the way God had intended it.
Third, it actually was a declaration of His power and authority. They demanded a sign that would prove He had the right to cleans the temple – He basically said that He doesn’t just have authority over matters like these, but in fact has authority over life and death itself.
Of course, the Jews didn’t want to hear any of that – they couldn’t hear any of that. Their hearts were so hard that the only thing they could hear was the absolute surface meaning of what Jesus had said. Sin had so overcome their hearts, their hearts had become so calcified through their false religion and hypocrisy, that the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words just bounced off without having any effect. Notice that later, Jesus’ true followers thought back to this moment and were able to begin to grasp the deeper meaning. But for the Jews, Jesus’ true meaning was impenetrable.
He Had No Faith in Their Faith
And that’s what this whole section is really about – especially from 23-25 – about how people perceived Jesus, what they believed, and the depth and substance of that belief. It’s a sort of summary of what had happened in Jerusalem over the course of Passover, and acts as an introduction to the stories that will come next.
The disciples see the sign of water to wine and believe. The Jews see Jesus cleanse the temple and refuse to believe. But Jesus performs some more signs among the people and many of them believe. But then, if you notice the next story, Jesus meets with the Pharisee Nicodemus – perhaps one of the men who had challenged Him at the temple, but certainly one who knew what Jesus had done there. Nicodemus is given a long teaching about the importance of being “born again”, of rejecting everything he thinks he knows about religion and instead of being utterly changed from the inside out by the power of God, and throughout the gospel, we see Nicodemus slowly coming to faith (7:50; 19:39). Then, in chapter 4, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, who is also given a long dialogue about who Jesus really is, the “living water” (4:10) who offers “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14) and she and many fellow townspeople believed in Jesus as “saviour of the world” (4:42).
We go from the Jewish Pharisee Nicodemus believing in Jesus, to the Samaritan Woman believing in Jesus, to the final story in this section in John 4:46-54, about a Gentile Centurion in the service of Herod, coming to Jesus for a miracle, and then believing in Jesus.
Jews, Samaritans, and Romans. Religious experts, ignorant sinners, and desperate pagans. Men and women, young and old, teachers and wives and government workers, all meeting Jesus and believing.
That’s what makes this section in 2:23-25 such an important transition. Jesus is at the very beginning of His earthly ministry and is standing in Jerusalem at Passover and every type of person is there. Jews, gentiles, men, women, young, old, believers, unbelievers, religious, atheist, pagan, all there in Jerusalem with many witnessing His signs and “believing”.
But the undercurrent of this section is that we need to be very careful about how we read the word “believe”. The disciples believe Nicodemus believes, some ordinary Jews believe, the Samaritans believe, the Roman official believes. But what is the substance of that belief?
Do these Jews at the Passover, and all the others from then on, after witnessing the signs, believe that Jesus Christ is the true Messiah, the Son of God, the saviour of their souls who would have to die on a cross for their sins to be atoned for? Had they given their lives to Him? Was He their Lord and Saviour? Would they follow Him to the end?
Look at what it says,
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (2:23-25).
There’s a bit of wordplay here in this section. It basically says that even though people entrusted themselves to Him, He didn’t entrust Himself to them. They believed in Jesus, but He didn’t believe in them. He had no faith in their faith.
Why? Because as God, as our creator, as One with divine omniscience, He knew exactly what was going on inside of people’s heads and hearts – and knew how the story ended. He knew the Jews that demanded a sign weren’t going to believe it even if they saw it. He knew that Nicodemus didn’t really need a rabbinical debate about what Jesus did at the temple, but needed to be born again through faith in Him. He knew that the Samaritan woman at the well didn’t just need water, but needed acceptance and compassion and conviction and hope – and when she tried to dodge Him confronting her sins and struggles, He didn’t fall for it. He knows people’s hearts and knows exactly how to clear away the smokescreen to get to their true needs.
Jesus isn’t fooled by us. He knows all our secrets, motives, reasons, and excuses. He knows how fickle we are and how easily we can deceive ourselves. He knows how squirmy we can be when confronted with our sin, or told to submit to His will, and knows how great we are at denial and self-deception. He wrote Jeremiah 17:9 which says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Not us! Only Jesus understands it.
We should be very thankful for this. No one is better at lying to us than we are. Self-deception is a hallmark of what it means to be human. And couple that with our natural tendencies toward believing whatever we want to believe regardless of the truth and rejecting authority even if they’re right, and we’ve got a recipe for trouble.
Consider yourself for a moment, and how many times you have lied to yourself or winningly believed a lie because it’s easier. I googled examples of ways that we lie to ourselves and found a really interesting article on Psychology Today that outlined a few of them. See if any of these apply to you.
The first way that we lie to ourselves is to convince ourselves that “ignorance is bliss”. “Strategic ignorance” for the sake of not getting burdened with reality. Doing things like avoiding information sources that give differing opinions or refusing to study something too much because you’re worried you’ll learn something you don’t like. Do you do that? Only listen to news sources and podcasts you agree with? Only read books that tell you what you want to hear? Only hang around people that share your worldview? Have you ever refused to learn more about something, even something theological or mechanical or personal, because learning more means more responsibility, so you prefer not to know? “Don’t tell me how to add washer fluid to my car because then I’ll have to do it!”
The second was called “reality denial”. And it simply means rejecting information you don’t like so you can build a false sense of security. Someone gives you bad news and you just ignore it. An addict insisting they don’t have problem and can stop anytime. An abuser telling themselves that it’s the fault of the person their abusing. Ignoring your bank and credit card balance and heading to the store, hoping that the debit machine will work.
Another way we lie to ourselves is “overconfidence”, believing we are stronger than we really are – while another was the opposite, called “self-handicapping”, where we are afraid to see what we’re really capable of, or are afraid to fail, so we never really try.
Other ways were doing things like, excusing our own faults while judging others harshly for the same ones. Or “cherry-picking data” that supports our own preconceived beliefs. Another was our tendency towards “sour grapes” where we see something we want, but when we find out we can’t have it, say that it wasn’t probably that good after all.
The quote at the bottom of the article was really interesting. It said,
“Self-deception can be like a drug, numbing you from harsh reality…”
This was a secular article – but how much more should Christians, who know that “the heart is deceitful… and desperately sick”, understand our human tendency towards self-deception? And yet we keep falling for it. Take a moment to consider how many times you’ve lied to yourself, just this week!
Or if that’s too uncomfortable, consider how many times you’ve tried to convince someone else of the truth but they simply wouldn’t hear it. You could get the Bible, the dictionary, the encyclopedia, three peer-reviewed studies, and ten testimonies that all agree with what you’re saying – but if they don’t want to believe it, they just won’t. Instead, they react with argument, anger, rejection, running away. Why? They want to believe the lie because the truth is too inconvenient or difficult. They prefer the drug of self-deception. That’s human nature, and that’s what Jesus knew.
He knew that almost every single one of the people that claimed belief in Him, from the disciples who travelled with Him to the desperate Jews looking for a saviour from the Romans, to all the variety of gentiles, would reject Him in the end. Jesus’ could not count on them to carry Him through to the end of His mission. It was not He who needed them to surround Him with love and support and help – it was they who needed His love, support, and help. They were the walking dead, He is the life bringer. They are those trapped in darkness, He is the source of light. They were the ones who had fallen to temptation, He was the One who proved He never would. They were the blind fools, He was the only one with His eyes open, and who had the power to make them see. Jesus is the doctor, we are the sick. Jesus is the righteous one, we are the unrighteous. Jesus is the curse-breaker, we are the cursed. Jesus doesn’t need to believe in us – we need to believe in Jesus.
What conclusion can we draw from this section of scripture? I supposed it is twofold.
First, that we recognize our tendency towards self-deception, toward believing what we want to believe, toward rejecting truth because it’s difficult or requires us to humble ourselves and say we were wrong. If we can recognize that we are capable of being deceived, that not everything we think is right, that not all our feelings are accurate, that not everything we think about ourselves and others is true – we go a long way towards having a teachable spirit that God can infuse with truth and light. So long as we believe everything we think and feel is right we make ourselves an easy target for the enemy because He traffics in lies and is happy to tell us whatever we want to hear so we will remain steeped in sin and error. Then He can manipulate us into hurting ourselves and others – and we’ll think we’re right for doing it! Satan wants us to continue to believe lies because when we live in lies, we reject God – because God only speaks truth (John 17:17).
And second, once we humble ourselves to realize that we are easily deceived, that we need to pursue truth. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:17,
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
He wants us steeped in truth because the more we know the truth, love the truth, and learn the truth, the more we will be free from evil and live in the presence of God.
This is why God’s word says things like, if you have something against someone, go and talk to them, and seek truth and reconciliation (Matt 5:23; 18:15-20). Satan wants us sitting at home concocting stories and having imaginary arguments. God says, “Go and seek the truth.”
This is why Jesus says in John 8:31–32,
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Keep reading my word, stay in it every day, study it, listen to it read and preached and taught, because then you won’t be deceived. Satan wants you to read a verse or two and then come up with your own ideas, your own interpretations, your own conclusions about God and His will. He wants you captive to guessing and uncertainty and confusion and fighting with others based on your confident ignorance. God wants you to know the truth, because ignorance and self-deception is a prison, and truth is the path to freedom. Doing this takes work and humility though…
This is why God says go to church and submit to those more mature than you – those who are more steeped in the truth. Consider what it says in Ephesians 4,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:11-14)
We keep ourselves from being tossed around by lies by submitting to Christians that are more mature than us.
And this is why God warns us over and over not to trust our own feelings. says,
“Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.” (Proverbs 28:26)
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Proverbs. 3:5)
Turn to Romans 7:15–25 and see what the Apostle Paul, a godly man who loved Jesus, said.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus is Always Faithful (Even When We’re Not)
And so what is the ultimate conclusion – to realize our weakness, that God doesn’t need us, that Jesus doesn’t “count on us” or “believe in us”, but loves us anyway.
It should amaze us that Jesus knows the wickedness of our hearts and loves us anyway. When we are unfaithful, He is faithful. Consider the words of 2 Timothy 2:11–13,
“The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”
What an amazing saviour! That even when we are “faithless”, even when we have a momentary lapse in trusting Jesus, a momentary fall into temptation, Jesus doesn’t reject us. He remains faithful because He has so totally identified with us, has so completely saved us, has so totally changed us, that we become like Himself. He found us when we were lost, forgave us when we were enemies, and adopted us when we had completely rejected Him. That’s the miracle of the cross – our sin exchanged for His holiness, our imperfection exchanged for His imperfection, which has allowed us to become brothers and sisters to Christ and children of God. We never lose our salvation – not because we are so faithful – but because Jesus is faithful to us.
He’s faithful even though He knows what’s in our hearts. Even though we keep failing, keep falling, keep fighting, keep sinning, keep trying to wrestle power back from Him – He remains faithful to us anyway. That’s one, big reason that we love Jesus so much and try to live in the light of His truth. We are easily deceived, but He is not. And therefore, we need His light, His life, His word, His Spirit, His mind, to overtake our own so we can rightly perceive the truth and by that truth know Jesus and be set free.
I’m consistently amazed how we can start studying something months ago, using commentaries written over a hundred years ago, studying a catechism written 450 years ago, based on scriptures written thousands of years ago – and how they all speak directly to our needs for today. Truly, our Lord, His Holy Spirit and “the word of God [are] living and active” (Heb 4:12).
Please open up to Matthew 7:7-11.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
A couple weeks ago, before we were interrupted by winter deciding to come all at once, we studied how God is not only the Almighty, Creator of the Universe, but also a loving Father. To quote the Heidelberg,
“That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.” (Q.26)
Today’s study picks up on one of the words in that answer and explains it further. It’s the word “provide”. The more I study the Heidelberg, the more I like it, especially because this is such a natural next question.
I can imagine sitting with someone and having this conversation. We talked a bit about this last time. I ask them, “Do you believe in God?”, they give some vague answer like we heard, and then they ask me, “Ok, what do you believe about God?” and, like a good boy, I give answer #26. But, what’s their natural next question? “But you’re life isn’t perfect. How can you say that God is all-powerful and all-good and all-loving, but so many of His faithful followers are going through such rough times? What about the terrible tragedies we see all the time?”
Question 27 asks that same question,
“What do you mean by the providence of God?”
How do you reconcile that God is your great provider when at the same time you are in want?
Right? We just read that Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened…. how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” So what gives? Why isn’t every Christian on earth healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable? What do you mean by saying God is your provider and you trust Him?
The answer in the Heidelberg goes as follows:
“God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”
Question 28 follows,
“What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by his providence?”
In other words, “So what?”. If the answer to, “What do you mean that ‘God provides’?” is that “everything happens according to His plan”, that doesn’t really answer why Christians aren’t healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable, does it? So, the next, logical question is, “How does it help you to know that all things come by the hand of God, even if some of those things are tragedies and adversity?”
The answer to 28 is that it means,
“We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love; for all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot so much as move.”
This is what it means to have faith in a God that is all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving. It means that we believe that whatever happens, whether “rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, health and sickness, riches and poverty…” they all come by the hand of a loving, faithful, wise, good, God who knows what is best – even when I don’t understand or agree with Him. In a word, it means “trust”. I go back to that line in answer 26,
“In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
God Tickets and Stuffed Bears
This doesn’t make sense to most people, even Christians, especially Western Christians, because, just like so many before us, we equate comfort and wealth with God’s blessing. If times are good, then we must be doing things right and have enough faith – but if times are bad, then that means we did something wrong and God is either mad at us or we don’t have enough faith. But that’s absolutely NOT how God works. The Bible says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) The idea that God is only good to good people, faithful to faithful people, loving towards loving people, generous to generous people, is unbiblical, and a dangerous thought for believers to have.
Why? Because it means that our faith, our forgiveness, our peace, our joy, our provision, our hope, is in our hands. It means that our faith is transactional – that we spend our good-boy and good-girl tokens at the God store and He dispenses blessings. We treat God like one of those arcades where you play games and get tickets. You’ve been to one of those, right? Where if you do well at skee-ball, hit the right number on the spinning thing, sink enough shots in the basketball game, that it spits out tickets to spend at the little shop so you can get a prize. Sometimes we treat God like that. We think that if we do enough good deeds we’ll gain enough tickets to spend on blessings and miracles. And if God’s not giving us what we want or need, it means we don’t have enough tickets for that item so we need to try harder.
But what’s that doing to our heart? When you go to one of those arcades and look at the items, and finally find that one thing you want – the video game, the giant bear, the cool shirt – what do you immediately think? That it takes way too many tickets. They want 20,000 tickets for that bear and the skee-ball machine only spits out like 12 at a time. This place is unfair. It’s a scam. We start to think of God like that. God’s unfair. God’s asking too much. God is a scam.
Or say we do really good at the games, hit lots of jackpots, sink a tonne of baskets, and get those 20,000 tickets. When we walk up to the counter to get our prize, what are we thinking? “I’m so great. I’m such an awesome person. Look at all the work I’ve done, the good I’ve done, and wow, do I ever deserve this blessing. I’ve earned it. I’m the best. God, all I need from you is for you to exchange these good deeds for that miracle, please. Then I’ll talk to you later once I’ve built up my stash again.”
Believing God’s provision to be transactional does not lead to faith in God, dependence on God, trust in God, hope in God, believe that God’s way is best – it leads to either pride or despair. Pride that you’ve done so many wonderful things that you’ve earned all the good in your life and didn’t need Jesus at all – or despair that you will never be able to do enough good deeds to get the really nice prizes from God, because God is unfair. Both of those are terribly dangerous versions of faith – but are very popular in the world.
What’s the solution to that type of thinking? Trust. And how does God grow trust in His people? By giving us opportunities to trust Him, so that we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that we cannot be our own saviours or our own providers.
Ask, Seek, Knock & James
Many people here can attest that this is true. That, it was during times of struggle or lack that they learned the most about God’s love and provision. That, it was during times of pain and confusion that they learned the most about God’s comfort and care. That, it was during times of fear and worry that their pride was finally broken and they came to God for help and learned what it meant that He is their almighty, loving Father. Sure, there were times of anger, whining, complaining, lashing out, depression – but at some point in all that, they fell to their knees, gave up trying to control the situation, gave up believing in their own goodness and willpower, and realized that God doesn’t just love them sometimes, only when they are good, but at all times, and that He will “turn to… good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow” because His love and provision is present and active even in adversity.
The man in that video figured it out and showed it through patience, service, and faithful tithing. He could have reacted a lot of different ways – self-pity, anger, grasping every penny, threats and arguments, refusing any work that wasn’t in his own skill set – but he didn’t. He took the jobs as they came with a thankful heart, waited patiently, gave faithfully, and allowed God to be His provider. That’s how it works in the Christian life.
That’s why Jesus says in that passage in Matthew 7, “Ask… seek… knock…”. It is when we stop struggling, gathering, controlling, hoarding, fighting, and eating ashes, and finally relent and come to God, humbly realizing that He is our saviour and provider (and we are not) that He can work.
To “ask” God for something requires that we not only understand that we have a need, but a need we cannot provide for. Why would we ask for something we know we can just get for ourselves? To “seek” means to connect those prayer requests to a life of faith, seeking “first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, knowing “all these things will be added to you” as you are seeking because God knows what you need (Matthew 6:32-33). To “knock” means to persevere in that faith and in that seeking.
Why doesn’t God just answer when we “ask”? Why does He require we “seek” and “knock” as well? Because we are such slow-learning creatures. These lessons take such a long time to learn.
Consider the words of James, written to Christians spread around the Roman world, who were suffering through persecution and poverty, oppression from without and conflict and church splits within, and the temptation to give up. Turn with me there, and we’re going to jump around a bit, but I want you to see the whole argument. Start in chapter 1:2-4.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.…”
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change….
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…..
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful….
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 1:2–4, 16–17; 4:2–3; 5:7–11; 13–18)
Remember The Prophets
I know that’s a large section of scripture, but I think it’s critically important for us to read today, because we need to understand that God is our provider and He is worthy of our trust. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God loves you where you are at right now and is more than willing to provide what you need. Not what you want, but what you need. Sometimes we don’t have because we do not ask. Sometimes we don’t have because we ask with wrong motives. Sometimes we don’t have because God is doing something special in our lives and the only way for us to become steadfast, perfect and complete in our faith, the only way for Him to build our faith-muscle, our faith-skill, is for Him to use “trials of various kinds” that require us to go through a time of testing.
In James 5:10 it says that when we get narrow-minded, near-sighted, and confused about God’s love we should look to those who came before. “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” In other words, we hold in high esteem those who go through tough times and come out the other side even more faithful than when they went in, right? So, when you are facing difficult times – trials, lack, fear, confusion, persecution, uncertainty – I want you to turn to two places.
First, to scripture, to remember what the lives of faithful people in the Bible looked like. Jesus was the most loving, faithful, perfect, most spiritual, most giving, person to ever live. How did His life go? Times of rest, times of testing, times of suffering, times of success, times of betrayal, and in the end, He was crucified for crimes He didn’t commit, and then rose to life in the greatest victory in history. We follow in Christ’s footsteps, do we not? So we too will also see times of rest, testing, suffering, success, betrayal, death, and victorious resurrection.
Consider the life of Paul. Same thing, right? A terrible sinner who hated Christians converted by a miracle to become a great missionary and faithful servant of Jesus. When he was a Christian killing Pharisee, he had power and prestige. When he became a follower of Jesus he followed in the footsteps of Christ – times of rest, testing, suffering, success, betrayal, death, and victorious resurrection. Who would make the trade from oppressor to oppressed? Paul did. Why? Paul answers this way in Philippians 3:7-8
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 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.”
Consider the life of Joseph. Blessed and loved from birth as a favoured son. Given great revelations from God of the power and influence He would have. And what was God’s preparation ground for that greatness? To be hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, to be falsely accused, and spend years in prison.
Consider Job, the most righteous man on earth. His life was full of blessings. But what was God’s plan for him? The same path as Jesus and many believers. To use Job to show Satan what real faith looks like, and to teach the world a lesson about faith that would be passed on for generations. What did that look like in Job’s life? God allowed everything he had to be destroyed in a day.
What was Job’s reaction?
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20–22)
Those are the words of a man who understood and trusted God as his provider.
And I could keep going with names. If you know scripture, you know that this is the standard pattern for all those who are faithful to God. It is normal for God to send “trials of many kinds” to his people for our good and His glory.
But I told you that there are two places to turn. First, to scripture, and second, to other believers. Certainly, to those in this church who have experienced adversity and anxiety and who have faced it with faith and hope, because they are right here. This is one of the greatest values of small groups and home groups – which I hope you are in – because they allow you to not only share your concerns but also hear from other people who have gone through (or who are going through) similar times.
But these Christians don’t just need to be in our church, they can also be elsewhere. Like the stories on RightNow Media, or in books and movies.
And so, I want to close with a clip from a man that I admire as a faithful, godly, Christian pastor. He is a famous author who has written around 90 books that have sold millions and millions of copies. But he does something that not too many other authors do. First, a lot of his books are available free on his website, but the second one might surprise you.
That’s a man who understands the danger of losing sight that God is his provider and has set up boundaries in his own life to make sure he never forgets.
Turn with me to John 3:16-21 and we’ll read it together. We talked about this passage a little bit last week when I highlighted the exclusivity of the claims that Jesus was making as being the only one to have faith in, the one and only way path to forgiveness and restoration to God. I also read John 14:6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And then the teachings of the Apostles in Acts 4:12 where Peter says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Jesus didn’t say there were many ways to heaven, that God accepts the worship of other religions, or that anyone’s individual efforts – no matter how good – could win favour with God. No, over and over, Jesus taught and proved that He was the one and only Son of God, sent from the Father to give the message of life.
The first words of Jesus in Mark, the first Gospel ever written, were His declaration:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
He was saying in no uncertain terms because this was a command: “Here I am! The King of the Kingdom, the One to whom you owe your allegiance, the One that was foretold in all the prophecies, in all the ceremonies, and by all the signs. Now, ‘repent and believe’ in me.”
“Repent” was a word they had already heard lots of times from John the Baptist and it meant to “stop doing what you’re doing, stop sinning, and turn around”, but Jesus added to that message, “and believe”, meaning that anyone who turned around was supposed to follow Him. In other words, have faith in Him.
Faith in Jesus is a mega-theme in the gospel of Mark. When Jesus was asked to heal Jairus’ sick daughter, he was interrupted and then the girl died. And it says in Mark 5:35–36,
“While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’”
In other words, have faith in me. And then Jesus went and raised the child from the dead.
In Mark 4:35-41 we read the story of when the disciples were in a boat and a great storm arose, and everyone was scared they’d capsize, except Jesus who was sleeping in the front of the boat. It says,
“And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’”
In other words, “Guys, I’m in the boat. Do you really think that God’s going to let me drown before I finish my work? Do you really think I’m going to let you all drown? Do you trust me or not?”
And now, let’s read John 3:16-21,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
It says, quite simply, that God sent Jesus into the world so that the curse of sin that leads to death would be broken and we might have eternal life. It said that when Jesus came it wasn’t to condemn the world, though He certainly could have, but instead He came to bring salvation to us.
We’ve already established, over the past weeks, I hope, that we are sinners in need of a saviour and that Jesus is the only way of salvation, right? So, what is the single qualification for someone to be saved by Jesus? What must a person do in order to be saved by Jesus?
Too Easily Pleased
Turn over to John 6:22–40. This story comes after Jesus feeds the 5000:
“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”
Hold on there for a second. Jesus’ problem here was that the people were so worldly-minded they cared more about a full stomach than a saved soul. They didn’t care that Jesus Christ Himself stood before them, offering access to God – they were more interested in whether or not He would make more sandwiches.
They were, like many of us today, so concerned about their own comfort and wellbeing that they look right past what Jesus really offers and only ask for what ends up being trite, silly, and temporary things.
For example, we just sent our teens off to El Salvador this week, right? What did you pray for them? The prayer I heard most often basically amounted to asking God to make sure they would “be safe” and “have a good time”. And I don’t mean to come across as callous or critical, but those are kind of “loaf” prayers, aren’t they? Are we more concerned that our kids have full bellies and don’t get hurt than what God really wants to do in them? What if God really wants to change them, challenge them, increase their faith, force them to confront what they really believe, drive sin from their souls, and cause them to cry out to Him alone? That can’t happen when they are “safe”, can it? That happens when they get desperate and learn how much they need God. What a terrible waste to send a group off on a mission trip and have them only come home with the biggest report being: “nothing bad happened and we had a good time.” We may as well have sent them to Canada’s Wonderland.
CS Lewis said it this way:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That’s what Jesus was criticizing there. That they were too easily pleased with loaves of bread and didn’t even desire the Son of God standing right before them.
The Work of God
Let’s keep reading though in verse 28:
“Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
Take a look at verse 27 again. What did Jesus say?
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”
They completely missed that part. They say, “Ok, Jesus. We want that bread that lasts forever, so that our bellies will be full and we won’t have to worry about that anymore. What does God want us to do? What kind of ceremony? Some kind of sacrifice or worship song or prayer or good deed?” And Jesus says, “Guys, first, the best thing for you isn’t actually bread… I’m not talking about actual bread… and second, you don’t have to work for it. I’ll give it to you…”
Look at what Jesus says in verse 29,
“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
I told you a while back that every Worldview has 4 Questions they must answer: “Why is there something rather than nothing?, What’s broken with the world?, Can it be fixed?, Where is the future headed?”
Every religion, every worldview answers that question. They all know that something’s wrong with the world, but each one comes up with different ways to fix it. Some believe in humanism, and that through our own ingenuity and technology we will be able to save ourselves. Some believe in environmentalism, that if we just leave the world alone, it will fix itself. Hindu and Buddhism believe that if humans get good karma that they will eventually reincarnate as higher and higher forms of being. Islam believes that unbelievers are the problem and if you everyone would obey the five pillars then they might earn enough points to get to heaven. And New Age groups mush everything together, call everything, including themselves god and say that if anything bad happens it’s because you didn’t control your godhood properly because you are in charge of creating your own reality.
All of these worldviews have the same thing in common: They answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” with the answer, “I can save myself if I try work enough.”
Jesus says, No. There is no amount of work you can do to conquer sin, reverse the curse of death, make everyone get along, stop war, plague, pestilence, and famine, and achieve your way into the presence of the Creator. It’s impossible.
Humans are always trying to figure out what work God wants them to do so they can get their prize, so they can get the loaves and fishes, the comfort, the way out of pain. They want to be able to say they did it themselves, that they worked hard enough, tried hard enough, were good enough, smart enough, and clever enough to save themselves, but the problem of sin isn’t one that we can fix. There’s no amount of work we can do to save ourselves. So when we ask what kind of work we can do to fix everything, Jesus says, “‘This is the work… that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
There is no work required: Only faith. Believe in Jesus. Trust in Jesus. That’s it. He does the work.
Bread of Life
Keep reading in verse 30,
“So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
This is astonishing. They weren’t listening at all! They look at Jesus and say, “Ok, whatever. Yesterday you gave us actual bread. That was good! Can we have more bread? Moses gave us bread every day! How can we be sure that you aren’t going to flake out on us and forget to bring the bread? Prove that you can do it again. Make you a deal: If you keep filling our bellies and making us fat and happy, then we’ll believe whatever you want… ”
And Jesus’ answer is perfect:
“Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’”
It’s like he’s saying: “No. C’mon you guys! Moses didn’t give you bread. God did! Sure, for a short period in history, while you were wandering in the desert, God sent manna and quail to you so you wouldn’t starve on your way to the Promised Land. But now, standing before you is the “true bread from heaven”, the One who won’t just feed your bellies for a day, but has the power to grant life itself!
“They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’”
Still not getting it. They look around to one another and say, “Oooohhh… I get it! He’s talking about bottomless breadsticks! Yes! Give us that!” Still worried about food. Still stuck on temporal blessings and comfort. Still thinking about their momentary physical need for a bit of bread and not their deeper spiritual need for forgiveness of their sins and restoration to God.
So Jesus spells it out:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
Now pay attention to this next sentence, because this is what we’ve been building towards:
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”
What is the one, singular qualification for salvation? What must we do? Believe in Jesus.
HC LD7a – Belief
Turn your page over to the Heidelberg Catechism Questions for today. Remember last week we learned that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and man, the only one who can take the punishment for the sins of the world? Look at question 20:
“Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?”
This is a good question. In our study of sin we learned that because of what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, all of their offspring would fall under the curse of sin. Romans 5:12 says, “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” All humanity was infected with that curse, and therefore we are all sinners and stand condemned. And so the natural question then is, “Ok, then if all humanity is automatically infected with Adam’s curse, does it follow that all humanity is automatically cured by what Jesus did?
And the answer is,
“No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
Just as Jesus makes an exclusive claim to be the one and only savior, so in the same way, He says that the only people who are saved are the ones who make the choice to accept his free gift of salvation. Just as Adam and Eve chose to sin, so everyone must make the choice to believe in Jesus. Remember John 3:18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Now, I know, there are a lot of theological debates about what comes first: Does God change the heart before a man can believe? Or does a man have to believe before God changes his heart? If faith is a gift from God than how can man make a choice? I don’t want to spend a bunch of time talking about that today.
I think the moment of salvation works like this: It’s like we are sitting alone in a dark room eating something. We can’t see anything – what we look like, what we’re eating, or any way out. The room is all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever experienced. But then, all at once, Jesus opens a door and sheds light into the room. We look around and realize we are sitting in filth, surrounded by garbage. We look at the food in our hands, and it’s disgusting, mouldy, maggot ridden…. We feel sick to our stomachs, regretful of where we are, what we’ve been putting in our bodies, disgusted by what we’ve been doing. And then Jesus says, “Hey, I’ve got a place for you and better food. Food that satisfies and makes you well. Will you come and eat what I’ve prepared for you?”
To me, that’s how salvation works. We can talk about the nuances of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace and Conditional or Unconditional Election, but that’s a debate for theologians. I want to keep it simple.
Question 20: Is everyone saved? The answer: No. Only those who have true faith are saved.
Which leads to question 21,
“What is true faith?”
and the answer is beautiful,
“True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”
That boils down to some very simple beliefs. How do you know if you have “true faith” or if someone you know has “true faith” in Jesus Christ as their Saviour? Are you sure and confident of what God says in the Bible? And do you believe you are forgiven of your sins, not by anything you have done, but because of what Jesus did on the cross for your sake?
It is not enough to say that you believe in God. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” Jesus says in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
If the answer to those questions are “Yes, I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I don’t get to make things up about Him or what He wants because He has revealed it to me in scripture. And yes, I believe that Jesus alone has saved me and I don’t need to do nothing else to add to that salvation.” then you are saved! You are a Christian!
But if you are not willing to say those things, and instead doubt God’s Word, make things up about Him, subscribe to other religions or superstitions – or that you think that you can earn your way to heaven through good works or religious ceremonies – then your soul is in danger and there is a very good chance that you are not saved.
We are going to cover a lot more of what the Bible says in the coming weeks, but let me conclude today’s message with this. Romans 10:10 says,
“For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Do you believe in Jesus as your saviour? And if so, will you confess that faith to Jesus and others? Don’t keep your belief in your heart because you are told not to. You must first confess your faith to Jesus. You must, in prayer, confess yourself a sinner in need of the salvation that comes from Jesus alone. Have you confessed your sins to Jesus and asked Him to save you? You must do that.
And secondly, have you confessed your faith to those around you? Let me read the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-39,
“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Have you confessed your faith to your family and friends? Or are you afraid or ashamed? Are you still trying to gain worldly bread, worldly comfort, trying to gain this life – and missing out on the greater blessing by being completely sold out to the one who is the Bread of Life.
Let me encourage you today: Stop working for things that perish. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36) Give your life up to Jesus. Repent and believe. Confess to Jesus, and then confess your faith to those around you, and so be once and forever saved.”
 CS Lewis: The Weight of Glory
“For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
How long will all of you attack a man to batter him, like a leaning wall, a tottering fence? They only plan to thrust him down from his high position. They take pleasure in falsehood. They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath. Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.
Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.”
(Psalm 62 ESV)
What is Your Foundation
This psalm is all about, as verse 10 says, where we put our “hope” and “trust”; on what foundation our “heart is set upon” when we are, as verse 3 says, “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering”.
One of the amazing things about being part of a church is the diversity of experience we find among the people who come. There are some people who have had a blessed week and others who had one that felt like they were in battle every moment of every day. There are some who have had a seemingly blessed life where they grew up in a home with both a mom and a dad, warm and well fed, felt loved, safe, and secure – while others grew up orphans or children of divorce, abused, neglected, and afraid. And yet we all come and sit together, sing together, worshipping the same God, reading the same Bible, as one church. That’s no accident. We need each other and we need each other’s differences.
I don’t know what your week was like but I’m sure it had its ups and downs. There were times when you felt you had it all together and other times when you felt like it was all you could do to keep your whole life from flying apart. Some here had a week of temptation where there were so many good things happening you almost forgot that you needed God at all, while others had such a miserable week that you felt that God had abandoned you – or was actively against you. Some had a fairly normal week where nothing out of the ordinary happened, while others felt like someone stuck their schedule in the blender and hit frappe! And yet we all come here and sit together to sing the same songs and listen to the same message.
I heard a wonderful story from someone over the past few weeks where they came to me and said, “You know, Pastor Al, the more people I get to know at our church the more I see that everyone is struggling with something. I mean, there are a lot of problems in our church! And it crossed my mind that maybe I should leave this church and try to find one where people don’t have so many issues. But then I realized that I have problems too and I would much rather be in a church full of people who admit that they have problems and are trying to work it out together than a church that pretends they are perfect and expects me to pretend too.”
That was a hugely mature thing to share. And it’s true. We all have problems. I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t have some kind of big issue in their life. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational issues abound at our church. But we are not special – that’s literally everywhere. We just happen to have a group of people that, for the most part, are willing to admit it!
So, whatever your upbringing or week was like I believe that Psalm 62 has an important message for us. Whether you feel “attacked”, “battered” and “tottering” right now or not, the truth is that Jesus has promised that at some point in our life, “the rain will fall and the floods will come and the winds will blow and beat against our house” (Matthew 7:27ish) and the security and foundation of our life will be tested. That’s abundantly clear. It’s not about if bad times will come but when. And the only way that we will weather these times will be if our lives our built on the right foundation. Christians know this – we repeat it all the time. David knew this too.
In context, this is a psalm of David, who is surrounded by enemies who seek to not only kill him but to discredit and destroy him. Look at verse 3-4. He’s been attacked for so long that he feels like a wall that has taken so much punishment that it’s about to fall down or a fence that only has one post standing before it falls down altogether. This isn’t a one-time attack, but a consistent barrage of assaults from all sides. And what’s worse, is that the attack seems to be coming from people that he trusted. It says, “they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.” This psalm could be about the time when his son Absalom revolted against him (2 Sam 15-16) and many people whom he trusted were either lying to him, manipulating him with false information, or trying to stab him in the back.
I’m sure some of you have felt like that. I know I have. Let down by people close to you. The whole world flips over. It’s like black has turned to white, up is down, friends are enemies. But it doesn’t have to be personal, the attacks can come from anywhere or anyone – the person hurting you doesn’t even have to be human, it can be a spiritual attack. Even so, the point of the psalm still stands: When the earth shakes beneath you, and the foes surround, where do you run for refuge? David boldly proclaims that even though his entire world is shaking, his family, friends and supporters have become his enemies, and he’s gone from sitting on the throne in Jerusalem to being on the run again – just as in the days he was fleeing Saul – until he even has to go to war and kill his own son… He will still trust in God.
Jumping to the Ask
One commentary I read said,
“There is scarcely another psalm that reveals such an absolute and undisturbed peace, in which confidence in God is so completely unshaken, and in which assurance is so strong that not even a single petition is voiced throughout the psalm.” (An Expositional Commentary on Psalms, Vol 2, Pg 509. Boice)
That’s an interesting point – there are not petitions in this psalm. He doesn’t ask for anything. This is a worship psalm coming from a man who is in terrible distress. We often jump straight to the ask, don’t we. Something bad happens and we cry out to God, “God, make it stop! Fix the problem! And here’s how I want you to do it!” That’s not how this psalm works – and that’s not really how prayer works either.
Look to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). How does it start? Does it start with “give us our daily bread, forgive us our sin, deliver us from evil”? No, it doesn’t start with the ask. It starts by putting our heart in the right place.
It starts with reminding us of our relationship: “Our Father in Heaven”. We’re not merely crying out to an impersonal force, but to our loving Father. As Paul said in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” “Abba” is the childish term “Daddy”. “My Daddy in heaven”.
Then it moves on to humbling us by reminding us of our place in the universe: “hallowed be your name.” “Hallowed” means “honoured” or “holy” or “greatly respected”. As we’ve talked about before, it’s not about you and me, everything is about Jesus. Colossians 1:16, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Or 1 Corinthians 8:6 which we studied a few weeks ago, “…for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
Then we are taught to say, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a resignation that God’s glory and God’s plan are more important than we are. This is a statement of our hope and trust in Him. “God, you are my King and I am your citizen. Your will is more important than mine. Your plan is better than mine. Your way is better than my way. I trust you to do what is best.”
And then, after we have set our hearts aright, knowing we are talking to our Father who loves us like a daddy, but is also to be respected and honoured. After we have placed our wills beneath His and declared that we trust him… do our petitions start: “Give us this day our daily bread… forgive our sins… deliver us from evil.”
This Psalm shows that David’s heart was so right with God, even while he was being “attacked”, “battered”, and “tottering” from the storms around him, that he still trusted God as his firm foundation.
Verses 5-7 really sum up the rest of the psalm well, and is an echo of verses 1-2, so let’s concentrate our study on them and pull out some application.
The first thing I want you to notice is that David takes some time to talk to himself, preach to Himself, sing to Himself. Remember, this is a psalm that is meant to be sung publically. David may have composed this while on the run and sang it to the people who followed him into exile. He starts in verses 1-2 with a general declaration of his trust in God to all who would listen. Then in verses 3-4 he states the problem by publically addressing his enemies and God. But then in verse 5 he talks to himself: “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.”
Why does he do this? Because he was tempted to go elsewhere, to fortify his strengths by other means. David was king and was feeling terribly weak, emotionally low, spiritually oppressed, betrayed, and very alone. The people around him, driven from their homes to follow him, must have been crying out, “What shall we do? What will you do to fix this, King David?” and his advisers were no doubt coming up with all manner of plans: “Make a pact with a neighbouring country. Hire mercenaries to fight with us. Attack the people around us and take food and weapons from them. C’mon David, we need to do something!”
And the battle was raging inside him too. He was a man of deep passions. Remember, this was a guy that almost wiped out a man’s entire household because he refused to share some food (1 Sam 25). He pretended to be insane by smashing his head against walls and foaming at the mouth to get out of a tight spot (1 Sam 21). He saw a beautiful woman and killed her husband to be with her (1 Sam 11). He was cunning enough to live in enemy territory for years, even fighting against them from within their own borders, without being detected. I have no doubt that there were a thousand plans flying through his mind as to what he wanted to do.
I’m sure you’ve felt this way too. All hell breaks loose around you and within you. You flail, grasping for something to hold onto to steady yourself. Something to make you feel stronger, in control, or at least to distract you from the pain and confusion that overwhelm you. You reach for a bottle, some food, your phone, Netflix, a razor blade, to calm the storm within for only a moment – but it never makes anything better, does it? Now instead you have your problems and guilt, scars, and sickness. You grab a weapon so you can force the situation in another direction – but it only escalates things. You reach for your wallet because your strength is in your money – but it never really fixes, it does it? You grab onto a counsellor or friend or spouse and beg them to fix everything, to give you the answer, to stabilize your life, and when they inevitably fail you, you reject them. You throw up a series of requests to God, but He doesn’t answer “yes” fast enough, so you turn away from your Bible and your church.
The situation you find yourself in, the storm that is beating against you, the earthquake that is happening within you has a very important purpose – to show you where you run to for hope and help, and then to test the strength of your foundation.
A while back, actually on Ethan’s 8th birthday, a tornado hit Ottawa. It was quite an experience as the wind destroyed a lot of places around town. After it died down we took a walk around our neighbourhood and it was incredible. There were lots of trees down all over the place, and broken phone polls, but the one place that really impacted me was the bus stop. A bus stop is a nice place for shelter when it’s raining – but isn’t much good in a tornado. The walls collapsed, the foundation moved, and it was utterly destroyed.
A lot of the destructive things we turn to during times of crisis seem fine to us – that’s why we don’t deal with them. They’re like the bus shelter. Lust, gluttony, addiction, violence, money – all seem to work fine when there’s a bit of rain – but when the storm really hits, they utterly fail us. I fact, when the storm hits, that refuge becomes dangerous. It no longer works for us, giving us a momentary high, but works against us, corrupting our souls, hurting our bodies, ruining our relationships, separating us from God, and damaging our lives. Many of you know what I’m talking about. Imagine taking shelter from the tornado in this bus shelter. What would have happened to you? That’s what you’re doing when you keep going back to whatever it is you run to in crisis… and it’s dangerous… and potentially spiritually and physically lethal.
So what does David do here? He does what you should do during those times of crisis. He stops himself, preaches to himself, and asks the question, “Ok, I know I have a thousand places I want to turn to and a hundred plans in my mind – but STOP…” and he speaks to himself… “Ok, David, ok, my Soul… where does my hope come from? Who is stronger, my enemies, myself, or my God? Who is going to save me? Where should I run?” And his answer to himself was, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress…”
You’ve tried all these other things and they have all failed you. From where does your salvation come? The word “only” or “alone” occurs 5 times in this psalm. God only. God alone. “My King Daddy in Heaven knows what is happening. I will run to Him. “On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God.” (vs 7)
Wait in Silence
But there is one other part I want you to notice. In fact, he says it twice in verse 1 and 5. He says, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence…”.
Do you remember what Pastor Willie said about Romans 1-3? That it was meant to tell people to “shut up” – to decimate their excuses and force them to realize that they are sinners in need of a saviour? There are a lot of “shut up” passages like that in the Bible, and this is one of them. When the storm is raging, the earthquake shaking, when you feel like “a leaning wall”, “a tottering fence”, about to fall over, the best thing you can do is to withdraw into silence and wait. You actually need to be doing this every day, not just during times of crisis, because it prepares you for the storms to come – but if you haven’t been doing that, then this is something you must do.
The only way you will be able to preach to yourself and to reset your faith, to run to God for refuge, is if you “wait in silence”. That means you need to get away from people, get away from TV, from the internet, from the cell phone, from work, from play, and put away all the distractions and temptations that are trying to pull you towards them – and stop and wait for God.
Did you know the Canadian Government has an official pamphlet detailing what we should do during an earthquake? I didn’t. But here’s what they tell you to do during a major earthquake – and it’s exactly what every other country says. They tell you to make sure you prepare your home before hand – which none of us do – but this is what we’re supposed to do when the big one hits: “Drop, Cover and Hold On!” Go sit under a heavy piece of furniture like a table, desk or bed, tuck in all the parts of your body, and hold on tight to whatever you are under so you will move when the furniture does. And then stay there until the earthquake stops!
Why? Because during that time you need a refuge that is stronger than you and protection from things you can’t see. That’s what this psalm is about. It’s David’s song to a group of people who are facing a terribly difficult time in their life, and a reminder to himself, to stop, be quiet, and trust in God’s strength.
Can you imagine someone going through a big earthquake, looking at their oak table and thinking, “Hmmm… that’s a good spot, but before I get under there, I really need to grab a snack, my phone, a couple friends… no way! Can you imagine them standing in the middle of a store, with things falling all around them, and them saying, “I’m in an earthquake, surrounded by glass smashing all around me, but it’s ok. I’ve got my stress ball, anti-anxiety pills, and I’m trying to think positive about it.” Or can you imagine someone calling you in the middle of an earthquake and asking for advice about what to do? What’s your answer: “Have you tried yoga? I can forward you a really uplifting email I got today. Let me text you a YouTube link to a song that I play during those times…”
No way! You tell them to Drop, Cover and Hold On! Stop talking, get away from the dangerous stuff in your life, drop to your knees, crawl to Jesus and hold on with everything you have! Songs are great, fidget toys are fine, medication is ok, exercise is helpful – but when your life is falling apart, you need to run to a secure foundation and hold on! Jesus only, Jesus alone.
Great Fear, Great Calm
One day Jesus and the disciples were in a boat crossing the sea when a great storm came out of nowhere. The boat was crashing against the waves, it started to fill with water, things look dangerous and the disciples were scared. Where was Jesus? Asleep on a cushion. Jesus wasn’t afraid. He knew that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that would stop Him from crossing that sea, and certainly nothing that could take His life. He was so totally secure, totally trusting in His Father that He slept. But the disciples shook Him awake yelling, “Master, Master, save us! We’re all going to die! Don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” What was His response? “Why are you afraid, o you of little faith? Where is your faith?” And Jesus stood up, rebuked the storm, told it to be still, and then there was a “great calm”.
A lot of Christians are like this. They have Jesus in their boat. They know Him, they say they trust Him – right up until the wind and waves start to hit. Then they accuse Him. “Don’t you care? I’m dying! I’m going to drown! My whole family is going under!”
And what does Jesus say, “Do you really think that I’m not in control of this situation? Do you really think that I don’t care? Do you think I’d let you down? Do you think My Father is absent? That He doesn’t see? That there is no purpose for this? Do you think this storm is an accident? This storm is here to show you something…”
Mark says something really interesting in his telling of this story. It says, “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (Mark 4:39-41)
They thought they were afraid of the storm, afraid of drowning in the middle of a sea. But the moment Jesus showed His power, “they were filled with a great fear”. Of who? Jesus. From that moment the experience of going through the storm meant something completely different. It became the moment that they started to fully understand who Jesus really is, the extent of His power, and what it means to have Jesus in your boat. The fear of the storm were gone. All that was left was “great calm” and “great fear” – as they stood in the presence of Jesus full of awe at what He is capable of.
I believe this is the message of this psalm, and one we need to hear today. I know you have storms, but allow those storms to drive you to Jesus. Let it be the means by which you learn to let Jesus be your only refuge, strength and salvation. Get quiet before Him. Trust He will protect you. Ask Him to calm the storm – and then wait to see how He will save you.
Exciting News! My latest book “The Foundations: An Introduction to What a Christian Needs, Knows & Does” now available for download on your e-reader — and it’s FREE!
Click here to go to the download page to learn more:
Jesus, in John 10:10, says that He has come to give His followers an “abundant life.” His promise doesn’t mean a life filled with worldly riches that ultimately pass away, but true riches like joy, peace, purpose, character, adventure, and the knowledge that you are deeply loved. The joy that can be found in this abundant life is dependent upon your obedience to God and your willingness to submit to His will. It is my hope that this book will lead you towards greater worship, service, and knowledge and love of Him. If you have any questions or comments, you can get in touch with me here.
Here are the chapter titles so you can see what the book is about:
Part 1: The True Gospel
Spot The Difference
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Sola Christus & Sola Deo Gloria – Christ Alone & The Glory of God Alone
Part 2: Growing At Church
What Makes a Christian a Christian?
What Makes a Church a Church?
Leaning on Your Leaders
Making Christian Friends
Making Love Your Priority
Part 3: Intentional Discipleship
First, A Warning
A Church You Can Brag About
Count the Cost
Building Endurance: Steps to Maturity
Part 4: Disciplines of the Heart
Preparing Your Heart With Psalm 51
From Repentance to Commitment
Part 5: The Four Core Christian Disciplines
Why to Study Your Bible
How to Study Your Bible
Church Attendance: Getting the Most Out of Sunday Service
Serving Others: Why Should I?
Serving Others: General Areas of Service
Serving Others: Spiritual Gifts
We’ve been talking for the past few weeks about Mental Illness and Depression, something that is all too common in our community. We’ve talked about what Depression is, what causes it, and a bit of what it’s like to live with it. Last week we talked about the stigma of depression and how hard it is to be honest with people – even in the church – about what you are going through.
But if there’s one thing I want to make clear today it’s that Jesus knows what you are going through. A couple weeks ago I said that it’s possible that Jesus Himself faced true depression and I want to take a little time today to explain how important that truth is.
In Hebrews 4:14-16 we read this:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Many people who are going through a time of suffering and pain have a hard time praying. They feel like their prayers bounce off the ceiling, that there’s no way that God can understand what they are going through, and if He does, that He doesn’t care. Those are natural feelings that the Bible spends a lot of time arguing against.
The argument in this passage is that when we are in a “time of need”, what we really need is to “receive mercy and find grace to help”. No one would argue that. When we go through hard times, that’s what we want – mercy, grace and help. But where are we encouraged to turn to? “The throne of grace.” What is that? God’s throne. Before that throne stands a High Priest, a mediator, a go-between, between us broken, human sinners and the Perfectly Holy Creator of the Universe.
This is a big deal. We can’t come to God on our own because our sin prevents us. If we saw God, we’d die. We need someone who can talk to God, and who God will listen to. Who is that? Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life, never sinned, and therefore can stand in the presence of God. And so He has promised to be our mediator, our facilitator, between us and God.
But there’s still a problem. How can Jesus know what we’re going through? He’s Jesus, after all! He’s God’s Son, a perfect person from two thousand years ago. How can He relate to what we’re going through? It was the same with the Old Testament priests. They lived a totally different life than the average person, so how could they pray for anyone? They don’t know what we’re going through!
Scripture says, “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” The teaching here is that Jesus actually knows exactly what we’re going through, has faced that same problem, that same temptation, that same situation, and yet navigated it perfectly. He literally knows how we feel, what thoughts are racing through our heads, and what it’s like to live surrounded by sin while living in this failing, human flesh. He gets it. He knows what it’s like to face what we are facing.
And to illustrate that today, I would like you to turn with me to Luke 4:1-13.
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
Before we get into taking this passage apart, I want to talk briefly about the nature of temptation.
If you’ve ever worked with addictions then you’ve probably heard of the acronym H.A.L.T., standing for Hungry, Angry, Lonely & Tired, and is a tool meant to help people recognize when they are at their most vulnerable so they won’t relapse. The Christmas Season is a major problem time for a lot of people with addictions, and is similarly a peak-time for spiritual troubles and temptations.
The first letter stands for Hungry. If you’re pinching pennies but are used to spending, or trying to stop the habits of sugar or alcohol by dieting, then you are going to feel hungry. It’s not just food though. It’s about something within you being drawn towards something. You have a craving, a hunger.
The next letter stands for Angry. If you’ve had some bad experiences over the holidays, or you’re back at work and people around you are grumpy, or you’ve been putting things off and need to catch up and it’s not going well, then you could be feeling angry. When we get angry we are more likely to go to our vices to gain control.
The L stands for Lonely. Maybe you had some wonderful times with your family over the holidays but now they’re gone and you feel lonely. Feeling alone can drive us to do foolish, dangerous things just to distract us from our loneliness.
The next letter stands for Tired. The dark and cold, the freezing rain, shoveling, and all Christmas shopping, planning and preparation, the long hours of partying, and then having to get back to work, can leave a person pretty tired.
And that’s just post-holiday stuff. Many of us have other stresses and issues in our lives that have been going on for a longer time and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of relief in sight. Plus some have pre-existing mental and physical conditions that leave you open to feeling miserable even on good days. There are lots of times that we feel extra hungry, angry, lonely and tired.
When those triggers occur, and it all starts to pile on, we tend to be much more open to falling for temptation. These times are when Satan really likes to turn up the heat. It is during Jesus’ weakest time, during His 40 day fast in the desert, that Satan piled on the temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Do lions take on the biggest and strongest prey? No. They pick off the weak ones because they are easier. As Jesus said to His friends, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38)
Turn there with me to James 1:14-15 and let’s talk a little about what temptation is and how it leads to sin. It says this: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Breaking this down simply, we read three important things. First, temptation has to do with “enticement” and “desire”. I enjoy fishing and it is absolutely true that you cannot catch all fish with the same bait. Some like worms, some like spoons and spinners, others want it to float at the top of the water or sink to the bottom. You change the bait depending on the fish you want to catch.
Similarly, though temptation is universal (1 Cor 10:13) different people have different desires. Not everyone is tempted towards the same things. When stress or fear or longing or hunger or anger or loneliness – or whatever trigger – comes, we all turn to different things for comfort. Christians are taught to turn to Jesus, and most believers do, but we also often find ourselves turning to other things as well – either instead of or along with, Jesus.
Some turn to material things, using shopping as their comforter, while others turn to alcohol or drugs, coffee, food or sugar. Some turn to wrath, yelling and controlling behaviour as they shout out their injustices and try to take control from God, while others push people away, putting on the headphones, wallowing in their mood, growing more fearful or bitter. Some turn to books, movies or video games, distracting themselves with entertainment, while others turn to pornography and sex for instant distraction and gratification. Some turn to gossip and slander, knocking others down so they can feel better, while others prefer lying about their emotions by pushing the bad feelings down and pretending everything is ok.
We all have these desires within us, and these desires make up our temptations. They are, in a very real sense, our ‘functional saviours’ that replace Jesus as our “go to” for protection, comfort, help, and hope. They don’t work, and often make things worse, but we still go to them.
So that’s the first part, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire”. Here’s the thing: These desires aren’t always sinful. Technically, deep down, those desires are universal and given by God to be best fulfilled in Jesus. We don’t want alcohol, food, bitterness, video games or porn –we want to feel safer, happier, comforted, but those sins are a quick fix.
Which brings us to the second part. Next it says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin…”. Having desires isn’t sin. Sin is part of a process. When the desire stops being for the good God has for us and moves to formulating the plan of how to get what God wants us to have without Him, we sin. When plan to and then turn to someone or something other than God – where it is a fantasy in our heads or a chemical in our veins – we are sinning and causing ourselves spiritual damage.
Here’s how it works: Something happens and we are hit with the desire for love, comfort, protection, safety, fulfilment – and then God offers us Himself as the answer. Jesus says, “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.” (Matthew 11:28-30) And we say “No, that takes too long, that’s not how we want to do it, you’re not doing it my way.” And we turn away from Him and come up with a plan for how to get our desire fulfilled without Him. That is sin.
And as it says at the end of the verse, “…and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” When we turn away from the Author of Life and try to find what we want outside of Him and His plan, we are walking the path of death, which is why we feel worse after we have done it. Sure, sinning works for a moment, but when our head clears, and we can hear our God-given conscience again, we feel guilt, shame, fear, dread…. which awakens a desire for peace, comfort, safety, which leads to a new temptation – a new opportunity to turn back to God, or try again with our sin. And the cycle continues.
With that all in mind, let’s turn back to our passage in Luke about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and take it apart a bit so we can see how He really does know what it’s like to walk in our shoes – so to speak.
Sent By His Father
The first thing I want to notice is that Jesus was sent into a time of suffering and temptation by God the Father. If we back up the timeline a bit to what was happening just before the temptation in the wilderness we find ourselves at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. It says in Luke 3:21-22:
“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”
Fast forward to Luke 4:1-2 and we read:
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.”
After the wonderful, peaceful, riverside moment where the whole Trinity is present, full of loving, affirming words – Jesus was sent into one of the most difficult times of His life. The same story in Mark 1:12 says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” It’s the same word as when Jesus “drove out” the merchants in the temple (Mt 21:12), or when Jesus was forcibly driven out of his home town so they could throw Him off a cliff (Lk 4:29). This was God’s idea, and there was no choice in the matter. WHAM! Sudden suffering.
People with depression know this feeling, as do many of us who have been through difficult times. It comes out of nowhere, unprompted, and unasked for. One day you’re having a good day by the river, and the next you are starving alone in a wilderness, surrounded by darkness, dread, the snarling of wild animals (1:13), and non-stop evil voices. Jesus knows how that feels.
Jesus Was Weak
Next I want you to notice that Jesus was weak. He was in the desert wilderness alone for over a month. He ate nothing and was hungry. He had no special clothing to protect him on cold nights, and nothing to sleep on. The ground was hard, rocky and hilly, the sand blowing in his eyes. Hungry, lonely, tired… for sure. And not for one night, not for a week, but for over a month. And not just natural problems to battle, but also spiritual ones. The word “tempted” indicates that the temptation from Satan was continual, unceasing, night and day. The three temptations were just a final culmination, the last stabs, of Jesus’ terrible time.
Jesus knows what it is like to be weak.
Let’s turn our attention to the attacks. First, we see Satan attack Jesus’ identity and mission. The words of His Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”, may have seemed pretty far away after a few weeks in that demonic wilderness.
And so Satan attacks Jesus’ identity – who Jesus is. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” (Lk 4:3). Jesus, you are crazy to think you are the Son of God. You’re just a man. You’re not who you say you are. You’re not even who you think you are. You’re a fraud, a fake, a fool. Do something to prove to who you really are. Prove it. Do something to remind you of the good old days when you had everything. Do something so you can feel good, feel important, feel better, feel powerful…
Then the devil used his hunger against Him. God had sent Him there on a mission to combat Satan and Jesus would need all of His spiritual strength. One way humans concentrate on spiritual things is by fasting – removing the distraction of worldly things so we can concentrate on spiritual things. This is what Jesus was doing. Satan knows this and wants it to stop. He says: “Don’t you want something to eat? The road is long and hard and you are hungry. There’s no law against bread. Just this once, just for now, no one will see. Tell your spirit to be quiet and give in to your body’s cravings. It’ll help you. I promise. Since your body wants it, you have a craving, a desire, why not? It’s just a bit of bread. You have the ability to do it, you’re alone, I won’t tell anyone. Actually it’s really Your Father’s fault for putting you in this situation. You deserve bread. You wouldn’t be hungry if it wasn’t for Him and this messed up world. Use your power for yourself. Be selfish.”
Jesus knows what it is like to have your body work against you, to be hungry, to hear a thousand excuses as to why you should tell God to get lost and just give in to the thing that you know will fill the void for a moment.
Attacked His Mission
Next Satan attacks Jesus’ because He’s tired. He attacks His mission.:
“And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’” Aren’t you tired of this fight? Don’t you wish there was an easier way? Don’t you wish you could just give up? God’s way is too hard, it doesn’t make sense, it is just plain cruel. I’m giving you the easy way, the right way. Why suffer needlessly? I can give you what you want. You don’t have to do all the hard work, Jesus. You don’t have to spend years being attacked, misunderstood, mistreated, and suffering. You don’t have to wander lonely places, gather slow-witted followers just to have them turn on you and leave you to be arrested, falsely accused, and then murdered in the most brutal way humans have ever come up with. Why go through all that? I’ll give you the easy way out. I’ll give you everything you want, all the whole world, for free… just bend your knee a little. Just say that I win and I’ll make you a king under my command. Give up. Say it’s too much. Tell God His way is unfair, too hard, and bow to me.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to just want to quit, to be so exhausted you just want to take the easy way out. He knows what it’s like to wonder about the plan of God and to look at a hard life of discipline, and to have Satan offer an easier alternative.
Attacked His Theology
Next Satan attacks Jesus relationship with God. Verse 9:
“And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
Satan can quote scripture better than anyone, and knows how to twist it. He can misinterpret God’s Word, spin it to his own ends, and seek to convince people that God has said something He has not and permits something he has forbidden. He is a liar, the father of lies, and lies are his native language (Jn 8:44). This is why we need to work so hard to interpret it correctly, because when we are weak, Satan will throw all kinds of half-truths, mixed up verses, and out of context scripture, to help convince us to do his will instead of God’s. He’ll even use well-meaning, but biblically illiterate Christians, to give you good-sounding advice.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be surrounded by liars who can quote religious language and Bible verses, but who are only trying to lead you away from God.
Attacked His Trust in God
Along with this came the temptation to stop trusting God. He says: “How can you trust a God who would put you through this, Jesus? Maybe He’s left you? Maybe you’re on your own. Look around. You are alone. And look at those people down there. Here you are, the Creator of the Universe, the Son of God, and they don’t even know who you are, and you know it’s only going to get worse. They don’t love you – and I don’t think God loves you either. How could He? He sent you to this miserable wilderness alone, with no food, no water, no help, no clothes, no nothing – so that you could take me on! No warning, no help, no nothing. That’s unfair.
I know how hard this is for you. I know how badly you want to quit, even now, and you haven’t even hardly gotten started yet! I’ve got years to hurt you, your family, your friends, your followers, and then I get to turn the whole world against you. I have years left to make your life hell.
It’s not my fault though. I’m just doing my job. It was God who put you here in your weakest state, and then invited me to come and attack you non-stop. He delivered you into my hands! What kind of Father does that? He doesn’t love you.
You know what you should do? You should do something to force Him to prove that He cares. You should do something drastic and dramatic that makes everyone take notice. You should make God prove He loves you, force Him to do something. Make Him fulfill His promises to you. You should try to kill yourself. You should jump off this building and make God catch you. Then everyone will know how much pain you are in. Then, if God really wants to save you, He’ll be forced to intervene or let you die and bring you to heaven – either way you win.”
Jesus knows what it’s like to think like this – and so do many people who go through depression. I’ve been down this road and thought these same things. It’s exhausting.
As much as it pains me to do it, we need to leave it there for this week. Next week I want to look at how Jesus dealt with these temptations, and how He faced the symptoms of depression.
But for this week, I want you to know one thing: Jesus knows how you feel and what it’s like to go through what you are going through. I may not know exactly what you are facing, but Jesus knows every detail, and has been there. He’s lost friends, been betrayed, been hurt, angry, broken, and in physical pain. He’s lived without money or a home, been attacked by enemies, prevented from sleep, and attacked by demonic forces.
My hope for you today is that knowing this will spur you to have new and deeper conversations with Jesus in prayer, knowing He can sympathize with you – that He loves you and has experienced your pain, and is experiencing it even now. He is not a far away God, but one who knows your very heart, and has been touched by it.
Pray to Him as a friend, as a brother, as a kindred spirit, a fellow sufferer, who offers you real help and real hope, because He’s been where you are, has achieved victory over it, and offers to teach you how.
*Sorry, no audio.
Tattoos & Human Branding
I don’t have any tattoos, but I know lots of people who do – and a few that don’t have one yet but want one. As far as the Bible goes, there’s no problem with getting or having a tattoo, so long as it’s not done in as part of a pagan religious ceremony (Lev 19:28) or done in a prideful way, to show off and attract attention to your body (1 Peter 3:3-4). If you can do it in a tasteful, humble way, is profitable and helpful, that honours your body as God’s temple, and is an act of worship that brings glory Him glory, then go for it! (Eph 5:4 Col 3:8; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 10:23, 31)
As funny as some of these are, I want to take a minute to use it as an illustration. All of the people we saw in those pictures made the choice – however misguided that choice may have been – to go and get their bodies marked, but human branding has been around for a long time.
People would brand their slaves as their own property, brand thieves, brawlers or other undesirables with letters on their skin marking their crime. The practice even occurs a few times in the Bible. God marked Cain so people wouldn’t kill him (Gen 4). Ezekiel had a vision of men dressed in linen walking through a town destined for destruction marking the people who lamented their sins so they would not be destroyed (Exe 9:4). In Revelation it speaks of two different marks, those marked by God for salvation and those who take the Mark of the Beast (Rev 7:3; 13:16-17). Paul speaks of the scars on his body, from beatings, stonings and lashings as marks that point to his faith in Jesus (Gal 6:17). And it was seeing the marks in His hands side that brought doubting Thomas to faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 20:27).
The marks of Jesus are often called the “Stigmata”, from which we get the term “stigma”. Last week we spent some time looking at a biblical view of depression. It was by no means comprehensive, but I think we covered some of the basics, and I hope it was helpful to you. I was surprised how much feedback from last week’s message, both locally and after I posted it on the internet. I got hits and messages from all over North America. I even received an email from someone in Mexico.
The comment I heard repeated most often, including from my new friend in Monterey, revolved around stigma. Multiple people thanked me for simply not making them feel badly about struggling with depression or mental illness. Being a person suffering from mental illness like depression is bad enough, more than a few Christians I know have recently admitted some bad stories about letting people at church know about their struggles, and then having that knowledge used against them.
They come to their friend, their church, their family, to share a small part of one of their deepest struggles – that for a long time they have been in a daily battle against their own brain, that has made them feel anxious, sad, fearful, hopeless, and like an utter failure – and instead of getting love, acceptance, support, and prayer – they get stigmatized, branded, tattooed with a label. Most often in the church, that label is “Lazy” or “Faithless”.
Instead of coming alongside this person and patiently bearing their burdens with them, they accuse them of not having enough faith, not praying enough, not reading the bible enough, not understanding enough theology, not worshipping enough. They throw out quick answers like, “Have you done your devos? Reading the Bible and praying always cheers me right up!” or “You should listen to more worship music.” or “You need to stop drinking coffee, you’re your vitamins and do some exercise, and then you’d be happy.”
The implication to those quick answers is that the person’s problem is their fault – as though this was something they chose, or there’s something they are not doing that if they would just do, then their sickness would go away. That’s a ridiculous notion that we would never apply to any other sickness, would we?
I don’t intend to repeat last week’s message about the importance of realizing that they are suffering from a mental illness, meaning that they are literally sick, and that part of their body is broken (their brain chemistry) and outside of their control. And I don’t intend to try to convince you how bad it is by telling you a bunch of horror stories from my life or anyone else’s – please just believe me that however bad you think it is to be clinically depressed or suffer from mental illness, the reality is that it’s probably worse. But after hearing from more than a few people relate stories of how much pain they have been caused by people in the church, and saying that they are literally afraid of telling other Christians about their struggles, I feel there’s a couple topics we need to cover.
People Usually Fear / Hate Sickness
Today I want to talk about how God uses sickness and suffering for our good and His glory. Essentially, what we’re talking about is a building a theology of sickness.
People who are sick are often treated very badly by their fellow man. Maybe it comes from our inherent fear of death, so we distance ourselves physically and emotionally from anyone who is suffering. Maybe it comes from our belief that all suffering and sickness is bad, and therefore we need to avoid it at all costs. Maybe it comes from thinking that anyone who is sick or suffering is being punished by God, or has lost faith, and therefore we need to stay away while God deals with them. Whatever the case, being sick, whether with a mental or physical illness, has often come with stigma – they are marked as outsiders and shunned.
Even though the Old Testament is full of commands to care for the poor and be merciful to the suffering (Deut 15:11; Micah 6:8), and they did have medicine and physicians (Job 13:4; 1 Chron 16:12; Jer 6:22) it was often believed that anyone with any kind of handicap, from birth defects to blindness to leprosy to the flu to losing life or limb in an accident, was being punished by God for their sins, and was therefore shunned from the community.
From ancient times until today one way that societies have dealt with their weak and sick is to lock them away, forget them, or simply kill them – and this is on both ends of the spectrum. In some ancient cultures, if a baby had any kind of defect at all, it was policy to leave it out in the open until it died so that it’s weakness wouldn’t impact the family or the nation. In some cultures today girls are seen as weaker than boys, so they murder baby girls in favour of having more boys.
Since we have the technology to look inside the uterus before the baby is born doctors can diagnose all kinds issues a baby might have. Most of these issues are non-life threatening and are very treatable, but often end in abortion. For example, the rate of Downs Syndrome children has rapidly declined these days, not because there are less of them, but because they are murdered before they are ever born.
In the proudly liberal United Kingdom, famous for their open-mindedness and tolerance, they have a law that says you can abort a “disabled child” up to the day it’s born. Because the term “disabled” isn’t defined well, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women have aborted their baby because it had a cleft lip. Why? Because people hate, shun, stigmatize, and reject sickness.
And we do it on the other end of the spectrum too as we take the sick and the elderly, push them out of our society, remove them from our media, lock them away in homes to forget about them, charge them enormous fees to care for them, and then, when they are rejected and alone, and feel like a burden to everyone around them, the lawmakers, doctors and insurance companies offer them euthanasia (Greek for or “The Good Death”). Like Coke, Pepsi or Nike, they find a young, pretty spokesmodels like Brittany Maynard to be their advocate and make suicide seem like a wonderful thing that everyone should consider, and then do what they can to eliminate other options.
One recent example of this comes from the story of Stephanie Packer, a mother of four who lives in California which recently legalized doctor assisted suicide. She has an auto immune disease that forms scar tissue on her lungs which makes it hard to breathe. She was told she wouldn’t live until age 32, but she’s already a year past that. She’s been in treatment for a long time, but when her doctors switched her expensive chemotherapy drugs, her insurance company informed her that they refused to pay for them. She then asked if they would cover the cost of the drugs that would put her to death. They said yes, and that it would only cost her $1.20. The same thing happened to a 64-year-old woman in Oregon who was given the choice between paying for a $4000/month drug to help her get better, or a $50 drug that would kill her.
Humanity hates and fears weakness, sickness, and death, and we will do everything we can to remove it from our minds, hearts, homes, and country. Christians need to be better, but too often we’re not. Instead, we, in our own ways, mark those who are sick, hurting, or weak, as undesirable outcasts that need to be treated by specialists, and only hang out with people who are strong, helpful, and that contribute to our wellbeing.
Think about it. I’ve heard so many times that people want friends that will help them grow, a church where they will be fed, spouses and partners and friends that will strengthen them – but they never, ever, ever mean someone that is sick or hurting. They always mean that they want to find someone who is strong, smart, and healthy, that will build them up. They never meant that they want to be surrounded by people that are sick, weak, afraid, confused, struggling, and in constant need.
But let me tell you the God’s honest truth. The place your faith will grow most, where you will be challenged most, where you will be tried, tested and refined most – is among the lust, hurting, and sick.
I hear Christians ask all the time about how they grow more spiritual, get closer to God, deepen their prayer life, learn more about the faith, be more dependent on scripture, hear the Holy Spirit, and become more like Jesus – and that’s a good thing. But the answer isn’t just “read your bible, pray every day”, avoid bad things, and you’ll grow, grow, grow. No, what will really, truly cause you to become desperate for the presence of God is to come face to face with weakness.
Sickness as a Gift
The Bible says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) and one way we become more humble, and thereby gain more grace, is to be faced with sickness – in ourselves or someone else.
- Physical, emotional and mental weakness will stop you in your tracks and force you to evaluate your life and faith.
- Whether you are the one who is ill or the one facing the illness, it will test the strength of your marriage, your friendships, and the bonds of your church and family.
- It will require you to admit you have problems and that you need help, opening up your heart to the ability not only to admit physical and mental problems but ultimately spiritual ones.
- It will force you to stop depending on yourself and humbly accept the help of God and others.
- It will force you to see your own weakness, and even your own mortality, and realize your time on earth is short.
- And it gives others an opportunity to care for you, thereby helping them grow.
- It will cause you to talk to God in ways you never have before– whether in anger, sadness, fear, or faith.
When you or someone you love is in pain your prayers get a lot less general. Gone are your prayers for a nice meal, a happy life, and to bless everyone around you –because now you realize what it means to come to God and say:
“Father in heaven. Hallowed be your name.
Bring your kingdom soon, because I hate this world full of sin and death.
May your will be done, because I am utterly at a loss for what to do.
Give me this day my daily bread, because I am weak, tired, and all of my energy is spent – I need a miracle of provision from you if I’m going to make it through this day.
Forgive me my sins, because I realize now how worldly I have been and how much I have sinned against others who just needed my love and comfort. How I wish I had been more merciful to them, because I could use their mercy now!
Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, because people are saying and doing so many stupid, selfish things to me and the one I love, and I don’t need any more bitterness in my heart, God. I don’t have the time or energy to argue. I just need to find a place to know your life.
God, lead me not into temptation – because I’m tempted to give up, tempted to quit, tempted to go to evil places for a moment’s comfort, tempted to lash out at the one I’m supposed to be caring for and the ones that are caring for me, tempted to push people away, tempted to stop worshipping, stop praying, stop asking for help. God I’m so very tempted.
I need you to deliver me from evil, because all the time I can feel the presence of the evil one around me, and as I battle this illness on so many fronts – I need your spiritual protection so there’s at least one battle I don’t need to fight because you are doing it for me. Protect me, God.
I recognize yours is the kingdom, and I am but a humble citizen.
I recognize that yours is the power, because I feel so powerless.
And yours is the glory, so help me to somehow bring you glory in this as you make me more fit for your kingdom.
Forever and ever, even now, even in this time, even as terrible as this feels today – amen, so be it, I relent, I give it all to you.”
In Sickness You Meet Jesus
To my fellow Christians, I remind you that it is when you are face to face with the weak, the sick, and the poor – which includes those who suffer with depression – that you are closest to Jesus, and have the greatest opportunity to bless him. Turn with me to Matthew 25:31-46 and consider the words of Jesus:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
We will not be saved because of our compassion and mercy towards those brothers and sisters who are hungry, naked, sick and imprisoned, but we will do it because we are saved. Listen carefully: Your understanding of your salvation and all that Jesus has done for you is demonstrated in how you treat those around you, especially those who are difficult – like the sick, the poor, the estranged, or your enemies.
A Christian understands from what they have been delivered. They know that in the eyes of a perfect God they were deplorable, wretched, sinners, enemies of God. Before we are saved by Jesus, the Bible says we have all the attraction and benefit of a rotten, stinking, enemy corpse (Isaiah 64:6; Eph 2:1-3). Humanity became sick with sin and succumbed to it completely. Jesus didn’t come to meet us in hospital room, or our deathbed, he came to our grave. We have the smell of death and rotten deeds all about us – as unattractive as possible – and yet, though there was not anything good about us, God sent His only Son to take the punishment for our sin so we could be reborn as one of His people (John 3:16; Eph 2:4-5).
He stepped into a land of madness, sickness, death, betrayal, and hatred – a world completely bent away from Him – and stayed out of love. We insulted Him, He healed our wounds. We hated Him, and He exercised our demons. We broke every law He gave us, used the body He gave us for sin, rejected the prophets He sent us, corrupted the Word He spoke to us. He wept over us, prayed for us, fed us, calmed our storms, took the cross for us, sent us His Holy Spirit, and invited us to be part of His family. And even though we continue to get it wrong, sin like crazy, spit in his face, refuse to listen, obey, pray or do what He asks, even though we keep erecting idols in our hearts – He keeps walking with us, forgiving us, helping us, sitting with us, weeping with us, mourning with us, and reminding us of why we can still have hope.
We are never more like Jesus, and we never see Jesus more, than when we are serving, helping, and loving people who are suffering – and that includes people who are facing depression and mental illness.
Next week I hope to give some practical tools, but I that’s where I want to leave it this week. But let me challenge you to some reflection:
First, is there anyone in your life that you have stigmatized, marked as an untouchable because they are too weak, sick, sad, or frustrating? Has God called you to serve someone, visit them, feed them, help them, welcome them, clothe them, but you have said no, because like the pagan world around you, you don’t want to, are too lazy, too afraid to be touched by weakness, sickness and death? I beg you to repent. Ask forgiveness of those you have marked as outcasts because of your own selfishness, fear and sin, and then go and be Jesus to them – and meet Jesus in them.
And second, to those who have been marked by sin, who bear the scars of depression, anxiety, sickness and pain. I challenge you to change your perspective on your suffering to see that you are not being punished, and God has not left you. You have been given to your church and your family as a gift by which we are able to see Jesus. You have been given something that forces you to grow closer to Jesus, to depend more on Him, and to have a greater faith than many people will ever experience – if you allow it to drive you to Jesus and not from Him.
Consider how you can say the words of 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, which have been echoed by so many faithful believers throughout the centuries: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Maybe I spend too much time on the internet, but there seems to be a fair consensus that 2016 wasn’t anyone’s favourite year. Political insanity, environmental disasters, racial tension, war, famine, terrorism, genocide… plus Alan Rickman and Gordie Howe died… argh. It was kind of a lousy year.
I’ve personally been through a lot this year too, as I’m sure you have. I know what some of you have gone through this year.
- You’ve had to face death, loss, and deep sadness.
- You’ve had your whole life turned upside down with sickness and pain.
- You’ve faced financial troubles.
- Your heart was ripped out of you by the betrayal of a loved one.
- You’ve lost your job and faced the uncertainty of unemployment.
- You’ve faced personal battles that have all but crippled you physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
- You’ve felt the shame and fear of being caught doing something you shouldn’t have, and worry about the long-term results.
- You’ve had pressures put on you unlike you’ve ever faced before, and you’ve buckled under them, and you’ve felt like you let everyone around you down.
And that’s just some of the troubles the folks in our little church have faced in 2016. This really has been a rough year.
I read an article this week called, “Is 2016 the worst year history?” that tried to put a little of it in perspective by saying it could have been worse. It’s not always the most helpful thing to do, but it has its place.
The media in 2016 may have made it sound like the world was ending, but we could be living thousands of years ago around the time of the Volcanic Super-Eruption that had the power of 1.5 million nuclear bombs sending gigantic rocks all over the world and bringing about an ice age that killed most humans on the planet. So that’s worse.
1348 was worse too, since it was when the Black Death took hold which killed thousands of people every day. Death came so quickly and numerously that they didn’t have time to bury people, so they were left piled in the streets to be torn apart by dogs. That’s worse than 2016.
1917 would be a good contender as the worst year ever as it was the middle of seeing the atrocities of the First World War.
Or 1943 when the Holocaust of World War II was on its way to killing more than 1.3 million Jews. Feeding the European soldiers came at the cost of bringing famine to countries like India where 3 million died through starvation. The death count of WWII would eventually be over 60 million people, or 3% of the world’s population. Add to that the race riots throughout the US, and the forced encampment of 22,000 Japanese-Canadians.
Regardless of what we’ve faced this year, I think we can agree that living through those times would have all been way, way worse. Sometimes it’s important for us to step back for a moment and get some perspective, right?
But, there were a lot of good things that happened this year too! There was a tonne of scientific progress, especially in space and travel technology. Cancer research and solar energy are getting some big breakthroughs. A bunch of animals were taken off the endangered species lists. The ozone layer is apparently repairing itself. And some really good movies and shows came out this year – though maybe that’s just important to me.
When I look back at 2016 in our church I see a lot of good things too. We’ve grown in faith, number and love over the past year. We’ve seen people dedicate their lives to Jesus, be baptized, and become members. We’ve seen good things happen in the small groups and bible studies, have had some really great events, and have worked together in community outreach projects. We’ve had a good year financially, new people have been elected to key positions in the church, and we’re on our way to upgrading some of our technology here. The Sunday School program is bursting with kids and I’ve heard a lot of positive things from the teachers. I’ve heard people say they have become more passionate about sharing their faith, private prayer and bible reading this year.
I’m sure if you look back at 2016 you can pick out some good things that God has brought into your life this year too.
Keeping things in perspective, by which I mean recognizing and mourning the effects of sin and evil in this world while keeping an eye toward what is good and hopeful, is an important Christian discipline. It’s one reason that pastors and counsellors keep telling people to journal – so there’s a written record of the good we so easily forget when bad happens.
As Christians, when things are anywhere from merely annoying to truly terrible, we make the choice to turn to God and His Word for perspective. It is within God’s Word that we are reminded that despite the evil we see and feel, there are still abundant blessings in this world and that we are people who have a great and glorious hope. As Romans 12:12 would put it, Christians “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”
That’s the recipe for hope. We don’t pretend tribulation doesn’t happen – but instead, look at it through the lens of hope and ask God for patience. Constant prayer keeps us connected to God who gives us the strength we need to endure and reminds us of what He has planned for us and the world in the future. This is part of what Jesus meant when He said,
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
If our treasure, meaning that which we value most, is on earth, then we’re in trouble because there’s no way it’s going to stick around. The world around us is full of moths that sneak in to ruin things. Even if we leave it alone, eventually all things succumb to time, turning to rust and dust, and losing their appeal. And for the few things that aren’t eaten by moths and time, we still face the evils of humanity that tries to wreck or steal our treasure.
Jesus teaches us to have the right perspective on this world – that no matter how good or bad things are here, it’s all passing away. Therefore, by “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in tribulation, and being constant in prayer.” we “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven”, which will never let us down.
It is this connection to Jesus which lets us repeat with conviction the famous line from Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” Are we in the valley? Yes. Must we walk through it? Yes. Are we surrounded by death and evil? Yes. So why do we not fear? Because of our Christian perspective that Jesus, our Great Shepherd, is with us no matter where we go (John 10:11).
The Drama of Christmas
This very personal story of facing trouble while pursuing hope is the back-story to Christmas. Turn with me to Isaiah 8.
I read somewhere online about someone who was complaining that he’s not a big fan of the Christmas story because there isn’t enough drama to hold his attention. Where’s the excitement in a young woman being inconvenienced by having to give birth in a stable because the government wanted to collect some taxes? If you get your picture of Christmas from your average Christmas carol, then Jesus was born on a silent night, during a midnight clear, while all was calm and all was bright, while the ox and lamb were sleeping, and even baby Jesus, no crying he made. We picture Jesus sleeping in on an extremely clean bed of hay, surrounded by baby lambs, smiling shepherds, softly singing angels, while three aged wise men slide expensive presents over to Joseph and Mary. One song even goes so far as to calls the time of Jesus birth, the “age of gold”.
If that’s your picture of the nativity scene, then there’s no wonder that it gets a little boring – that it lacks drama. But that’s not the picture that the Bible paints of Jesus birth at all.
In Isaiah 8 and 9 we get a picture of the cosmic drama that was playing out over 2000 years ago. The prophet Isaiah lived over 700 years before Jesus was born, but prophesied in amazing fashion about the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Let’s read to together starting Isaiah 8:11, where we’ll see that Israel wasn’t in the best of states.
In my Bible this section is entitled, “Fear God, Wait for the LORD”
“For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: ‘Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.’”
Here you see the land full of fear and dread because they are surrounded and penetrated by pagans and enemies, which they have even married and made treaties with.(The word “conspiracy” is also the word for “treason”). The whole nation is in upheaval because of these surface level crises, but they had an even greater problem. They had lost their fear of God and had stopped worshiping Him. It continues:
“Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
We see here how hard their hearts are. They are desperate, but they don’t turn to God’s Word, teachings, testimonies or prophets, but to the evil arts of mediums and necromancers who talk to demons.
Because they have rejected God and allied themselves with pagans, have stopped praying to God and instead consort with demons, they lose God’s blessing and their whole lives turn into a wasteland, the land reflecting the destruction within their hearts. And this makes them angry, but instead of turning to God, they turn “against their king and their God”. And when they look back down to earth, all they feel is “distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish”.
To put it another way, they have jumped headlong into the valley of the shadow of death, but they have done so without their shepherd, and they are now almost utterly lost.
And it didn’t get much better over the next 700 years!
They would experience some peace under the Persian Empire, but then Alexander the Great came through and conquered Persia. Alexander allowed the Jews to practice their religion, but brought in a lot of Greek corruption to it. When he died it really went downhill. In around 168 BC Antoiochus Epiphanes wanted to quash Judaism, banned their religion, overthrew the priesthood, and desecrated the Temple. The Jews fought back and there was much war. The season of Hanukkah celebrates when the Maccabees rose up against him and reclaimed the Temple. In 63BC Rome conquered Israel putting it under the control of Caesar, leading to the rule of the very evil King Herod who oppressed, taxed and controlled the Jews with an iron fist. King Herod was the one who ordered the slaughter of every child under 2 in an attempt to kill Jesus.
It was during the time of these occupations, as they fought for their temple worship, that the Pharisees and Sadducees came about, who not only dismissed books of the bible, but added their own religious rules, corrupting God’s word even further. In the year 0, the land of the Jews was, in all respects, a total mess.
That’s the bad news, so we’d better keep reading in Isaiah 9 to get to one of the best words in scripture. “But”.
“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”
“But”, God decrees, “this isn’t the end of the story.” They will not be in gloom forever, nor will they feel His anger forever, because God refuses to stay angry at His people. No matter how bad it is, and bad they are, and how lost they have become in the valley, God will make a “glorious way” to salvation! No matter how dark, they will once again see the light! No matter how oppressed, someone will come to save them. And what is that “glorious way”, from where comes the “light”, and who is that “saviour” from “Galilee”? The answer is Jesus. Let’s read together one of the most important prophecies about Jesus in the Bible, starting at verse 2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”
Do you realize how big of a deal it is that an ancient Jewish Prophet just said that a child would be born who’s name would be called “mighty God”? The hero of the story is the God who would be born as a child. The land is in turmoil, the rulers corrupt, the families in ruin, their holiness stained, the people oppressed and impoverished. This is a land without hope, wherein there is only “the gloom of anguish” and “thick darkness” from which they couldn’t escape.
But God says there is hope, and that hope will come in the form of a child. A child who will take His place on the throne of King David, but will never give up that rule. One who could establish his kingdom for all time as the “Everlasting Father” and “Prince of Peace”. The one that all of God’s people had been waiting for; from Adam and Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, and everyone else since, would come.
Look at the last line in verse 7: “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” No human can save themself. The nation wouldn’t be required to clean themselves up, raise an army, restore the temple, fix their lives, or anything else. They wouldn’t and they couldn’t. They’d proven that over and over. Same with us. Our salvation is not dependent on our ability to clean ourselves up. The term “the zeal of the Lord” expresses the complex concepts of God’s love for His people, His covenant relationship, His jealousy, His preference for His people above all others, and His divine ability to get the job done. It is God who saves us.
This is the drama of Christmas. Our lives and spirits are a mess, our land becoming more corrupt, injustice and frustration abound. We today, sometimes feel very akin to those who lived before Jesus came, and we have similar hopes. This is why we lean so heavily on God’s promises. He promised a Saviour and delivered. And now, we wait in eager anticipation of His second coming, His second “advent”, where He will finish His work once and for all.
Christmas reminds us that no matter how bad things get, believers can have a different perspective on it than anyone else. We have a great and glorious hope, treasure in heaven, and a very present Saviour that is with us everywhere we go. We don’t have to walk the valley of the shadow of death alone, because Jesus offers to lead us through it. We will never be rejected if we come to Him. He will always listen to us and work on our behalf for our good and His glory.
We don’t despair at what the governments and global corporations of the world are doing because Jesus is the Lord of all and nothing gets by Him. Justice will be done. And we know that Jesus isn’t just a great King of the universe, but that He walks with us, weeps with us, comforts us, and provides wisdom, patience, and strength to get through each day. Nothing can separate us from His love, not even death (Rom 8:38-39). And He promises that even the worst things in our life can be turned around and used for good (Rom 8:28)
My invitation to you, over this Christmas season, is to work on your perspective. I’m not telling you to pretend everything is great, but to search your heart, your history, the Bible, and in prayer, for why you can have hope that will never disappoint you (Rom 5:5). And to allow the hope, joy, love and peace of Christmas to flood your hearts and bring you to worship – so you can glorify God and share what He has given you with others.
Chad and Steve tell the stories of how they came to faith. After our last episode which teaches how to give a testimony it only seemed right for us to give our own.
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When I was growing up, my grandparents had a crab apple tree in their front yard, and every time we went to visit them, my brother and I would see the tree and hope the apples were ready to eat. It was actually quite frustrating for us because we found the readiness of crab apple trees is notoriously difficult to predict. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had an unripe crab apple, but if you have, it’s a memorable experience.
They are uncomfortably hard to chew, and as for taste, they have an extremely intense and unappetizing mix of bitterness and sourness that makes you not only never want to take another bite, but uproot and burn the tree, scattering its ashes so as to never be spoken of again.
But! For that extremely brief period of time when they are ripe – in Alberta anyway – just before they freeze and/or turn to mush, they are actually really, really good. A unique taste right off the tree and extremely good for homemade jelly.
We visited our grandparents quite often, and, as I said, each time we were there we would ask if the crab apples were ready. It was most often “no”, but occasionally – whether because they didn’t know or because they enjoyed our suffering – they would say, “I’m not sure, why not go try one?”
Then the games would begin. I, being the older brother, would do my best to get my younger brother, James to take a bite – while he used all his wits and whining to make me do it.
The scripture we’ve been going through for the past while reminds me a lot of that crab apple tree. Before I went on holidays we were stuck at the end of chapter two, talking about the difference between mature and immature Christians. The Corinthian church, though they were Christians –saved people with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them – had not progressed in their faith, but had actually regressed and were living like spiritual infants.
Hearing about this frustrated the Apostle Paul, because he had been their pastor for a year-and-a-half and hadn’t been gone for very long. He had moved on to plant other churches, but even from far away, was hearing reports about how messed up the church in Corinth was. And so, God inspired Paul to write a letter to them, chastising them for their immaturity and instructing them on what needs to change.
Anyone who has experimented with crab apples knows how Paul must have felt. He planted that tree in Corinth expecting it to grow, mature, bear fruit, and for that fruit to be sweet – but instead, the fruit is bitter, sour, wooden, wormy and disappointing. He longs to be able to praise them for their faithfulness and maturity, for turning away from the sinful world they live in so they can bear the fruit of being disciples of Jesus – but he can’t. Instead of being believers who are light and salt in a city lost in the darkness of paganism and moral corruption, loving God, His Word, and each other – they have instead become more like the city, more immoral, have dimmed their light, lost their flavour, and were acting like immature, children.
In chapter 2 it says that that they had stopped living as spiritual people, and had started to live as “natural” people. Essentially, they had given up their connection to God’s life and truth, in favour of seeking out other sources. They had turned away from Jesus as the “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30), which we read about in chapter one, and had tried to find wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption elsewhere – and in that search, had corrupted themselves to the point that they were no longer even able to tell good from bad, evil from holy, saint from sinner, godly from demonic. We see at the end of chapter 2 that they had had lost their “spiritual discernment” (2:14), their ability to “judge” things properly (2:15), and had given up the “mind of Christ” (2:16), in favour of other voices they thought would be just as good.
All of that cut Paul deeply, but I also believe it grieved God’s heart too. God loves His people and hates to see them wander away from Him, because He knows it will only hurt them. And so this letter is written to explain where they have gone wrong, and to try to call them back.
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and read it together
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
Let’s take this apart a little.
In verse 1 we see Paul summarizing the argument he’s been making for almost the whole of the letter so far: the Corinthians aren’t acting like Christians, but like unbelievers. He contrasts two different types of people: the “spiritual people” and the “people of the flesh” – in fact he uses that phrase twice – but follows it up with “as infants in Christ.”
This tells us something important – that the people he was addressing were Christians. This letter was inspired by God and written to a church full of saved people. They were corrupted, sinful, wandering, foolish, carnal, jealous, angry, people – but they were Christians. How could this be?
Because our salvation is not based on our obedience to God, nor our personal holiness, nor our ability to be good, but upon believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ as the crucified and resurrected Saviour of our souls.
Jesus was the one who obeyed all the laws, fulfilling every one. Jesus is the one who perfectly loved the Lord God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly loved His neighbour. Jesus did everything that God commanded of Him, and then offered Himself up in exchange for any sinner who would believe. He would be the once and for all sacrifice, the final payment for sin so that no other payment would ever need to be made. All that is necessary for salvation is to believe in Him.
When the Philippian Jailer asked Paul “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, the answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31)
Right after the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16, where we read about Jesus as a gift: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”, we read John 3:18, where Jesus says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And then a little later in John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is not stingy with the requirements for salvation. He doesn’t demand that we jump through hoops, make grand displays, shave our heads, or sit in sackcloth and ashes, before He saves us. He doesn’t require us to get baptized, join a church, talk to a pastor, walk down an aisle, raise our hand, or anything else. What God requires of us is simply to believe Him that His Son, Jesus Christ, lived perfectly, died on a Roman cross, truly rose from the dead, and took the punishment we deserved.
That’s the Christian invitation. Will you accept that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give His life for yours, to conquer death, to settle your accounts before God, so you could be with your Father in Heaven? If you do, you’re in.
Belief is Harder
In a sense, even though this puts all the work on Jesus’s shoulders, and makes it a free gift that only needs to be accepted, having faith is in some ways harder than doing what other religions teach. Your admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven will not be judged on your actions, but on what you believe – which is actually a much deeper requirement.
Other religions, cults, and even aberrant (or heretical) forms of Christianity, simply give you a laundry list of requirements and behaviours that you must accomplish or align to, and if you achieve a certain percentage of them, then God (or Karma, or the Universe, or whatever) is happy. Follow our religious rituals and rules properly and then you’re life will be weighed out by a cosmic force, and then you’ll see where you end up.
That’s actually a lot easier than God’s requirement for “belief” or “faith”. It’s easier to follow a list of rules than it is to allow your understanding of the universe to be so radically altered that you actually change the way you think about God, yourself and everything else. Following a religion is shallow, believing in Jesus is deep. Checking boxes so you can call yourself a good person is simple, turning your heart, soul, mind and strength over to Jesus because you believe He is the Lord of your life is hard. Saving yourself by following your own personal idea of how to be a good person and get to heaven is easy because you can make excuses and change your requirements anytime you need to, but humbling yourself before God and following Jesus because you believe His way is the only way, is harder. Judging yourself and others by your personal religious beliefs makes you feel proud and superior to others, judging yourself and others by what you believe Jesus says, brings both deep humiliation and deep appreciation for God’s grace.
The Corinthians were saved people. They believed in Jesus as their Saviour. They were a mess, but they were, as Paul says in verse 1, “in Christ” – and that’s all that is necessary for salvation: belief.
Faith Changes Everything
However, we’re not just trying to get people saved, are we? No, we are saved unto something. The Apostle Paul doesn’t want mere belief, or dead faith. God didn’t plant the crab apple tree to have its growth stunted so it could bear only bitter fruit. He planted it so that it would grow bigger, stronger, and bear fruit that He and everyone else could take and eat and call good.
When Paul planted the seed of that church, he wanted to see it sprout. When Apollos preached there afterward, he wanted to help it grow. But it didn’t.
The Bible never stops at belief, or faith, in God. The demons believe God exists, but that isn’t enough for salvation, is it? The demons believe that Jesus is Lord of all and even Saviour of the World, but they are not saved. Why? Because the Christian faith isn’t just about believing the fact that God exists, or believing the fact that Jesus died and rose again, but having that belief, those facts, take over every part of our lives. That’s why the Bible, Old Testament and New, is so full of teachings that tie our faith in God to a changed life.
This is Paul’s message to the Corinthians is, “I want you to become spiritual people, but you are living as ‘people of the flesh’, carnal people who, instead of being obedient to God and controlled by the Holy Spirit, are controlled by your own natural desires. You may believe in Jesus, but your behaviour looks no different than the world. Your thought patterns are not mature, biblical and godly, but look just like the world’s. You claim to be followers of Jesus, but you think and act like pagans. When I came to you, I fed you with milk because you were spiritual babies, and that was appropriate, but you were supposed to grow up!”
In his letter to Titus (2:11-15), who was a Christian leader who he had sent out to check up on the churches he had planted, combat false teaching, and appoint elders before he moved on, he says this,
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.”
Do you see the ebb and flow of salvation with a changed life? The grace of God appears and brings salvation – which trains us to put down the things that are ungodly. We are waiting for the blessed hope, the coming of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ – who redeemed us from lawless and works to purify us. He bought with His blood so we could be His own, and we show we are His by being zealous for good works.
Even Now You’re Not Ready
In Titus, Paul is talking to a mature church leader who is given some deep teaching and then commanded to go and declare and exhort and rebuke others, but in Corinth, Paul is talking to spiritual babies. In verse 2 he says, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” How does he know that they’re still “of the flesh”, acting like spiritual babies? Verse 3 says, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
There’s a bunch of reasons he’s going to get into in the rest of the letter – from their sexual sin to their acceptance of pagan worship practices – but he starts with how they are treating each other. Their church is full of “jealousy and strife”.
How does he know that they are not maturing in their faith? The first reason he gives is because of their attitude towards one another. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Paul’s argument is that since there is “jealousy and strife” among them, then they are acting like “people of the flesh” and are “behaving only in a human way”. This is a deep, cutting accusation.
In Galatians 5:19-21 we read the opposite of the “fruit of the Spirit”, which are called “the works of the flesh” which include: “sexual immorality… idolatry, sorcery… drunkenness, [and] orgies”, which we would all agree are worldly and sinful, but also included in the list “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [and] envy” – all relational words. Then scripture says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is how sour the fruit of this church was – they were acting like those who are still on the side of the kingdom of Satan and bound for hell. Paul says, “I can’t address you as mature Christians, and your fruit is terrible, because you are still living by the desires of your flesh, living carnal lives, driven by worldly wisdom, and treating each other the way unbelievers do.”
The point of today’s message, and what I believe God is saying here, is twofold.
First, that we understand that we are saved by our faith in the grace of God alone, not by anything we can do – but that that belief must change our lives. If you’re a new believer or a young person, then it is to be expected that you will struggle with the things all new believers struggle with.
- How can I put down the sinful habits I’ve built up?
- How can I learn how to turn to God instead of my vices?
- How can I build healthy boundaries in my life in order to combat bad influences, but still let my light shine?
- How can I discipline myself to read the bible and pray regularly?
- What does my relationship with God mean in relation to my wife, kids, friends, family, school, past, present, future?
- How can I live a life that honours Jesus, and still enjoy the good things in this world?
- How can I get over bitterness, laziness, or prejudice?
- What does God want me to do with my life?
- What are my gifts? What am I supposed to do at church?
- What messed up things have I believed about God, His people, and the world, that I need to change in favour of discovering the truth?
All of these are really important questions, and ones that every new believer has to go through. But that’s the point – we go through them and then continue our journey into deeper things. We allow our belief in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour to open us to the influence of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we become more like Jesus every day.
That’s called maturing, and it’s something that most Christians don’t do. One of my favourite bible teachers talks about the “unnatural man” called the carnal Christian. He sees it as a bad hybrid, an unnatural joining of light and darkness, hot and cold, good and evil. He says,
“The carnal Christian is the one who hasn’t grown up spiritually, and it is evident that he lacks spiritual discernment – not because he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit within him, but because he is not growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ…. This is a consequence of his relationship to the Word of God…. This unnatural man, this carnal Christian, is a babe in Christ. He has an ability but no desire…. Unfortunately it is on this level that most church members are living today. How can we identify the carnal Christian? It is the Christian who is using the weak arm of the flesh. He uses carnal methods to obtain spiritual goals…. Their motto is: Do what comes naturally. Let the flesh have its way.” (Thru The Bible with J Vernon McGee, Vol 5, 1 Corinthains, Pg 16-17)
He’s right. Many of the Christians I have known and have served, have the ability to grow, but no desire. They live as children of the world, but claim to be followers of Jesus. They come up with all kinds of human, worldly, carnal methods to try to obtain things that can only be given by God. They try to combat spiritual problems with worldly wisdom. They seek human answers to spiritual questions.
This is the first issue, the lack of maturity in the Christian church – and the lack of desire for maturity – which creates carnal Christians, lukewarm church, and people who live as spiritual babies for their whole life, doing more damage than good for God’s Kingdom.
The second point is connected to the first: that we must engage in actively choosing to live as spiritual people and not as natural ones. Another translation of our passage today said it this way, “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your own desires?”
That’s exactly right.
“By remaining immature and allowing that immaturity to divide them, they were wreaking havoc on the church…. James wrote, ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?’” (Life Application Bible Commentary, 1 &2 Corinthians, Pg 48)
Christians aren’t to be controlled by their fleshly desires or their carnal thoughts, or it will lead to trouble in all of their relationships! We are to turn those thoughts over to God and allow the Holy Spirit to control and change our desires. Whenever we choose to be guided by our own wisdom or natural desires, we run the risk of doing things simply to gratify our sinful nature. And that is dangerous.
So, my closing question to you today is this, are you maturing as a Christian – whatever phase you’re in – or are you stuck in spiritual infancy, repeating the same old sins over and over again? When God comes to evaluate your fruit, does it taste like it has maturing in godliness where your life lines up with your beliefs? Or does it taste of hypocrisy, where you’ve claimed to be a believer, but you are still behaving in a fleshly way?
I encourage you to do something difficult: ask those closest to you about this. Ask your parents, children, spouse, and Christian friends if you are walking in step with what you say you believe. Ask them if they have seen you mature and grow over the past year, or if you seem exactly the same (or worse) as you were last year and the year before.
Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Today is Easter Sunday, the day that the Christian church has set aside for hundreds of years – dating back to the third century – to celebrate and remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! This event is the single most important event in the history of humanity!
To start today, I want to show you a clip that I found online that comes from an annual event in Australia called the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”. This is a group that brings leaders and thinkers from around the world together to discuss and debate big ideas.
For example, in 2009 they had famous atheist Christopher Hitchens present the topic of “Religion Poisons Everything” and then Cardinal George Pell talked about how “Without God we are Nothing”. In 2012 they had talks entitled “All Women Hate Each Other”, “A Foetus is Not a Person” and “The Devil is Real”. So that’s the type of environment we’re talking about here. A group of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals all gathered together to see who can either inform or offend the most people with their chosen position.
This clip is from 2013 and comes from the Q&A portion and I want you to listen to the answers from three of the panelists. First you will hear from Gay Activist Dan Savage, then Feminist icon Germain Greer, and finally, Journalist and Author Peter Hitchens.
Before I play though, let me quickly relate a little of Peter Hitchen’s fascinating story. He’s a Christian author, and he’s at this “Festival” to represent the Christian side of things, but the story of his coming to faith is almost as dramatic as the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
His brother is the famous, and recently deceased atheist author I just mentioned who spoke on “Religion Poisons Everything”, and at one point both brothers agreed that belief in God was ridiculous. Peter was literally a hard-core, Bible-burning, Marxist.
The story goes that while on holiday with his girlfriend in France, they went to view a famous painting called “Last Judgement” (by Rodgier Van der Weyden), when upon looking at the painting, suddenly the question, “What if I have to face judgement someday?” crept into his mind – and stuck there – sending him on a path of discovery that would bring him to faith in Jesus Christ and conservative Christianity. In 2010 he wrote a book called “The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith” as a counterpoint to his brother’s book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” which was written the year before.
So, with all that in mind, take a look at this clip:
The answers to that question: “Which idea would most change the world for the better?” were incredibly varied. The first guy, Dan Savage, who is a professional sex therapist wants to practice population control and maybe even kill all babies for 30 years. The second person, Germaine Greer, is a radical feminist who believes that all men hate women and desire to enslave them, says that the best thing that we could do for this planet would be to throw off all moral constraints and embrace ultra-individualism.
Both of those answers, by the way, simply come down to being “If you want to create a better world, let everyone do whatever they want without consequences.” It was maddening to listen to the applause for those answers – loud applause for population control and mandatory abortions – and then hear absolute silence after Hitchens gave his answer about Jesus.
Hitchens’ answer, obviously, is the one that I want to focus on today, because he gives the right answer! Let me read his answer again:
“The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter… Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”
He’s absolutely correct. There is no more dangerous, life-altering, world-changing, perspective-shifting, truth in all the universe than the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Believing that changes everything about everything.
If it’s true, then that means that there is a God, the Bible is true, there really is a definitive moral law (right and wrong does exist and we don’t get to make it up). It means that this is not all there is, and that we need to stop living in the moment, but live in the light of eternity. And that God has judged humanity as sinners, condemned us to Hell, and anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus for salvation is truly doomed. Christianity is no mere cultural belief or part-time religious hobby– it’s a worldview-shattering truth.
The Resurrection As Fact
That’s why Christians vehemently reject the idea that Jesus was simply a good, moral teacher who had some great ideas about how to make the world better. Jesus wasn’t like one of those people at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” who stands up, pontificates on a few points, comes up with a few interesting ideas, and then slides out of history to allow the next thinker to build on His ideas.
No, Christians teach and believe that Jesus Christ is the third person of the Trinity, the Son of God, equal in majesty and authority with God the Father. And that at one point in history, Jesus, who was never created, but existed eternally, came into His creation, adding to Himself the flesh of a human being, so He could perfectly identify with us.
Because of God’s love for us, He sent His Son to be born as a baby, grow up to be a man, live a perfect life, and then die for the sins of all who would believe. Because He’d never broken God’s law, He did not stand under the judgement of God. Out of love for us, God laid the punishment for sins upon Jesus, exchanging His Son for us on the cross. He took the punishment we deserve. On Good Friday, God poured out all His wrath against sin onto His innocent Son, so that we, the guilty could be spared. Sin brought death and separation from God, so sin needed to be dealt with, and God dealt with it by having Jesus die for us instead.
And to prove, once and for all, that He had destroyed the consequences of sin and conquered death, Jesus rose from the dead and promised that anyone who would put their faith in Him as their Lord and Saviour, would rise from the dead as well. Anyone who does not is required to face their own judgement and punishment from God, which is Hell.
This belief is foundational to our whole worldview; it’s the bedrock that we base our life, faith and existence upon. It is the beginning of our entire way of thinking and the reason for our hope. That’s why we make sure that everyone knows that when we talk about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we aren’t talking about an idea, but an historical fact! Our faith in Jesus and Christian worldview isn’t held together by how strongly we believe – but on how strong the evidence is for what we believe. Our love for Jesus isn’t based in a theory, an idea, or a philosophy, but on the true and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember the Resurrection
1 Corinthians 15 shows us how foundational this belief is.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians church, he was writing to a church with a lot of issues: sexual immorality was rampant, they were taking each other to court, they had huge flaws in their theology and were divided into factions, some people were literally starving while others were getting drunk during the Lord’s supper, and I could go on… it was a mess.
So, after taking 14 chapters to teach and correct a whole bunch of these problems, Paul does something critically important – he reminds them of their foundation of their faith. They were wandering around, straying from their convictions, getting into trouble, splintering the church, and ruining their witness, and Paul in Chapter 15, like a referee at a basketball game blows the whistle loud and calls them back to the centre. Let’s read what Paul says:
“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.”
What’s happening here? Paul is telling them that they have stepped off of the firm foundation and are walking into quicksand. Some false teachers had crept into the church and had started chipping away at their faith in the resurrection, which had caused them to forget the cost of their salvation, which caused them to start to believe that how they lived really didn’t matter, which resulted in all kinds of problems.
The point here is that everything we do as Christians has its roots in the resurrection. What we believe about this life and the afterlife affects every decision we make, every relationship we have, and how we set our priorities. The issue here is that we start to wander from our faith in God and obedience to His Word when we start to forget that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a true, historical fact. It is much easier to neglect our souls, live for ourselves, and pretend God doesn’t see what we’re doing, when we distance our minds from the belief that Jesus Christ really did live, die and rise again.
And I totally understand, 2000 years after the event, living in a country thousands of miles away, in a completely different era, that it’s difficult to keep that truth in our minds. Every day we are presented with a thousand distractions and reasons to live like it is all just a fairy-tale for weakminded people who can’t deal with their own problems. I get that.
And that was already happening in the Corinthian church, only 30 years after the resurrection! So the Apostle Paul blows the whistle and calls everyone back to centre so they can reset their minds and hearts. He tells them they need to “hold fast” to what was preached or they’re going to get themselves into trouble. Don’t be swayed by other messages and untruths, or you will be in danger of having a false and useless faith! You won’t be saved because you don’t believe the right things!
This isn’t just a big deal, it’s the biggest of deals! We must deal with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and remember its consequences every day. The passage continues:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”
Notice that for a second – he’s about to talk about something that is “of first importance”. This is the number one thing that must be gotten right, above and beyond everything else. He received the knowledge from Jesus and the apostles and then delivered it to the Corinthians, and they had let other things distract them. Paul calls them back to the most important thing. And what is that:
“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…”
The number one thing that Christians need to remember and hold fast to is the reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death wasn’t an accident, it was planned. The whole of the Old Testament points to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His sacrifice wasn’t an afterthought. – it was the plan all along! From Genesis to Malachi, the plan was for Jesus to die for sin, be buried in the ground, and then rise again on the third day.
Evidence for the Resurrection
How sure was Paul that Jesus died and then rose again? 100%! This wasn’t just a hope or a story, but was historical fact. How do we know this? Because of what Paul says next:
“…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.”
Do you see how the most important fact about Jesus is not that He is a good teacher, but that He’s resurrected Christ? Paul calls the Corinthians back to the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection so they would get their hearts right with God. Later, the Apostle Peter would say something similar when he wrote,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
In other words, “Guy’s we’re not making this up! We saw this with our own eyes! This is a true report! You need to change your lives, change your heart, alter your course, and come to Jesus because He really does exist, He really is the Son of God, He really did die for your sins, and He really did rise from the dead, and He really is coming back to judge everyone!”
Sometimes Christians forget why we tell others about Jesus. It’s not so that we can grow our church, get more money in tithes, or make the world a nicer, more moral place. We’re not just sharing nice stories so people can deal with this difficult world. We talk about Jesus because the Gospel is true! He’s alive right now, He’s making salvation available, and judgement day is coming! We’re sharing the truth!
Evidence and Counter Arguments for the Resurrection
Not everyone believes that though, do they? And so, quickly, like Paul did for the Corinthians, I want to go through a few of the evidences for the historical, factual resurrection of Jesus Christ. When you start to doubt or to forget, you can come back to a few of these to remember that your life isn’t based on “cleverly devised stories and myths”, but on the person of Jesus Christ. And for this exercise we are going to assume a few things:
- First, that Jesus was an historical person. This is something that everyone (Christian and non-Christian) agrees with, so that’s not a problem.
- Second, we are going to assume that Jesus really did die on the cross – another nearly undisputed fact, despite what Dan Brown would have us think.
- Third, we are going to assume that the biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection are the best historical documents we have for understanding this event – and that’s also true. Critical historians of all stripes – believers and non – all accept that the gospel accounts are accurate in their historical detail. They may disagree about the mystical parts and the conclusions that the church gleaned from them afterward, but most agree that the details are historical.
What we are going to concentrate on is the empty tomb. If Jesus did live, and did die, then the only question that remains is: did He rise again? Paul’s answer is: He appeared to Peter, the apostles, and 500 other people, and himself, so ask us. We can’t do that, so we’ll do the next best thing – we’ll look at the evidence.
Here’s some possible explanations for the empty tomb that have come up through the years and some counter arguments to them.
The Swoon Theory
First is what people call the “swoon theory”. This is the idea that Jesus was merely unconscious when He was laid in the tomb, and later woke up and went to find the disciples to claim He had risen again.
The evidence against this one is fairly straight forward. First, the Roman solider in charge of killing the prisoners decided not to break Jesus’ legs because he knew Jesus had died. (Mark 15:44-45) Then he took a large, sharp spear and stabbed Jesus through the ribs and into his heart, letting out blood from the heart and water from the protective sack surrounding it. (John 19:32-34) No one walks away from that.
Next, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus body cocoon-style, head to toe, in tight linen and 75 pounds of powdered spices. It’s very difficult to believe they wouldn’t have figured out he was still alive. And even then, if they didn’t notice, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have gotten out considering His injuries and blood-loss.
Finally, there is no way that a beaten and bloodied, mostly dead Jesus would have inspired his believers put their faith in Him because He had been resurrected and conquered death. They’re not that gullible.
The Wrong Tomb
The next theory is that the women and disciples went to wrong tomb. This is unlikely too. According to Matthew 26:61, the two women were there when He was placed in the tomb and it’s very implausible they forgot which one it was. And according to John 20, Peter and John went to the tomb too, and it’s really, really unlikely that between the four of them none of them knew where Jesus was buried.
Thieves or the Apostles Stole the Body
Another theory is either thieves or the apostles themselves stole the body. This is doubtful considering that there were a bunch of Roman soldiers sealed the tomb and then were stationed outside of it to make sure that exact thing didn’t happen. (Matthew 27:65-66) Furthermore, the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead and they met Him, was a real problem for His followers. People make up stories for their own benefit. People lie to achieve something. The apostles didn’t get any earthly benefit from relating the story that Jesus rose again. They were rejected by their people, beaten, abused, tortured, and eventually killed for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At some point, if it was made up, they would have said so. It wasn’t worth the trouble they got into. The only reason they kept teaching that Jesus rose again was because it was true and He had changed their entire life.
The Key to Hope and Faith
And, going back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, that’s the whole point. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything! It means that salvation is real and available. It means that Jesus has all the power to fulfil His promises to give us hope, a future, a purpose in this world, the presence of the Holy Spirit, daily help to meet our needs, and to bring us into eternity with Him. The resurrection means everything, and without it we are nothing.
Listen to how Paul says it:
“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 15:12-19)
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we are here for no reason, we misrepresent the truth, we have no salvation, and there death is still something to be feared. If Jesus didn’t rise again, sin is still victorious, death is still our enemy, evil still rules the day, and everyone who died has been condemned to Hell.
As scripture says, if we only believe in Jesus for the benefits that come in this life, then we should be pitied – because we are the greatest of fools. We deny ourselves pleasures, sacrifice for others, humble ourselves, face persecution and argument, and talk about hope, love and faith – and for what? If it’s all a lie, and no one is raised again, then what’s the point.
I asked someone who recently came back to Christianity after falling away for some years, “What was that like to wake up every day without God, without heaven, without salvation, without Jesus, without hope?” Their answer: “It was terrible.”
And they were right. Life without Jesus, without the resurrection, is terrible. But life in the light of the resurrection is worth living – and more than that – worth giving our lives for.
While wandering around Ottawa we come across Israel’s official Embassy and it gets us talking about the history of the Jews and the hatred some people have against them.
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The Charge of the Light Brigade
There’s a scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan that gives a great illustration of waht we’re talking about today. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a squad of soldiers who have been given the task of tracking down a paratrooper who is the last surviving brother of four servicemen. One of the main themes comes out as they argue with each other about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
At one point in the film, as they are marching along yet another difficult path, they are once again questioning whether or not saving one man at the price of so many is a reasonable order to follow. Shouldn’t they be fighting the enemy instead of risking? Shouldn’t they be somewhere else? What makes Private James Francis Ryan so important that we have to risk our lives for him?
As they walk along, talking together, one of the men quotes a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” which goes: “Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do and die.” Another soldier looks over and says, “What is that supposed to mean? We’re supposed to die, is that it?”. The Captain of the squad replies, “He’s talking about our duty as soldiers…. We all have orders, and we have to follow ‘em. That supersedes everything.” The questioning solider asks, “Even if you think the mission is [completely messed up]?” And the captain responds, “Especially if you think the mission’s [completely messed up].”
The Lord Tennyson poem that was quoted in the fictional movie was written following a real, historical event known as The Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. Tennyson had read the account of the battle in the newspaper and, as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, wrote a few verses. Each stanza tells a different part of the story, and paints a heartbreaking picture of a group of cavalry soldiers who, because of a miscommunication in the chain of command, weren’t set to pursue a retreating Russian battery, but into a full, frontal assault against a well prepared artillery group.
Let me read the first few verses of the poem:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
“Charge for the guns!” he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turn’d in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Is that how it’s mean to be for Christians? “Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die…” Are we allowed to ask God why? Because, to be honest, a lot of what goes on in this world seems like “Someone blunder’d”. But even a person of great faith, with long-standing trust in God, sometimes asks themselves, “Why, God?”.
We certainly ask this on a global scale every time we read the news:
- Why is there so much wrong in the world?
- Why are You allowing people to murder children?
- Why would you let North Korea have nuclear capabilities?
- Why is there so much sickness and death around us?
- Why isn’t the world more fair?
- Why don’t you just wipe out all the terrorists, abortionists, pornographers and evil?
- Why do you allow famine, plague, and natural disaster?
- Why do You allow false teachers into your church?
- Why won’t you send revival to our town, city or nation?
And of course, it’s not just global, it’s personal:
- Why did you make me how I am?
- Why did make my children to be the way they are?
- Why is my family suffering like this?
- Why can’t I find a job?
- Why would let me befriend, date, or marry this person if you knew they were going to hurt me?
- Why won’t you take away this temptation, addiction, struggle?
- Why does it have to be like this?
We have spiritual questions too:
- Why do good people suffer while evil people are prospering?
- Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?
- Why, when I’m doing my very best for God, do I experience such terrible treatment from others?
This is what Habakkuk is all about. The short book of Habakkuk gives us a chance to listen in on a conversation that a prophet is having with God during a time of great difficulty around him. He wants an answer, not just for Him, but for everyone. He was likely a priest, or a worship leader, in the temple, and he wants some kind of answer that he can bring to the people that keep coming to him and asking him what God is doing.
His world was a mess. Habakkuk lived during the time after King Josiah while the Prophet Jeremiah was alive. If you’ve done any reading in Kings of Jeremiah, then you know that it was some bad times. The Northern Kingdom of Israel, after years and years of rebellion against God, had already been nearly wiped out and taking into captivity by the Babylonians, and God was about to do the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
God had sent prophet after prophet – Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Naham, Zephaniah, Jeremiah – to warn the nation that they needed to repent or they would have to be disciplined. King after king rejected the prophets and continued to worship foreign gods, harm God’s people, reject God’s laws, and make alliances with pagan nations. The temple was desecrated, the political officers and religious leaders became more corrupt and people slipped into more and more sin.
There had been some bad kings in Judah, but also some good ones. Josiah was the last, good one and reigned for 31 years. After him came a steep slide that Habakkuk had courtside seats to watch.
After Josiah died, his son only reigned for three months before being overthrown by the King of Egypt, putting his brother Jehoiakim on the throne. Jehoiakim was such a fool that he banned the Jeremiah from speaking to him, and when he sent a scroll outlining God’s message to him, Jehoiakim burned it. Then the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar, defeated Egypt, sieged Jerusalem, and took Jehoiakim captive.
Habakkuk’s homeland was a nightmare, and he did what all people of faith should do when they are times of such difficulty and confusion – He prayed.
Let’s read Habakkuk 1:1-4:
“The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”
King Josiah had made some great reforms, getting rid of pagan worship practices among the people and restoring the Law of God as the rule of life, but after he died in battle defending his people, the nation’s slide had been both precipitous and disastrous. King Jehoiakim was nothing like his father Josiah. He was brutal, unjust and seemed only to care about how big he could build his palace. He was so bad that he actually killed the Prophet Uriah for criticizing him (Jer 26:23) – not even the most wicked of kings had been so evil.
Look at the words Habakkuk uses: “violence, wrong, destruction, strife, contention, wicked…” Every level of his nation and life was corrupted, and he had been praying for a long time – and it only got worse. Certainly, he wasn’t the only one praying. There were others, no doubt, who were asking the same questions. But as he prayed, asking, “Why, God, why?”,this priestly worship leader, was given the chance to hear an answer.
Why Do you Tolerate Wrong?
His main question is found in verse 3: “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?”
He was saying, “God, I see it, and I know that you see it — so God… why aren’t you doing anything?”
Habakkuk was a good theologian! His book is quoted multiple times in the New Testament. He knows God. You can hear him saying, “God, I know you’re there, and I know you have power, and I know you hate evil, and I know you love your people, and I know that you answer prayer, and I know you’ve done miracles in the past, and I know that you have a plan… but I can’t see you doing anything! It really feels like you are being idle. Are you just standing there watching your people drown in sin, sorrow and pain? Are you like a lifeguard that refuses to get in the water to save a drowning man? Why won’t you do something? Are you asleep? Are you gone? Don’t you care?”
Have you ever asked questions like this? I know you have, because we all have. I have – many times. We get sick, or depressed, or someone we care about is hurt, or something terrible happens on the news, and we start out thinking, “Yeah, this is just a temporary thing. Most of my life is pretty good. I’m sure this will pass.” But it doesn’t. And it gets worse. And worse. And then more bad things happen. The pain is relentless, the loneliness is crushing, the temptations are overwhelming, the confusion is staggering, and it all seems totally hopeless, so we turn to God and say, “Ok, God… now’s the time to act.”
This feeling is so common that we read it over and over in scripture. David, more than a few times, cries out in pain and questions God:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps 13:1)
“How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Psalm 89:46)
The Apostle Paul writes, describing his life on the road as a gospel preacher, not as one full of amazing joys, but that he feels as fragile as a clay pot. He says,
“…we have this treasure in jars of clay… We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
Habakkuk has been praying, and God’s not doing anything. He prays for peace and experiences only war. He prays for renewal and revival and sees only more sin. He cries out for the end of the violence, and it only gets worse. He prays for justice and is faced with more corruption. “The wicked surround the righteous” and “justice never” happens.
But is just biblical times, right? It’s not like Christians ever feel this way, right? We’re all passed that now! Health and wealth for everyone, right? Of course not.
I’m reminded of a song that deeply touched my own heart when I was going through some tough times. It’s called “Praise You in This Storm” by Casting Crowns. The first line echoes what I think we’ve all felt at times: “I was sure by now, God You would have reached down, and wiped our tears away, stepped in and saved the day. But once again, I say ‘Amen’, and it’s still raining.” I prayed. I trusted. I waited. And it’s still raining, God.
We cry out with Habakkuk, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?”
It’s Right to Ask
First, I want to let you know that even though it may not feel like it’s doing anything, prayer is still the right place to start. David felt alone, afraid, surrounded and perplexed – so he called out to God to help him. Paul felt pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down – but he brought it all to God. Habakkuk felt like his whole world was falling apart (and it was) – so his response was to cried to God to stop the pain and to give him some hope.
Humans need to bring our biggest questions to God. Where else can we bring them? When it comes to ultimate questions, like why things are the way they are, where else can we bring them other than the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the One who knows beginning and the end? It’s right and good for us to ask these questions.
The world doesn’t do this. The human response to pain and suffering is fight or flight. Either wage war on that which is causing problems, or run away and hide from it. The spiritual response is the one that we are reading here – to stop and ask God, “What is going on here? Are you seeing this? What are you going to do about it?”
The world doesn’t believe God gets involved. They don’t see God getting involved in the affairs of men and therefore believe that He either doesn’t care or doesn’t exist. God isn’t working the way they want Him to, and so they dismiss him as absent. It’s easy to see why though. Most of us aren’t mature enough to really see God stepping into the world on a daily basis.
- Where is he when babies are murdered and teen girls are victims of human trafficking?
- Where is God when a corrupt government slaughters its citizens?
- Why doesn’t He speak when the atheists cry out “God is dead!”?
- Why would he allow his people to be murdered by the hundreds by Islamic terrorists or his churches to be burned to the ground?
Doesn’t he care?
The world concludes that the lack of God’s direct interference in stopping these evils means that God is either powerless or non-existent. But what is the Christian response?
Our response is to listen to God, and to read His word, and pray. What we do is to bring the question directly to Him and seek an answer to the question: “God, why is this happening?”
Now, In a moment I’m going to read God’s answer to this question, but I warn you, you’re probably not going to like it. What God does for Habakkuk is what He does for all of us at these times, if we let Him – He takes our eyes off of ourselves, and gives us a view of the bigger plan God has for the world.
Remember verse 3, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?” Well as Habakkuk stood, praying and weeping, asking God these questions, God’s response was to scoop him up and give him a helicopter ride, thousands of feet above his little city. He gives Habakkuk something else to “see” and “look at”; a heavenly perspective of what is happening. God has not be idle. It’s an answer to Habakkuk’s prayer – but not the one he wanted.
Let’s read from verse 5:
“Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. 6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own.7 They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. 8 Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. 9 They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand. 10 At kings they scoff, and at rulers they laugh. They laugh at every fortress, for they pile up earth and take it. 11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!”
God didn’t owe Habakkuk an explanation, but in His grace, He decided to give him one anyway. God’s answer to Habakkuk was to give him assurance that God was absolutely at work in all that was happening, that He hadn’t been idle and he hadn’t forgotten them, and that there absolutely was a plan at work – but that plan was on a global scale and had infinite complexity.
God’s answer to Habakkuk’s prayer for peace and the end of violence and corruption wasn’t to magically bring peace, but to deal out ultimate destruction. Verse 5 says, “Look… and see; wonder and be astounded…. I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.”
“See, Habakkuk, the reason your so confused is because your view is so finite. You are too small to comprehend what I’ve been doing, and what I’m about to do. There’s no way you’d be able to figure this plan out, and so I’m going to show you a piece of it. Yes, I’ve seen the error of my people’s ways. I’ve seen the corruption of their justice and religious systems. I’ve seen their sin and rebellion, and I intend to deal with it. ”
And the way God is planning to deal with it is a way none of us, especially Habakkuk, would ever have prescribed. He plans on taking the most pagan, evil, corrupt, self-centred, arrogant, nation in the world, led by a egomaniacal emperor named Nebuchandezzar, as a hammer to crush the wills of me people. The entire goal of the Chaldeans, who were closely associated with the Babylonians, was simple: take over the world by ruthlessly enslaving everyone in it.
God describes their brutality to Habakkuk in no uncertain terms. They are bitter, hasty, dreaded, fearsome, fierce, scoffing, devouring. If Habakkuk was complaining about the violence he saw now – just wait a few years until the Babylonians come through town. They will bring violence and terror with them like he’s never seen.
And history records that’s exactly what happened. After King Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin lasted only three months before Nebuchadnezzar kicked him out and appointed 21 year old Zedekiah to rule. He would be the last King of Judah.
He survived 11 years, surrounded by war and international conflict. Finally, he saw that things were getting too intense and called for the prophet Jeremiah’s help. Jeremiah told him that defeat was inevitable because God had decreed it. His counsel was that the king should surrender peacefully to Nebuchadnezzar (thereby also surrendering to God’s inevitable plan to discipline the nation) so it would be easier on him and the people. Zedekiah refused to relent and decided instead to try to defend the city against the huge Babylonian army. The response was one of the most brutal sieges in history. They killed his family, tore out his eyes, burned the palace, destroyed the buildings, tore down the walls of the city, killed thousands, took many prisoners, and left the poorest to die, starving in the streets.
That’s was the answer to Habakkuk’s questions. When he asked, “Why don’t you do something?” God’s answer was, “I am doing something. I’m going to make it way, way worse.”
Conclusion and Christ
We’ll get back to the conversation next week, but let me close with a few thoughts: Habakkuk was right to ask the question, “Why, God, why?”, but He had no right to presume that the answer was going to be a pleasant one. Sometimes God’s plans seem extremely difficult to us. Sometimes the Lord of the Universe works to accomplish His purposes in ways that are too hard for us to understand or believe.
We must be willing to say with the Prophet Isaiah said,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Tennyson said of the soldiers at the Charge of the Light Brigaded, “Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die”. That’s not what Christians believe. We are allowed to ask why. God encourages us to. Over and over in scripture we read about people who have their doubts about what God is doing, but take their doubts to God. To doubt is not the same as to stop believing. Warren Weirsbe said,
“A doubter questions God and may eve debate with God, but the doubter doesn’t abandon God…. Unbelief is rebellion against God, a refusal to accept what He says and does.”
That’s the difference. A Christian comes to God with their pain and their questions, and with the expectations of answers and comfort. And God is happy to respond by strengthen their spirit. But a Christian does not presume on the way God will answer their prayer. Sometimes the answer is the miracle we want, but more often it’s something we would never have seen coming, or ever desired. Sometime God’s will for us is more suffering, more pain, more frustration, more difficulty? Why? To break us.
He knows that the only way we are going to hate our sin, hate the sin of this world, and finally and totally trust Him, is if we go through the valley of the shadow of death. He knows that’s the only path that will lead us to find freedom in Him and through which He will receive the most glory.
This is most perfectly seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Paul was preaching to a group of Jewish people one day, they mocked his message about Jesus. No doubt they said things like:
- God would never come to earth to be one of us!
- God would never send the Messiah just to die!
- The Messiah would never identify with sinners!
- There’s no way that God loves sinners!
- God would never place the curse of sin upon Himself!
- There’s no way Jesus, the man who died on a Roman cross was doing God’s will.
- How could a condemned man be doing the work that would save people from sin and death forever?
- God doesn’t raise the dead!
And Paul’s final words, after sharing the message of salvation by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was to quote a form of Habakkuk 1:5,
“Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” (Acts 13:41)
The lesson for us today is to remember that warning. It is ok for us to be astounded by God’s plan for our lives, and even troubled by it. But are we willing to relent and let God do what God wants to do? Remember Zedekiah? Jeremiah warned him to surrender! Stop fighting God and just accept what He is going to do. It will go better for you and everyone else if you quit fighting God! If you fight God, you will lose!
My encouragement to you is the same as Jeremiah’s and Paul’s. Relent to God. Talk to God, like Habakkuk did, and ask God why – and then when you get off your knees, trust God’s plan and do what He says – even if it’s something extremely hard like having to go through a long time of suffering. Maybe for a while, the only good thing you will have is the memories of what God has done in the past. Let that be enough for now.
Believe He knows what He’s doing and that His plan is better than yours. Stop fighting Him and all the ways he wants to save you, and start trusting Him. Exercise your faith by being willing to go where God wants you to go, even if you don’t want to. He will go with you. He will be with you every step of the way, and He won’t waste a moment of your pain.
Then, later, perhaps much later, you will see what He has been doing, and then you will be able to say, “God, you’re plan was good. I don’t understand all of it, even now. I would never have chosen it. But your plan was good, better than I would have come up with. I scoffed your plan, I fought against it, but you kept with me. God, you are faithful, and I’m learning to trust you. Help me learn from this and keep trusting you.”[audio
Just this week we celebrated the birthday of someone that has touched all our lives – though most of us have never heard of him. On December 11th, 1792, Joseph Mohr was born in Salsburg, Austria.
His childhood was one that was filled with strife and shame. He was his mother’s third illegitimate child. His father was soldier who deserted from the army and fled when he learned that his mother was pregnant with him. His mother, Ann, had to face the consequences alone.
One of the consequences she had to face was a fine. She had a little income from her boarding house and knitting, but it would take a year’s wages to pay her fine. In a bid to help his reputation, the town’s executioner, who was hated by everyone, said he would pay the fine for her… if he could be the child’s godfather. Unfortunately this only meant more humiliation for the boy. He would be ostracized wherever he went and no school would accept him. No employer would hire him. No one would teach him a trade.
One thing Joseph could do was sing. One day a Benedictine monk and choirmaster overheard him singing as he played games on the steps of the monastery. The monk obtained his mother’s permission to train the lad as a singer, and Mohr blossomed under his care. By twelve years old he was well on his way to mastering the organ, guitar and violin. Despite his social disadvantage, he held his own among the elite students, always placing near the top of the class.
He continued his training and eventually decided to become a priest. However, because his father had deserted him, he needed a special dispensation from the pope before he could be ordained. The pope agreed and Joseph entered the priesthood at twenty-three.
One Christmas Eve, in 1818, in the newly constructed Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, nestled in Austrian Alps, Father Joseph Mohr sat preparing for the midnight service. He was distraught because the church organ was broken, ruining prospects for that evening’s carefully planned music.
Father Joseph prayed and sat down in front of his desk. Out of nowhere a new song came into his mind, one that could be sung without the organ. He hastily wrote out the words that flooded into his mind and rushed over to his organist, Franz Gruber, and explained that though Franz wouldn’t be playing, he needed him to compose a simple tune for this new song.
That night, playing his guitar and accompanied by one other person, Joseph sang for the first time: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Shortly after, Joseph was telling the story of the near-disaster of Christmas Eve to the organ repair main, who took a copy of the text and tune and spread it through all through Austria. The charming little song seemed perfect for the snow-clad region, and perfect for the Christian heart. Soon folks singers throughout the area had taken up the tune, even using it to drum up business to sell gloves at local fairs and festivals.
Soon, even the king and queen were singing the song after it was sung during a royal performance, assuring the carol’s fame.
Silent Night has been translated into well over a hundred languages and is one of the most beloved songs of the holiday season.
Here’s why I tell you this story today: Silent Night, Holy Night… one of the most beautiful, meaningful and peaceful songs we sing each year… came from very unpeaceful circumstance. Were it not for a broken home and a broken organ, we wouldn’t have Silent Night. It was because God knows how to bring beauty out of chaos, joy out of shame, peace out of frustration, hope from hopelessness, that we are able to sing that song each year.
That’s what God does. Turn with me to Luke 1:26 and let’s read the story of the birth announcement of Jesus Christ. As we read, I want you to look for how much disquiet there is. I want you to see how God took a life at peace – Mary’s Life – and turned it upside down on purpose.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:26-45)
Here’s where I want to park today. This is Mary’s Song, historically called The Magnificat. Let’s read it together:
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.” (Luke 1:46-56)
All at once, Mary’s life is turned upside down. An angel comes out of nowhere, which is terrifying enough, but his message is even more troubling – she’s going to have a baby. All her plans are put on hold. Her child will be the Messiah – which is amazing – but it’s also going to seriously change everything in her life. Mary, out of her love and trust for God, believes what will happen and responds with “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” From that moment, her life will never be the same.
This baby, even at the moment of conception, was causing a stir. Her reputation around town is shot because now she is with child but without a husband. Her fiancé, Joseph, is so troubled by the news that he is about to dump her until God miraculously intervenes. Mary must have been so happy to hear that there was another woman, and she was a relative, that also had her life turned topsy-turvy by God. She packs quickly and leaves town – albeit under a cloud of neighbourly suspicion – to be with Elizabeth, lend support and be supported.
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were people who were angry about their circumstance. They must have had health concerns, social concerns, relational concerns, and a hundred other questions about how this would all work out, but we get no indication of any sadness, frustration or anger with God at their circumstances. No, what we see are two women that love God and trust His will.
Mary was a woman who put her faith into action. She responded to Gabriel with simple obedience: “let it be to me according to your word”, and then “hurried off” to go to the woman that Gabriel mentioned. Quick to trust, quick to obey.
Now, I’m not going to concentrate on all the troubled things that Mary must have gone through – rejection, fear, gossip, etc. – because, instead, I want to talk about the young woman who loved God and was excited for her Saviour.
The Magnificat is a worship song all about God helping and raising up the meek, humble, hungry and in need. It’s a song about God blessing His people in weird and wonderful ways, beyond what they would have ever considered or prayed for. She sings about how, even though she is young, poor, obscure, and meek, God has chosen her to be the bearer of something precious. And as she sings, her message expands to remind everyone who would read or sing this song that that is how God most often works!
“Looked on my Humble State”
She says “My soul magnifies the Lord”… that’s where we get the word Magnificat… because God had given to her something that she never felt she deserved nor expected. God looked at her “humble state” and didn’t think less of her as others would have, but instead blessed her.
She “rejoices” in what God has chosen to do to her, even though she knew it would be frought with difficulty. She knew that God’s plan, though confusing and difficult at the time, would end up being better than anything she ever could have asked for.
God doesn’t see people the way we do. When we have a job to do, a position to fill, are looking for help, a partner, a friend, a spouse, or anyone else – we look for the best. Why settle for second best? When we buy something we read consumer reports to see which is the best product. We cheer for our team and want them to win, so they can win the cup, so they can be the best. We train our children and want them to be stronger, faster, smarter, kinder, wealthier, more generous, more everything, than we are.
Many of us hold ourselves to the same kinds of standards. We want to be the best at something – or everything – and we feel inferior if we’re not. We have this strange, internal drive, to have the best, be the best, and be surrounded by the best.
God doesn’t do that – at all. He wasn’t looking for the best, most comfortable, richest, family to send Jesus to. He wasn’t looking for a place with the best health care, least risk, and highest probability for advancement. He wasn’t trying to find a dad with a doctorate and a mom with a master’s degree. God’s number one requirement was that the father and mother be faithful. He didn’t want the best by our standards. He wanted a trusting, willing, obedient, humble people that He knew would allow Him to work through them. Not self-minded, strong, prideful people who think they knew better.
God had decided to do something special, something unique, something beyond anyone’s capacity to plan or understand – and He wanted someone who would be willing to carry it out. He asked young Mary to be integral to the plan, knowing it would cause her great upheaval, but wanting to bless her and the whole world through her work. She agreed, and the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus within her.
I find her attitude is truly amazing. In our days, unplanned pregnancies are more often seen as inconveniences, rather than opportunities for blessing. Many times, surprise babies, aren’t seen as good news, but instead something to be dealt with, figured out, and even discarded. God blesses a woman with the opportunity to bring forth a new life, a new person, a new being, brimming with potential for great things – and too many women don’t see the potential, they only see the problem, and they murder the child. It’s awful. Babies are always good news.
At no point did it ever occur to Mary that the trouble she would face because of this unplanned pregnancy wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, we get a song of praise for God’s willingness to bless someone like her with such a great responsibility.
Her perspective was one of faith. She knew God is larger, smarter, mightier and holier than she is. She didn’t see God’s request to care for a baby as an inconvenience, but as His special gift to her. She knew that it was going to be a tough road, but she also knew that her obedience would allow the blessing of all people. All she had to do would be to obey and trust Him.
Mary Knew God Uses Humble People
So, where did this trust come from? She knew God. The next section of the Magnificat, from verses 50-55, shows that Mary wasn’t just a simple farm-girl with no knowledge of God, but was someone who knew who God well and was well acquainted with his resume.
When God asked her to do something, she knew Who was speaking and what He had done in the past. She trusted Him, but it wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on the evidence of all that God had done with her people.
She knew that when people “fear him”, meaning hold Him in reverence and humbly obey His word, that God does mighty things through them. She knew that God is merciful to those who trust Him and wrathful against those who make their own way. She knew her history. She knew that there had been generations that had completely fallen away from God and suffered, and those that turned to Him and prospered. As a student of her own history, she knew what side she wanted to be on, and knew that God would follow through.
Sure, it was an actual Angel had shown up to tell her what was going on – but remember that Zechariah, the old man who had walked with God a long time, and who was a priest, standing in the Holy of Holies, failed the faith test and was struck mute. Mary was a girl who knew God. Look at verse 50-52,
“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate…”
Mary is looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Her child was the same One who had flooded the world, stopped the son, and conquered armies. He’s the God who raises weak but faithful people up out of obscurity so He can demonstrate his power through them.
- He was the God who brought Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the world, to his knees.
- He’s the God that made Pharaoh obey by raising up the slave-child was doomed to die the moment he was born.
- He raised up Esther, a Jewish handmaiden and child of the exile, to become the Queen who would save her people from the evil Haaman.
- He raised up David, the youngest of his brothers, hated by King Saul, to be the greatest king of Israel.
- He raised up young, timid Gideon, the man who we first read of cowering in a pit, afraid of his enemies, to lead a small army to conquer the massive Midianite army.
Over and over we read how God uses meek but faithful people to accomplish amazing things for His Glory. It’s his preferred method, because then He gets the glory and praise. And Mary knew, instinctively, because she had a right view of her place in the world, that she was now one in the long line of people that God has “exalted out of a humble estate” and used to “full the hungry with good things” and “help” His people.
And therefore she knew, because the Angel Gabriel had told her, that God was about to do it again. He would use her son, who would be the Son of God, to save the world. And she got to be a part of it.
Let’s get to the application today. There are two questions that I’d like you to consider.
First, how do you see accidental, unforeseen, inconvenient things like unplanned pregnancies, needful people, distractions and interruptions? Do you see them negatively because they don’t fit into your plan, or do you see them through the lens of being potential, God-ordained moments full of opportunity to obey God and bless others?
Joseph Mohr was seen as an inconvenience by his father, and the rest of society. He was kept outside because of the circumstances of his birth. God saw something different and sent one of His servants to train him for ministry. Then Joseph used the inconvenience of the broken organ as an opportunity to write Silent Night.
Mary and Joseph were terribly inconvenienced by God’s plan for them – but out of it came the greatest blessing in the world.
Is there something that God is looking to bless you with – that has come in the form of an accident or an inconvenience? Will you embrace it and allow God to bless you with strange miracles and large responsibilities? Will you trust that He knows you better than you know yourself, knows the future better than you do, and has the strength and resources to see you through – if you’d be willing to trust Him?
And second, how well do you know God, His word, and His deeds? I would argue that your knowledge of God is about equal to your trust in Him.
If you want to know how God works and what God wants to do in your life, then I encourage you to read what God has done, read what Jesus did, and what His Spirit has done through His church for centuries. Read what kind of people He uses, and what He has done through them. Then, when you understand who He is, what He’s done, and the kind of heart He prefers to use, will you trust Him when He asks you to do something with Him.
Kickstarter Update: The Kickstarter has stalled at $2400 and it’s been a few days since it has seen any new hits or pledges. The goal is $3000 and there are 9 days left. Please consider pledging towards the goal so I can make this new book a reality. If you can’t pledge, or have already, would you please consider sending the Kickstarter link to your pastor, youth pastor, small group leader, book store, or any friends and family that might be interested? It would help me a lot if you would! God bless!
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. The world came into being by chance, everything is a collection of random atomic accidents, and we are only here by coincidence. Everything we see – for good or ill – we have achieved on our own and there is no guiding hand or purpose to anything in life. We are all merely highly evolved animals – of no more value than a virus or a pinecone.
If you are successful, then it is because you either lucked out in the genetic or economic lottery. If you are not successful, then you need to try harder and fight more to get what you deserve in this world. Sadly, none of it matters though, because all you have – your home, money, and relationship – are merely forms of reorganized dirt that will be long forgotten within a few generations anyway. “Meaningless, meaningless… Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” — or so goes the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, setting the theme of the entire book – that nothing matters and no matter what we do, we all die anyway.
Depressing, isn’t it?
That’s a world without thanksgiving – without gratitude – without the understanding of grace and mercy. That’s the secular world that doesn’t understand James 1:16-17 that says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” They are deceived. Or the words of John the Baptist in John 3:27, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” Or 1 Corinthians 4:7, “Everything you have was given to you. And if this is so, why do you brag as if you got these things by your own power?” (ICB).
Everything we see, have and experience comes through the Father’s hands – all of it. Good, positive, happy, joyous experiences – and painful, confusing, hurtful, frustrating experiences. None of it happens without God’s consent.
- The creation of the world in all its wonder and perfection – and the fall of Adam and Eve that brought the curse upon it.
- The choosing of elderly Abram and barren Sarai to be the father of a great nation – and the children of that nation being enslaved by Pharaoh for 400 years.
- The building of the glorious Temple of Solomon – and it’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar 400 years later.
- The calling of the Prophet Jeremiah when he was about 17 years old to bring messages of God to the people of Israel – and when these same people hated him so much that they stoned him to death 50 years later.
- The golden years of the Great Kings David and Solomon and the evil times of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel.
- The writing of the Law of God, and the losing and forgetting of it.
- The rise to power of evil Haman and the rise to power of Queen Esther.
- The advent and birth of Jesus Christ, and the slaughtering of the babes two years later.
- The coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, and his beheading under a pagan king.
- All of the amazing life of Jesus, His miracles and teachings – and His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
- The rise to power of Saul, the persecutor of the church, responsible for killing Christians – and his conversion to faith which resulted in the writing of most of the New Testament and the spread of Christianity all over the world.
He allowed the earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan, the droughts in Africa, the Flood of the Yangtze River, the Halifax Explosion, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, and the Spanish Flu. He’s also overseen the organization of the United Nations World Food Program, the Red Cross, Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, UNISEF.
God ordained the birth and lives of Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Ayotollah Khomeini, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. He also ordained the lives of Constantine, Saint Augustus, Saint Patrick, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Schindler, Mother Theresa, and Billy Graham.
All of these people and things have been decreed by God. None of them were an accident. Every action was an act of His will and His design.
A believer recognizes that everything – everything – happens because of God’s plan and His design. A Christian trusts that God knows what He’s doing. They believe that God’s plan is better than what they can come up with and refuse to sin in order to get their way (Ecc 8:12). They believe that “for those who love God, all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) – and they don’t define “good” as “comfortable, healthy, and wealthy”. They know that the greatest good is a closer fellowship with God, a closer likeness to Jesus Christ, the bearing of fruit for His Kingdom, and our final glorification as we go from this life to the next. We have a big picture – not a small one – of God and His plan.
This morning I want to talk a little about the importance of having that big picture – and how we can gain that kind of big picture by doing something very important: giving thanks. And I want to start with a quick survey of thanksgiving in scripture so we can see how incredibly pervasive has been for the people of God.
In the Old Testament we find believers who knew that the only condition under which life could be enjoyed is the life of gratitude. For the Jewish believers, everything under God – both good and bad – was a reason to give God thanks, because they knew that their thanksgiving was an act of trust that God would deliver them. These believers breathed thanksgiving with every breath.
The psalms are full of thanksgiving, of course. The praise book, the emotional book of the Bible, interplays suffering, fear, doubt, anger and loss with thanksgiving, worship, deliverance, confidence and joy – sometimes in the same verse!
David, the author of many of the Psalms was a man who gave thanks to God. When the Ark of the Covenant was finally coming into Jerusalem, He appointed a special group of Levitical priests that had the singular job of remembering, thanking and praising God. It was an official title that day – the official ThanksGivers. It was seen as a requirement for all of God’s people – but David went a step further and made sure that God was thanked by people dedicated to nothing else.
Job, even after his great wealth and large family was destroyed in a series of sudden and terrible accidents, chose to acknowledge God and worship. In the midst of great pain and struggle, it says “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20-21). He was in agony. He “tore his robe and shaved his head” (acts of intense grief and emotion), “fell to the ground and worshipped”. Why? Because he knew that all things come from God’s hands and chose to react with thanksgiving – which was an act of hope for deliverance and of humility before God’s plan.
Before interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel gave thanks to God. He was standing in front of the ruler of the whole world, who wanted an answer to an dream, and instead of jumping to the end, he stood right in front of him and said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the ability and opportunity to interpret the dream (Dan 2:23). Later, after King Darius had made the law against praying to anyone but him – on threat of being torn apart alive by hungry lions – Daniel went to his room and continued to “get down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God.” (Dan 6:10). He was a champion of thanksgiving and wouldn’t stop for anyone.
Paul had a lot to do, and much to say in his letters, but he very often takes time and space to not only give thanks not only for his salvation, and teach thanksgiving to the other believers, but to relate to the people receiving the letters how thankful he is for them. (Rom 1:8, Eph 1:15-16; 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-5) His letters drip with thanksgiving. Why? Because Paul was truly thankful that he had been saved by Jesus from a life headed to hell and brought into a life of service in His Kingdom. Everything else compared to knowing Jesus was “rubbish” (Phil 3:8) – and Paul was thankful.
And this thankful man, over and over, commands the followers of Christ to be thankful themselves – and to remind others to be thankful. Over and over we are not only encouraged, but commanded to remember to be thankful for our salvation through Jesus Christ For example, Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Or Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (See also 1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor 2:14, 9:15)
And finally, we know that Jesus had a regular habit of giving thanks before almost everything. Jesus Christ, Son of God, was thankful. Let that sink in for a minute. Through Him it was all created. He was on earth, surrounded by fools and enemies, there to suffer and die… and yet he spends a lot of time thanking God. Why? Because it was commanded of Him as an obedient son, and also because He was truly thankful to His Father for all that He was experiencing – both good and bad. He thanked God before the feeding of the 5000 (Mk 8:6-7), and again on the night of His arrest before He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Lk 22:19). He thanked God in public prayers that everyone could here (Mat 11:25).
He thanked God aloud, as His voice choked and with tear stained eyes, as He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:41). His weeping didn’t cancel out his thankfulness. His pain didn’t mean he was faithless. He was moved by loss, grief and the sorrow of death and yet at the same time He thanked God.
Why is Gratitude Such a Big Deal?
Why is this such a big deal to God? Why do we see gratitude in the face of trials and blessings, over and over throughout scripture? Why have thousands of Christian preachers, teachers, elders, writers, mystics, puritans and saints stressed the importance of having a heart filled with praise and gratitude? Because Thanksgiving has a lot of power behind it.
I think I know two important reasons: Our capacity to thank God shows the condition of our heart – and our willingness to thank God is an antidote to poisoned thinking.
Thanksgiving Shows The Condition of Our Hearts
We’ve already seen that thanksgiving is a choice to worship to God – but our choice to thank God shows what’s going on inside of us. It shows what we believe about ourselves and our relationship with God. It is a litmus test of our faith and an acknowledgement of who we think our provider is “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” says the psalmist in Psalm 121:1? Is it in my fields, my finances, my strength, my army, my country, my abilities, my knowledge, my relationships? No, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The question is a heart check.
One of my commentaries had a great quote:
“Gratitude is a joyful commitment of one’s personality to God.” (Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 900)
When we are being thankful, we are committing our personality – or who we are, what we think, and what we find important, our source of joy and security and self – to God. We will not be thankful if we are full of pride, thinking all we have is ours. We will not be thankful if we are grumbling beause we believe we deserve more. We will not be thankful if we are coveting other people’s things, jealous of what they have. Thankfulness shows what is happening in our hearts – and a lack of thankfulness shows that there is something wrong.
If you can’t give thanks, then there’s something wrong with your heart. It means that you no longer remember the amazing grace of God, His salvation through Jesus, and you have forgotten all the other gifts you have already received. If you cannot give thanks, then you’re not seeing straight, and there is something wrong.
Do you remember the story of the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18? It’s a story where two men walk up to the temple to pray at the same time. One man, the self-righteous Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”. The other man, stood far off “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says it was the second man whose prayer was received. The way that the Pharisee gave thanks showed the condition of his heart – as did the tax collectors humility. Thanksgiving shows the condition of our hearts.
An Antidote to a Poisonous Thinking
The second reason I think scripture keeps reminding us about gratitude is because making the choice – as in, putting the time, energy and effort into giving thanks – is actually an antidote, a medicine, for a broken, darkened, sad, hopeless heart. Romans 1:21 gives one of the signs of us hardening and darkening our hearts as a lack of thanksgiving. It says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They didn’t honour God or give thanks to him – which showed the futility and darkness of their thinking.
But the opposite of that is true as well! We can fix our foolish and dark thinking by choosing to give thanks to God. Turn with me to Philippians 4:6-7. It says, “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The “and” clause there seems to me to be a promise. It’s an “if, then” statement. If you pray and give thanks, then you will receive the peace of God. If you want a guarded heart, then pray and give thanks.
Look a little further and see that this verse comes right before a verse that address something we’ve been talking about for a couple weeks: taking charge of our thinking :
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Thanksgiving and taking control of our thought life – and even choosing to rejoice if you look up at verse 4 – are all tied together. If you can’t rejoice, then start giving thanks. If you are not at peace, start to give thanks. If you are anxious about something, start giving thanks. If you feel like your mind is out of control and you need divine guarding, start giving thanks. Thanksgiving is an antidote to poisonous thinking.
Examples of Thanksgiving
But how do I start giving thanks? If you’re really in the dumps, and really down, and frustrated, it’s really hard to start just – giving thanks. You don’t feel like it, right? Well, that’s where taking control of your thinking comes in, and I’ll give you a tool to help you out. Look again at Philippians 4:8 and let’s ask some questions. If you can’t think of what to give thanks for, then turn that list into a series of questions:
What is “true”? What is the truth about my salvation, my God, my hope, my assurance? I’ll tell you again to go read Romans 8! What “true” things can I thank God for? The scriptures are true. They are a fount of cool water in a world filled with dark lies. We all know people who are truthful – people we trust – let’s thank God for them. What else is true in this world?
What “honourable” (dignified, reverent) things can I thank God for? For me, I think of some of the great preachers and teachers of the past that stood for God despite great pressure to conform. I think of the martyrs who suffered for their faith. Of heroes past and present that stand for the name of Jesus. Of men and women I know who worship God with reverence and faith.
What about thinks that are “just”? What kinds of “justice” can I thank God for? We know God is just and will make everything right in the end – evil will be punished and goodness rewarded. But we also see justice in this world if we look. We live in a nation with law and order, police protection and military force that seeks to bring justice to those who have been wronged both here and around the globe. I am also thankful for all the people I know who live rightly, fairly, and don’t compromise. For the stores that don’t cheat me and for missions organizations that are fighting for the protection of those who can’t fight for themselves.
What does the word “purity” bring to mind that I can be thankful for? I think of the amazing joy of teaching eager children the gospel, and how open their minds are to it. I think of the scene of a land covered in new-fallen snow, all white and perfect. I think of how God is perfectly holy and can never be corrupted, and how, because of Jesus I am pure in His sight, and each day He is making me more like Him.
What around me is “lovely” or beautiful and causes me to praise God and give thanks? This one is easy. Just take a look outside. Fall is my favourite season. But there are many other things. Art, photography and music have a lot of beauty in them. A well designed building, car, technology or even appliance can be an object that allows us to thank God. Wonderful stonework on a building, a piece of jewelry, a sunset, the smell of a book, a nice cup of coffee. All lovely things that can give us another reason to give thanks.
What “commendable” things or people can I thank God for? I’m reminded of my wife, who lives a life worthy of commendation, and of my children who continue to have a good reputation with all who know them. I think of the commendability of good bible translators, teachers and writers who work hard to be perfectly truthful. Of all the missions and relief organizations that we can trust to do their job and spend our money well. Of the members of our leadership team who are working hard, doing their jobs without grumbling and complaining, and bring a good reputation to our church.
What do I see around me that is brimming with “excellence”? Certainly the design of creation – it’s magnificence and microscopic intricacies cause us to think of God’s perfection. But what about a cell phone, how a bridge is constructed, or that we can now fit 200GB on a memory card that is only 15mm wide. A well designed garden, a kept field, a motor that runs in perfect time, are all things of excellence. Now, these things are my list – and yours will be different – maybe a 200GB memory card doesn’t immediately draw you into worship like it does to me. That’s ok.
What do I know about God that is worthy of “praise”? Well, everything, when we start to read about Him. Open up Psalm 121, 145 and 146 and read about salvation, protection, and deliverance from God.
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146)
This is my list, and I’m sure yours is different, but I hope you see my point. If we take the time to do this, then it not only gives us an antidote to poisonous thinking, but is an act of worship and obedience to God. He honours those who honour Him.
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. His people ought not be like that. Thanksgiving takes practice, effort, time and energy – but it’s benefits are incredible. It will bring us closer to God, realign our priorities and adjust our attitudes.
Thanksgiving is powerful – so let us not take it for granted. Like Jesus, let us make a habit of it.
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As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
(Psalm 42-43 ESV)
That’s psalm, epitomizes what we’re talking about today. It’s the song of a man who is battling deep, dark depression – a popular and important subject that still resonates with people today. Another poet, this time a Spanish poet from the 19th century, St John of the Cross, called this kind of depression a “Dark Night of the Soul”. It’s a period of spiritual desolation, of isolation from God and a detachment from the world. Everything is dim or dark, there seems to be no more sun.
The psalmist is not David, but “the sons of Korah”. They were Levites, priests of God, employed to be worship leaders in the temple. Their task in life, for generations since Moses, was perform and produce music to be sung in worship to God.
But now this worship leader was far from Jerusalem and the temple worship on Mount Zion. He felt himself cut off from all he had known and everything he was meant to be. He felt cut off from God himself. It says he’s writing this psalm “from the land of Hermon, from Mount Mizar”, which is almost 200Km away from Jerusalem. It’s been theorized that he’s either a traveller far from home, a captive of an enemy nation leading him out of Israel, or one of the priests following David as he was fleeing Jerusalem during his son Absalom’s revolt. I prefer the theory that that he’s a captive of an enemy nation, likely the Babylonians, because as we read the psalm we see him being mocked his enemies.
Whatever the reason he’s had to leave, this priest is terribly homesick. He’s been walking away from the place he desperately wants to be – walking for 47 hours, according to Google maps – and has reached the range of Mountains known as Hermon. He climbs and climbs until he reaches the top of Mount Mizar and takes a look back toward his beloved Jerusalem, now a dot on the horizon.
Of Two Minds
What struck me the most about this psalm was how this Son of Korah almost seems to be arguing with himself. His heart and mind and soul are wrestling with what is happening to him. His feelings and thoughts are all over the place. He’s doing what we talked about last week – trying to take every thought captive.
It reminds me of the scenes from Lord of the Rings where the creature Gollom is arguing with his alter-ego Smeagol. His angry, bitter, evil self is having an argument with the small remnant of good that’s left in him. It’s an amazing scene and something that I think about often, especially when I’m having an argument with myself, or trying to take my out of control thoughts captive.
Psalm 42 starts with a declaration of desperate need: He’s been on a long journey, up a mountain, far from home – driven by his enemies to go faster than he’d like – but his greatest desire isn’t for something to quench his natural thirst. His greatest need is for something to quench his spiritual thirst. If I’m right about his context, then he’s dirty, thirsty, depressed, and surrounded by enemies mocking him by saying, “Where is your God?”, “He can’t deliver you! You’re ours now! And we’ll never let you go! He’s deserted you! Ha Ha Ha!”
In his mind, as they mock and taunt he’s thinking, “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.” Oh, how he longs for the days when he would sings songs of praise with the God’s people in God’s temple! But now he can’t – and he’s not sure he ever will again. Has God forsaken Him? These trials are too much for him to bear! Where is God now? Physical suffering, emotional suffering, spiritual suffering, relational suffering… he’s feeling it all at once, and his hope is failing him. He’s gasping inside. His spirit is desiccated. He’s desperate for anything to quench this drought.
And then another voice enters into his mind: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
As we said last week, this world is desperately seeking a way to fix their problems without having to turn to God. They put their faith in technology, medicine, politics, and a dozen other places that they hope will finally bring them peace, hope and everlasting comfort. This world offers many, many false cures for our deepest spiritual problems – and at their source, all of our problems are spiritual, by the way.
The psalmist’s real issue wasn’t that he was far from home or surrounded by enemies. There are lots of people inside and outside of scripture that were far from home and under terrible circumstances – but still had faith, hope and peace – think of Paul and Peter worshipping in prison. What was this man’s problem? He was losing hope. He was spiritually weak and getting weaker. Dry and getting dryer.
We can face anything in this world if we are able to continue to remain spiritually strong and hold on to hope. It is when that hope fails us that the physical, emotional, relational, issues begin to crush us.
The world doesn’t get this. They want to solve our spiritual crises with physical treatment — medicine, exercise, diet, technology. And while that can sometimes help – it is not an ultimate solution. A broken spirit needs to be treated with spiritual medicine. We need the doctor of our souls.
And so, what does our Son of Korah do when he feels his spirit drying out to the point of breaking? He begins to apply spiritual medicine. He takes hold of his thinking, tells himself what he must do, and reminds himself of who God really is.
Three times over Psalms 42-43 he says these words, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Preaching to Ourselves
Over and over he puts the brakes on the depression train by repeating that phrase. He takes hold of himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” “Whoa brain! Hang on! Ok, the pity party has lasted long enough. Hang on. Let’s lift our heads up a minute and take stock of reality. Let’s stop being driven by our body, our emotions, our circumstance, and take stock of what’s really going on here.”
The great preacher, Marin Lloyd Jones, addressed this very thing in his book, “Spiritual Depression”. I’m going to read a large section because I believe it is so helpful:
“I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us. Do you realize what that means? I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.”
Then he quotes the section of Psalm 42 we just read and continues:
“Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why are thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’ Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have had but little experience….
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: “[Why are you cast down, O my soul?] What business have you to be disquieted?” You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘[Hope in God]’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way.
And then you must go on to remind yourself of God: Who God is, and what God is, and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil, and the whole world, and say with this man: [‘I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God’]”
That is exactly what this Son of Korah is doing in this Psalm. He’s taking hold of himself. He is preaching to himself. He’s defying himself. He’s taking captive the thoughts in his mind, evaluating them for truth, and then dismissing the lies. God hasn’t left him! God isn’t against him! He can praise God wherever he is. God has proven that He will save – even if that means he must suffer on earth and then be delivered to heaven. God is still His God and that will never change! God is good! Good is good!
Steps to Battle Spiritual Discouragement / Depression
Last week we took a look at Psalm 37 which gave us five steps for battling discouragement – and I’ve spent a lot of time on step one, taking control of our thought life because if we don’t get step one right nothing else works. As long as we allow our thinking to get out of control and listen to our emotional pain, physical pain, and our spiritual enemies who place terrible thoughts in our minds, then none of the other steps matter.
Step one, from verse, one was: “Fret Not Yourselves”. Do you remember that?
Let’s turn to Psalm 37 and discuss the next four steps which all flow out of the first.
Step 2: Trust in the Lord
“Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (vs 3-4)
There’s a lot going on in these two verses, but let’s just do a fly-by and grab the big theme of “Trusting in the Lord.” Once you take control of your thought life, it is imperative that you fill your mind with truth. That’s what the Son of Korah did, right? He says to himself, “Hope in God!” It’s an action of faith and belief to stop oneself and simply say those words: “Hope in God”, “Trust in the Lord”.
Ask yourself some questions:
- Has God let me down?
- Does God love me?
- Does God know more than me?
- What has God promised me?
- What is the truth?
- Could my thoughts be deceiving me?
- Is there anyone better, stronger and holier for me to trust in? Where is the better place for me to put my trust than God? Myself? Other people? No way. I will “trust in the Lord.”
Get into Romans 8 and read it over and over again: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs 35, 37)
Step Three: Commit Your Way
“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” (vs 5-6)
After we put our hope in God and his Son Jesus Christ, after we’ve chosen to trust Him, place our faith in Him, the next, obvious step is commitment. Choose, come hell or high-water, that He will be your foundation, your strength and your shield.
The Hebrew in this section is really neat. It can be translated “Roll on Jehovah’ road.” Roll your heavy burden from yourself and place it on another. Like the story of Sisyphus we so often roll our burdens up a hill only to have them roll back down to where we started, because we didn’t have the wisdom to try to roll them anywhere helpful. We keep rolling the rock, rolling the rock, rolling the rock, up the hill, up the hill, up the hill… but we have no ultimate destination for it. We’re not taking the burden anywhere – we’re merely carrying it.
The Psalmist says, commit yourself to rolling your rock over to Jesus so He can take it. Part of trust and commitment is making the choice to allow Jesus to deal with your problems His way. “Trust in Him, and He will act” , the psalmist says. That’s always true. He will act. He may not do it the way you think is best – but He will act. He will give you healing, or patience, or comfort, or choose to build your character and faith through suffering so that you gain many rewards in heaven. He is always doing something. Will you commit your way to Him or will you try to roll your rock all by yourself?
In Proverbs 3:5-8 we read the wisdom:
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”
Let’s read that backwards, like we did last week: If you feel broken in your flesh and dry in your bones. Then turn from evil, fear the lord, stop being wise in your own eyes, get on God’s path, stop thinking yourself smart enough to fix your problems, and trust in the Lord.
Step 4: Be Still before the Lord
Step four is the hardest one, for a lot of people.
“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”
You’ve taken control of your thought life. You’ve preached to yourself and decided to trust in the Lord. You’ve committed your life to Him and are choosing to give Him your burden. You’ve rolled your rock to the foot of the cross. Now what?
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” Ouch, right? Christian Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had a great quip where he said:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
That’s funny, but there’s some truth in there, isn’t there?
That’s hard. It’s one thing to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross, it’s another thing to decide to sit there and patiently wait to see what He’s going to do with them.
Now, keep in mind, this isn’t simply sitting alone in a room. We are sitting “before the Lord”. We are not alone. We are able to have a calm resignation that we know that what is happening to us is in the hands of God. Our spirit is quiet, our temperament is settled on God.
This isn’t something that comes naturally to those of us who have been told that action is the answer, and being proactive is always the best. No, over and over in scripture we are told that it is best to put our trust in God and then to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
- “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (Lamentations 3:26)
- “But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)
Listen carefully to the words of Isaiah 30:15-18,
“For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill. Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”
There is a great lesson for us in these verses. Israel, over and over, turned away from God and put their faith in treaties with other, larger nations – only to be destroyed. They put their faith in the size of their own army – and they were defeated. They put their faith in pagan gods –only to be left desolate.
“The LORD waits to be gracious to you”. Isn’t that an amazing verse?! He’s waiting for you, but you’re running around like a fool, panicked and fretting, putting your faith into everything but the One who can help you – and you end up left hurting and alone.
Over and over and over and over we make the mistake of going everywhere else but God first. When will we learn to fall upon the strength of God first, and then “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”?
Step Five: Refrain from Anger
Let’s close with step five where we almost come full-circle.
“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)
Why would the Psalmist put this in here? He’s trusted the Lord, committed his path, put his burden down, and is being still and patient before Him, waiting for God to act? Where does this anger come from? To whom is it directed at?
The answer is twofold: Anger at God and anger at the evil that is affecting him. He’s reminding Himself not to get angry at the situation – again. Why? Because he’s human and we are constantly going through cycles of testing and trusting, faith and failure, worship and anger. We are unstable, cyclical creatures that have to keep going through this process over and over. What an amazingly patient God we have!
He’s telling himself, again, to stop fretting – that’s step one again! And to not get mad at God for taking too long or not doing it his way – that’s steps two to four. He’s reminding himself that whenever he takes things into his own hands and acts out of a lack of faith, lack of trust and out of anger against God or against evil – he messes it up. He ends up doing something evil himself!
Matthew Henry says this,
“If thy heart begins to rise at it, stroke down thy folly… check the first stirrings of discontent and envy, and do not harbour any hard thoughts of God and his providence.”
That sounds a lot like, “Take every thought captive”, doesn’t it?
When we are angry at God, it’s usually because we think we know better than him, that we deserve something we’re not getting, or that He is being unfair.
Do you know better than Him? No. He is wiser than you.
What do you deserve? You deserve Hell, damnation and judgement – that’s it. Anything beyond that is grace – and His grace has been abundant. Your anger may stem from a lack of thankfulness for what you do have!
Is He unfair? See questions one and two! You don’t know what’s going on and you don’t deserve whatever good you have. If God was fair, He wouldn’t have sent His innocent Son to die on behalf of condemned sinners. He wouldn’t have accepted his death as payment for our sin. He wouldn’t have told us right from wrong and given us a hope and a future. No, if He was fair, we’d all be in hell.
I encourage you to meditate on the scriptures we’ve gone through over the past couple weeks, and have a few conversations with yourself – and with God. Pick up Psalm 37, Psalm 42-43, Romans 8, and read them again and talk to God about the ways that you need to grow in faith and patience. Ask Him how you have sinned in your anger against Him and evil, ask repentance, and then ask for grace. He will forgive you, and then He will grant you wisdom and peace, just as He has promised. (James 1:5; Phil 4:7)
Today, we want to have an explanation of everything. We want to know how everything works, where it came from, what it’s doing, why it does it, and what it’s going to do next. Our society has an insatiable appetite for knowledge.
Sociologists study people so they can learn how we tick, how we think, how we spend, how we live, who we love, and what our priorities are, so they can determine how we are going to develop as a society. Psychologists study our minds so they can determine why we do what we do and feel what we feel. Archeologists study things left over from the past so they can learn how people lived then. Biologists study living things to see how they work. Geoscientists study the earth. Climatologists study the weather. Oceanographers study the oceans. Astronomers study space. We want to know how everything works.
We spent well over a billion dollars to send the Rosetta Probe to land on a space-snowball just so we could know what it was made of! That’s awesome, by the way.
And it’s not just scientists that are on a quest for knowledge. We all are. What do we say after the first bite of something new? “What is this?! What’s in it?!” Some people can’t live without knowing the weather, others start and end the day watching the news. Some can’t live unless they’ve checked their Facebook or Twitter feed to know what’s going on with their friends.
Theology & Philosophy
Not only do humans have great curiosity about the world, we also have a great desire to know what is beyond our world. We want to know where everything came from, what happens after we die, if our existence has purpose and meaning, if there is anything beyond this mortal realm.
Enter the theologians and the philosophers. The study of the nature of God is called Theology – “Theos” meaning God, “ology” meaning “to speaking about”, or “the study of”. Those who practice it are called theologians.
Philosophy is the study of existence, reason, beliefs, values and language. It comes from the words “philio” meaning “love” and “Sophia” meaning “wisdom” – the love of wisdom. Theology and Philosophy go beyond the realms of where pure science can reach, but they are no less important – in fact, there are many who would call them more important.
Philosophy has been called the “mother of all science” since before scientists can study anything they must consult philosophy to find a question worth answering and whether they are able to know anything at all. And to go one step above the mother of all science, Medieval universities called Theology the “queen of the sciences” – supreme above all, the source of all truth. One cannot know anything worth knowing unless they first know God and His Word. As Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge…”
For thousands of years theologians and philosophers have talked, debated, argued and studied everything beyond the physical realm – including God.
Too Much Knowledge?
Our insatiable desire for knowledge is a good thing. It’s a God given thing. Our love for knowing how things work has led to some amazing things. And our curiosity about God and the meaning of life, has driven some of the most important things ever done in this world.
But, like anything else, when it gets out of control, that desire leads to sin. Dedicating our life to the study of a singular object may be helpful to the world – but it can also be idolatry. When the knowledge gained by sociologists and psychologists is used to manipulate consumers so they will buy more junk, it’s sin. Wanting to know what our friends are up to is good, obsessing over gossip is sin.
And it’s the same with Theology. A desire to know God is wonderful and healthy, but the belief that we can know everything about God is sin. Spending our life pursuing a greater knowledge of Jesus and His Word is valuable, thinking we know everything about Him leads us to sin and error. Believing in the Holy Spirit and growing in the knowledge of spiritual things is of great benefit, believing we know how to manipulate the Holy Spirit because of our knowledge of Him is foolishness. And we’re going to talk a little bit about that today.
The Feeding of the 5000
Let’s read the story of Jesus feeding the 5000.
“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ And they said to him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’
Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 3:30-44)
This is a pretty familiar story. It’s told in all four of the gospels. But before we get into talking about what we can’t know – let’s talk about what we can. What does this passage tell us about Jesus?
I think the first thing we learn here is that Jesus has great compassion for people – even dumb, hardhearted, lost people who don’t have any idea what they are doing or why they are there. He has compassion on people who don’t plan ahead, but just want to be where He is. He has love in His heart for people who have no idea what He is doing, but just want to be there.
That’s what this crowd was like. The mission that Jesus had sent the Apostles on was apparently successful. Jesus was more popular than ever. No doubt many of these people had followed the disciples as they came back to Jesus. Stories of his miracles and great teaching had spread far and wide and He had literally thousands of people following Him around, some there to hear the teaching, many there to be healed from their illnesses.
But they don’t really understand Jesus. They think they do, but they don’t. In the same story told in the Gospel of John 6:14-15 it says, “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
He literally has to run away because they want to force Him to be something he’s not. They think they’ve got Him figured out. They think they know His mission, His plan, His power, and why He’s there. But they don’t.
But Jesus doesn’t get angry with them. Do you remember why he’s there in the first place? He’s trying to give his Apostles some rest from their missionary work. But this crowd goes rushing on ahead, hoping to head Jesus off. Now, Jesus could have sent them all away, but He didn’t. No, His heart overflowed with compassion for them because He knew how lost they were, how desperate they were for the presence of God.
He wasn’t just seeing their physical need for healing, it says inverse 34, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” They needed more than physical healing – they were spiritually lost – and He has great compassion for them.
Sheep Without a Shepherd
“Sheep without a shepherd” is a very interesting phrase for Mark to use. It’s repeated a few times in scripture, and points specifically to Numbers 27:15-17 which describes the passing of the mantle of leaders from Moses to Joshua. It says,
“Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, ‘Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.’”
Moses desires God to raise up a leader for the people, because He knows that they are stubborn and rebellious, and if there was no godly leader, these people would turn from God in a heartbeat. They would need someone to lead them into the Promised Land who knew God and loved the people. They needed a shepherd! And God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses.
And Joshua leads them – but when He dies, what happens? They Israelites start to disobey, they don’t get rid of the Canaanites, they compromise their mission. Then, in only one generation, we see a generation come up that has completely forgotten Moses, Joshua and the Exodus from Egypt. Within one generation the sheep without a shepherd wander into idolatry and divide from one another. They stop following God’s law, growing more and more corrupt and evil (Joshua 2).
And the generation that stood before Jesus that day was no different. They too were sheep without a shepherd. Moses was long dead, as was Joshua. God had raised up prophets, priests and kings, most of whom either rebelled against God or were persecuted by their own people for speaking the truth. Now they were under a pagan king and those who were supposed to be their shepherds – the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law – were mostly blind, foolish, hypocrites who erected more and more barriers between the people and God.
And it broke Jesus’ heart to see them this way. Wandering. Rebellious. Anxious. Fearful. Sick. Faithless. Hopeless. Lost.
Jesus Reveals Himself
Turn to John 10:7-13. In John 10 we Jesus calls Himself “The Good Shepherd”, contrasting Himself to everyone else. He knows His special place, and He knows how desperately people need Him to be their shepherd. Keeping with our theme today, these are things that He wants to make sure we know about Him. There are things that we must know about Jesus, that He reveals about Himself. Things that bring us hope and peace, and a greater understanding of who He is.
I am the Door
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (7-10)
This is the first thing that Jesus wants us to make sure we know about Him. Jesus is the only way to salvation. There are many pretenders, but they are all thieves and robbers. Many have come promising safe “pasture” and rest – but they were liars.
I’m certain, as He looks at the crowd of thousands before Him, He can see into the hearts of those who have tried so many different doors seeking salvation and rest for their souls.
They’ve tried to find salvation in power and wealth, but found only emptiness. They tried to make their own “abundant life” through food, sex, and worldly pleasure – but learned they are thieves that promise one thing but are really stealing their joy. He sees those who have tried to find rest through practicing religion, but found the yoke was too hard and there was no rest in manmade ways to get to God. He sees people who have tried to find their way to good pasture through gaining great knowledge or trying to control everything, but found that it only lead to them to despair as they could never gain enough.
And Jesus, the Good Shepherd says, “You are like sheep without a shepherd. You’ve had a lot of people promise a lot of things, and they’ve all failed. If you want salvation and rest then you have to become part of my flock, and the only way to do that is through Me, ‘I’m the door.’”
I am the Good Shepherd
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (11-13)
This is the next thing that Jesus wants to make sure we know. Here we see Jesus differentiate Himself even further from the predecessors and pretenders.
He’s not like the shepherds who have come before. They were merely hired hands. They didn’t own or love the sheep like He does. Jesus isn’t like like the prophets, priests and kings that have come in the past –He is greater than them. Everyone else runs away when wolf comes – Jesus doesn’t. Even the greatest prophets failed the people.
Even the greatest Prophet, Elijah, who was part of the great battle with the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (Kings 18), was overcome by fear and went into a deep depression. Jesus isn’t like that. He doesn’t get depressed. He doesn’t succumb to fear.
Even David, the greatest king, the shepherd who defended his sheep from lions and bears with only a sling (1 Sam 17:34-37), fell and brought calamity on his people more than once. Jesus isn’t like that. Jesus doesn’t start out great and then fall to temptation and foolishness at the end. No, He is the Good Shepherd. When the wolves come, He fights for them to the very end of his life.
Solomon, the greatest wise-man of all time fell into lust and was led into idolatry, letting His people down and bringing calamity on them. Jesus is the perfection of wisdom and will never fall into sin, and no one will ever pay for his mistakes – because He doesn’t make any.
All who came before were pretenders – He’s the real deal.
When Jesus sees looks out to the crowds He sees lost people who need Him. People who have put their faith in so many other things and have been let down again and again. Lost sheep who need a Good Shepherd. And His compassion overwhelms His desire for rest, and so He gives of Himself even more.
A Strange Command
After a long day of teaching, it says “his disciples came to [Jesus] and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’” (35-36)
They were saying, “Jesus, you’re tired, their tired, we’re very tired. You’ve done enough. It’s time for you to pull back and have that rest you were talking about. Besides, it’s a long walk back and they need to start if they’re going to get to eat. We know you really love teaching people, and that they need it, but it’s time to eat now.”
I think the disciples feel like they are doing him a favour by telling him the situation. Maybe He’s distracted. Maybe He’s too into His sermon to be hungry. Maybe He needs a little reminder about reality. But they didn’t need to. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He’s not going to forget to feed the sheep. He’s got it under control. But, sticking with our theme, they don’t know what He’s doing, and they’re not sure He’s got it under control.
His response, no doubt, surprises them, considering there were thousands and thousands of people there. “You give them something to eat.” Why would He say that? He wasn’t showing off. He wasn’t being snarky.
No, He was preparing them to open their minds to learn something greater about Himself. What He is about to do how He does it, was intended to speak volumes about Him. He about to declare something very specific about Himself.
He’s not just another prophet. He’s not just a great teacher. He’s not just greater than Elijah, or David, or Solomon. He’s the Messiah. He is God. He’s about to show them that He’s even greater than Moses. He’s the fulfilment of all of the prophecies that have come before – from God’s word to Eve (Gen 3:15), to Moses’ teaching that a prophet like him would come (Deut 18:15), to all the Messianic Psalms, all of the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi – He would fulfil them all and prove to them that He was greater.
He’s not one of the “hired hands”, He’s the Door, the Good Shepherd. And His statement, “You give them something to eat.” is meant to prepare them for what’s to come.
Jesus is Greater than Moses
Consider this: Jesus leads the people into a desolate place, just like Moses led the Israelites to the desert. Then all the people get hungry and start to complain. Why? Because they didn’t know what God was doing, didn’t trust Him, and didn’t trust Moses. They wanted to go back to Egypt!
Now who brings the complaint? Jesus’ own disciples come and say that perhaps they needed to go back and get some food or the people are going to starve in the wilderness.
Same issue. A total misunderstanding of who God is, what God is doing, and a lack of trust that Jesus has things under control. But what does Jesus do? He feeds them.
In Moses’ time it was manna and quail from heaven. For Jesus it was loaves and fishes. The first time the people were told they couldn’t keep any until morning, but when Jesus did it, there were baskets and baskets of leftovers!
When Jesus told his disciples to give the people something to eat, there was something deeper going on. He was asking them, “Do you know who I am? Do you trust me? Do you believe that with me all things are possible? Have you forgotten the power and miracles and provision you had during the mission you just came back from today? Knowing what you know about me, my Father, and what you’ve seen already, do you have the faith to feed these people?” And their answer was simply, “No… no we don’t.”
Jesus Defies Explanation
Something interesting happens a few verses later in Mark 6:52, and it’s tied to the feeding of the 5000. Look what happens after Jesus feeds the people. Read verses 45-52:
“Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
Do you see? Jesus was showing them something very important, but they still didn’t get it. The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was meant to teach them who He was. He was the Good Shepherd, the one Greater than Moses, Greater than Elijah, Greater than David, Greater than all who had come before. He showed His inexplicable power over nature. He went right over the rules of math – something we take as absolute and unchangeable – and made five loaves and two fish feed thousands and thousands. It was absolutely miraculous. Jesus showed His divinity to them.
But when they saw Jesus walking on the water, they were terrified. When He said, “don’t be afraid”, they still were. When He calmed the storm, they were “utterly astounded”. Why? Because they still didn’t understand who Jesus was.
They didn’t realize that Jesus was God, in control, had power over anything, and had great love and compassion for His people. Their hearts were too hard, their minds too closed. None of what Jesus was doing should have been surprising if they had figured out who Jesus was. But their minds and hearts, all of their reasoning powers for how the world works, wasn’t allowing them to grasp who Jesus was. He didn’t make sense.
Jesus the humble carpenter – can turn a thunderstorm into a nice day because He wants it to happen. Jesus, the wandering Rabbi, whose shoes are caked with dust, doesn’t just part the sea like Moses did – but can walk on water and cause others to do the same. Jesus the son of Mary, born in a stable can literally bend reality to His will and turn McDonalds Happy Meal into a feast that can feed a whole city.
That’d doesn’t’ compute because there are things about Jesus that we can explain – and then there are things that we just can’t.
Trying to Explain God
A lot of people struggle with this one, and it’s the point I want to close with today.
Many people want an explainable Jesus. One that they can understand and predict. We want to know why Jesus does things. We want to be able to predict His miracles, and maybe even figure Him out well enough to make Him do miracles for us. If we can figure out the formula for how to get miracles out of God, then we’ll have the upper hand.
We want a God that fits into our box. We don’t like not knowing things about something as important as our God. We want Him to behave according to our rules, and abide by our standards. We want him to be predictable – under our control.
But the truth is, just as there are things that we can know for absolutely certain about God, there are other things about Him that are absolutely inexplicable – they can’t be explained.
There are times that Jesus makes absolute sense to us and we know what He’s doing. But then there are times when He goes way over our heads, past our understanding, beyond our abilities, beyond our comprehension, and does something completely outside our ability to process.
Why does the universe seem like it’s billions of years old, yet the Bible seems to only say it’s thousands? Why did God create Satan if He knew He would fall? Why does God choose some for salvation and not others? Why do some people get miraculous healings, while others suffer for years and years and are only released from their pain by death? Why do earthquakes and tornados hit where they do? Why do some people get rich and others struggle their whole lives to make ends meet? Why did God take thousands of years to bring the Saviour, and why is He taking so long to come back again? Why would God create people if He knew some of them would be eternally punished in Hell? If He can do anything, and is perfectly good, then why doesn’t He end all suffering today?
These are huge questions, which we are not going to get perfect answers to. And some people can’t handle that. The disciples struggled with it too.
They had just come back from a successful mission where they had actually performed miracles, cast out demons, and taught powerfully. Then they sat down and saw Jesus feed over 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish. Now they see Jesus walk on water and calm a storm without even speaking a word. That didn’t make sense – not at all.
Putting God on Trial
This is a huge, mega-theme in scripture. God does something amazing, and no one has any idea what God is doing, or why He’s doing it, and so they freak out. We see it in the Israelites after the Exodus and we see it among the disciples and followers who were there at the feeding of the 5000. And we see it today.
We are, so often, no different than them. We claim to believe in God, but when He does things that don’t line up with what we believe about Him, we don’t assume we’re wrong about Him – we assume God is wrong.
We are so used believing our own perspectives, ideas, and presumptions, that we think we’ve got Him all figured out. And then He does something we think He shouldn’t do – or doesn’t do something we think He should – our faith crumbles. Just like the Israelites, just like the disciples, we are “utterly astounded” that God did something outside of our little box.
So what do we do? We put God on trial. We demand He explain Himself. We demand He show Himself to us. “Why did you do that? You must answer me! Give me your reasoning, God! You owe me an explanation!”
But the truth is that it is not He who is on trial, it is us. He’s God. He has nothing He needs to answer for. It is we who must answer. (Read Job 38-42)
Jesus looks to us and says, “Do you believe I’m God? Do you trust me? Is it possible that I’m bigger than your explanations and reasoning? Are you God? Do you have faith in me?”
It is not God who is on trial – it is us. We do not have the right to contend and find fault with the Almighty (Job 40:1). We must take Him as who He says He is. It is not He who must conform to our image, but we who must conform to His. He doesn’t have to meet our standards, we must meet His. It is not He who has to explain Himself when we stand before Him one day – it is we who will stand under His judgement.
What amazing grace He gives us as we stand there thinking we can put Him on trial and ask Him to defend what He’s doing! What amazing patience He shows as we complain against Him for enacting His will.
The concluding questions are simple: Do you trust Jesus? Do you think you need to remind Him what’s going on, that somehow He’s forgotten how to care for people? Do you need Him to answer why the wind and the waves are so large? Is it ok with you that He is God and you are not?
John McCrae and Flanders Fields
The poppy has long been, in Canada and around the world, a memorial symbol of fallen soldiers. It has come to represent the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others.
It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of the day we now call Remembrance Day. I did some reading about this man and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place, during what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres – neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what he had seen by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother after that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds….. And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches – holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them voice. It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd, 1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. Six days later he died at the age of 46. He was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields. (Source)
No Greater Love
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, so others could be safe, knowing what could happen.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
But, as Christians, we remember that every week – not only once a year, but every week on Sunday, it is our calling and joy to honour the One who willingly laid down His life to save our souls. Jesus Christ
What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that no one “took his life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but even it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice — the cross of Jesus Christ.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus said,
“I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
Jesus chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who deserve death. We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who should receive the punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us, so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example and an inspiration for bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication and sacrifice.
The Christian understands this best of all because we see it perfectly in Jesus. It is the perfect sacrifice of Jesus that drives the Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t think most believers are able to fully process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some. Those under persecution for their faith, and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. It came to be known as the term for those who were suffering for their faith, and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to Jesus, that that they were willing to die. The ultimate witness.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. It’s also a future reality. God promises that those who serve Him will be persecuted, and will be martyred.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20,
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this,
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country where we are in fear of losing our lives because of our faith. But it is coming. We must pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who are martyred in his name. It is not because they are cursed, or that God didn’t love them. They did not suffer and die because of their sin –Jesus already did that for them. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5,
“Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They were not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs will have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom, and will be given things by God that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. Their job is to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength. To learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous.
To his disciples, as He was sending them out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22 ESV)
Being a follower of Jesus requires our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages and our wills, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus give everything to Him because He has given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution is to believe, with every fibre of your being, that the claims of Jesus Christ are true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like it, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. The world is a smorgasbord of options, and they get to pick and choose – and they treat religion and Christianity the same way.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths. Our own picture of God. Then we can be happy.”
God doesn’t work that way – He doesn’t allow for that. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking about subjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, but to be discovered.
Christians who suffer through persecution know they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a subjective truth. For them, it’s certainty. Their faith isn’t a choice based on fashion or convenience. It is very real. God changed their hearts, revealed His presence, sent His Son, gave them the choice to be His, and sealed their salvation by His Holy Spirit. For them, it’s not about opinion – it’s either true or false. It’s a matter of life and death, and so they need to be very certain about putting their faith in the right person.
We talked a bit about this last week – we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said,
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them,
“…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was,
“Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
When Paul was under house arrest, not knowing if he would live or die, he 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.” (Phil 3:8)
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures, and the Christian martyrs who have come since, are not certain in themselves. They are not strong in themselves. They do not build their lives on their own foundation. They are strong in the Lord that they know will deliver them. They say along with Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12,
“…which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When they pray, they pray knowing that God hears them. 1 John 5:14-15 says,
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
They have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, and they believe Jesus when He says,
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:28-33)
I believe that with the certainty that I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be free from hypocrisy. They didn’t say one thing, and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Jesus, in the Parable of the Four Soils, which we’ve talked about before, speaks of a group of people who receive the gospel as a seed sown onto rocky ground. In Matthew 13:20-21 He says,
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”
Jesus says that there will be some people who will listen to the Word of God, and, at first, receive it with joy. They will hear the message of salvation through Jesus and like the idea of someone dying for them and saving them from sins. So they will accept it. “Thanks for the Gift, God!” They even grow a little bit in their faith, attending church, serving some, and doing the things believers do.
They love to sing about the promises Jesus offers. They love the idea of eternal life, joy in their heart, spiritual strength, the ability to flee temptation, freedom from addiction, the presence of the Holy Spirit. They have no problems with that kind of Christianity. Here’s the problem: Though “they understand some of the basics, they don’t allow God’s full truth to penetrate their souls and make a difference in their lives. They have no root.” (Life Application Commentary – Matthew Pg 264)
God starts to show them their sin, their idols, and areas of their lives that they need to submit to Him. They don’t want to, so they push Him aside. They love being served and loved among the believers, but when God calls them to work with difficult people, grant forgiveness for a wrong, and sacrificially serve, they refuse. And it starts to get uncomfortable.
Maybe they hang in there for a while, dodging responsibilities and avoiding accountability and real life change… but inevitably, by God’s design, the heat of persecution comes. They are forced to be honest. Do they believe? Are they certain of what they’ve been singing about? Will they believe all the promises of God? Or will they trust in their own wisdom and strength? Will they let Jesus save them, or will they try to save themselves?
Maybe they endure for a little while, but when it really starts to cost them something, they give it up. They convince themselves that it was a phase. They make up reasons for why the promises are untrue. They whither and fall away. For them, sorrow, trouble, loss, fear, sacrifice, and persecution make them turn away from God. They just aren’t sure it’s worth it.
The world serves up dozens of excuses for people to quit. Satan places a hundred different options before every believer, telling them that they will be better and easier than God’s way. This should be of no surprise. Jesus said,
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture? Have you read Foxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about those who have died for the faith? Let me encourage you to. It is a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certain is your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it an unshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your roots buried deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life? What are you doing to grow those roots deeper?
Third, are you denying Jesus, even in small ways? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, and choose to pretend your not a Christian in that moment? Just avoiding talking about your faith? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something – but you know it will be a time of hardship – and because of your fear of suffering, or lack of faith, you aren’t obeying what God is asking you to do?
A 2nd century Christian author named Tertullian once said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Is it possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus? I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because of fear of man or lack of faith!
It is my prayer that you walk the narrow way. That you have certainty in the promises of God and you lean on them every day of your life. That you will allow God to use you His way, for His purposes, and trust that He knows what He is doing, and will not give you more than you can bear.
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to go, preach and die for the gospel. I do not want it, nor should any of us, but persecution for our faith is coming, and the ones who will have peace will be those who are fully committed to Jesus as their Lord. I hope you are certain that God loves you, that He will not forsake you, and that nothing “will be able to separate [you] from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” And he went with him.
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)
Crisis After Crisis
This was a busy time in Jesus’ life! Consider what has just been happening to him. Jesus has been crossing the sea, back and forth from crisis to crisis. And no sooner had Jesus gotten off the boat than he was presented with another catastrophe – actually two!
Think back to what we’ve been reading. At the beginning of Mark 4 we see Jesus spending a bunch of time on one side of the sea teaching the people and his disciples. Then, at the end of Mark 4, he gets into the boat and is beset by a huge storm and crazed disciples who doubted Him, His power and His goodness. When He landed on the other side of the shore, the moment Jesus stepped from the boat – I mean, His feet were probably still wet – Jesus was immediately confronted with a legion of demons possessing a super-strong man. After delivering the man, everyone around there begged Him to leave.
And so, back into the boat He gets, probably with wet sandals, and heads back to the other side. On the other side, as the boat was landing, a huge crowd was gathering – waiting for more teaching and miracles. And again, as Jesus stepped out of the boat—another crisis!
So Jesus, feet still wet, is confronted by the ruler of the synagogue who is facing an emergency… and moments later a woman who is in desperate need. Crisis after crises after crisis. Relentless. And yet Jesus is never phased. Never overwhelmed. And gives comfort to all around Him. He is a rock, a cornerstone, a deliver, a strong tower. He is the one to whom we come when things are out of control and messy. He’s the one who can untangle things and deal with the billions of issues coming at us at once. He is Jesus, He is God, and we are not. And that’s never more clear than when we are in crisis.
Dealing with Crises
How we deal with emergencies, disasters, illness and difficult times tells us a lot about ourselves and our faith. It gives us insight into how much we really trust God. It opens our eyes to how patient we are. It reveals our idols and the places where we take comfort. It tests our prayer life. Difficult times open us up to a lot of divine diagnostics.
I’ve had my own crisis over the past couple weeks. It told you last week about the morning I was hit by lightning. That was crisis that came out of the blue and created a lot of havoc. It upset my time schedule, affected my health, wrecked my car and killed my computer.
I went to the hospital and got checked out, replaced some parts in the computer, and got my van boosted and running. I thought it was all done until my van started making some weird noises and I found out that the engine is now toast. More phone calls, more dealing with insurance, more frustration. All little stuff by comparison to what many people are going through.
And as I was dealing with this, I was talking to God, and He brought me to Proverbs 21:1 which says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; like the rivers of water he turns it wherever he wishes.” That reminded me that God’s in charge of what’s going on. He’s in charge of the mechanic, the insurance people, and everything else. He can turn things the way He wishes. Therefore the best person to talk to about it is Him. The question is whether I will have the faith and trust to let Jesus do whatever He wants with the situation.
Let’s talk a little about how we react to crisis, and how Jesus deals with our problems, through the lens of these two people that came to Jesus after He got off the boat.
First, let’s note how different these two characters, the leader of the synagogue and the woman, while at the same time noticing that they both end up at the feet of Jesus. And I want you to see yourself, your own story, or the story of your loved ones in this.
The man is a religious layman – like our elders or deacons – respected and well known in the community. We can presume the man was very well known because Mark very rarely gives names to the characters in his stories, so perhaps he did so because many reading might have known his name. The woman was his opposite. Because of her issue with constant bleeding, she would have been ceremonially unclean and therefore wasn’t allowed to be in the temple or permitted to be in public without making people aware of her uncleanness. The woman would have been ostracized, considered cursed, hurting and desperately lonely.
And they both end up at the feet of Jesus. There is no one kind of person that comes to Christ. Famous, rich, spiritual, religious people — and rejected, broken, outcasts – are welcome at the feet of Jesus Christ.
Let me tell you what was going on here with this poor woman. According to ceremonial law, if she touched anyone, they would also become defiled and unclean. It was a huge risk for her to touch this popular rabbi!
So see how gently Jesus seeks out this woman. Of course He knew who touched Him, but He didn’t want to call attention to her! For years and years, every time she went out in public, she had been forced to call attention to herself to tell everyone she was unclean. For years she hadn’t been allowed to touch anyone. And she had dared to reach out and touch a famous rabbi – one who is on an important mission for a leader of the synagogue! How terrifying for her. So Jesus allows her to be the one to announce herself, to show her courage, and to bring testimony about her healing. He called her to tell her story, but never considered forcing her or pointing her out.
Jesus called her “Daughter”. She was older, not a young woman, so what was this all about. It was about reminder her that God had never turned his back on her. God had never left her. She was rejected by people, removed from the temple, pushed away in her pain, suffering in fear and loneliness, but all along God still saw her as His daughter. And so Jesus addresses her as such.
That’s how Jesus operates with us to. What a picture of how we are all saved. We come, in faith, in fear, having no idea what is going to happen, but only knowing that getting a little bit of Jesus is going to do something! But the risk is great! Coming to Jesus has such huge consequences in our life… and Jesus knows this. So, when we show our faith in Him by repenting of our sins and making Him Lord of our life, He heals us, calls us His “sons and daughters” (1 John 3:1), and gives us a chance to tell our story. He doesn’t hold us up like a trophy, but gently calls to us, drawing us out of the crowd, and gives us the chance to courageously tell our story.
Their crises were very different when you contrast them too. The woman came for personal healing of her own problem, the man came on behalf of another. The woman had suffered for 12 years and had tried everything she could think of – spending all her money on doctors, medicines and methods – just to be well. Nothing worked, and the treatments themselves brought even more suffering.
The man had come, not because of a long-term problem, but because of an emergency. We don’t know what was wrong with the little girl, but we know from the account in Luke 8 that it was his only beloved daughter, and she was twelve years old. It could have been an accident or a sudden illness. Whatever it was, it was urgent. And when a dad sees his little girl on the edge of death, he doesn’t mess around with things that might help, he goes to the one he knows can help.
And they both end up at the feet of Jesus. We all have different types of crises. Some of them are long-term problems that we’ve dealt with our whole lives. Some come upon us suddenly and without warning. Some are of our own doing because we have been foolish. Some are the actions of others trying to harm us. Some are just because we live in a fallen world. No one is to blame, but the danger, fear and pain is very real.
All these problems are welcome at the feet of Jesus. If we mess up, we can bring it to Jesus. If we have the same problem for years and years, we can still bring it to Jesus. If we are in an emergency, our first stop needs to be Jesus. There is nothing beyond His reach or power.
How each person acted out their faith, and the miracles Jesus performs have contrasts too. The man came to get Jesus to bring Him to his daughter. The woman came to see Jesus and was hoping to get away unseen. The woman was suffering for a long time and was healed instantly. The little girl died and was resurrected. The woman who was unclean reached out to touch Jesus, and Jesus reached out to touch the dead girl who, because she had died, was now unclean.
The woman pressed through the crowd, doing all she could to get to Jesus – no one was going to stop her. The man had all but given up after receiving news of his daughter’s death.
And they both experience the miraculous power and healing of Jesus. They both had faith – perhaps the woman had more since the man had almost turned away – but it was present in both. But it wasn’t the measure of their faith that determined the miracle – just who they had faith in!
The woman didn’t need a faith boost, so Jesus said to her “Your faith has made you well…”. However, to the man who was losing faith in what Jesus could do about the situation, He said, “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.”
How ironic. I wonder how many people this synagogue leader had said those very words to as people in his congregation came to him with problems. How many times did he tell them, “Don’t be afraid, have faith.” How many times had he reminded people about the power of God and the miracles in Israel’s past? How many people had he encouraged to pray for a miracle? How many people had heard him say, “Don’t be afraid, have faith”? And when it was time for him to have faith — it failed him. But that didn’t stop Jesus from helping him. Jesus didn’t walk away, did he?
It’s not unheard of to have a crisis of faith during a difficult time, is it? John the Baptist had a crisis of faith when he was unjustly locked up in prison. Peter had the same when Jesus told him that He would be crucified. We all do. Emergencies, illness and disaster really let us know where our faith is.
Granted, this was a pretty big ask of Jesus. His daughter was dead – that’s usually the end of the story. But Jesus looks at him and says, “Don’t worry, don’t be afraid, don’t fall apart, don’t quit on me. I’m still here. I still have power, this story isn’t over. When I’m involved, death isn’t ever the end of the story. It looks bad now, but I’ve got this under control. I’m not surprised, and since I’m here, you’re not helpless. Let’s go.”
And when Jesus and the father of this young girl got to the home, they were confronted with the mourners. Jesus told them not to worry because He was there to deal with the problem. In fact, this death was going to be so short that it was going to look like a little nap.
In the same way, as these two miracles were so different, the way Jesus deals with our problems is going to look very different. Sometimes the healing will be immediate and powerful. Sometimes we’ll see the physical, or financial, or emotional, or relational miracle happen before our eyes. The addiction will disappear. The cancer will go away. The money will just show up. There are times when we come to Jesus with a desperate issue and it’ll just happen.
Other times, it’s not going to happen the way we think. Sometimes the miracle comes after death when we, or our loved one, sees Jesus in heaven. Sometimes the miracle isn’t in the physical healing we want to see, but in the testimony this person is able to have as a result of their suffering. Sometimes the healing is spiritual, or emotional, and not physical. Instead of healing the body, Jesus does something better and heals the soul. Sometimes, God chooses to allow the suffering because it is the best way to help the person to grow stronger in their faith.
The father would never have wanted his daughter to die. But that’s how Jesus wanted it to happen. He could have healed her from a distance, but he had a different plan for her and her family. This man needed to see something different from Jesus so his faith would grow. The presenting issue of having a dying daughter wasn’t the real problem – the problem was the faith of the family, the faith of the community, the trust that they had in Jesus, and their need to see His power. And He would do it, not through healing a sick girl, but raising one from the dead.
The mourners were mocking and called Jesus foolish – and maybe even the father for bringing Jesus there at all. And we’re going to get mocked too, for having faith in Jesus, and bringing Him problems that seem impossible to solve. We are going to get mocked for having faith in Jesus, and for believing that even though He can heal us (or our loved one), He’s choosing not to and it’s for a good reason.
Sometimes people are going to stand in our way and tell us to “stop bothering God”, just as the people who came from the man’s house said, “Why trouble the teacher anymore?”. They’ll tell us to quit praying. It’s not working. Clearly God isn’t listening. He doesn’t care. But that’s not true! There is so much that is done as we pray and trust.
And just as I’m sure this woman with the bleeding received hundreds of pieces of advice, remedies and miracle cures, so will people tell us to try all manner of human means of fixing our problems. They’ll tell us to take it into our own hands, manipulate the situation, compromise our integrity, just fib a little. They will be like Job’s wife who, after seeing the suffering of her husband said, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) Just quit! Give up!
Suffering Builds Us
But we believe as Christians that Jesus knows better. We do not quit praying and we trust that He knows best. If God choose to bless us with an immediate miracle – we will thank Him. If He chooses that we must suffer in this life, and that the miracle will only come when we see Him face to face, we will thank Him!
Why? Because he is faithful! He is worthy of our trust! He is wiser than us, and He knows us better that we know ourselves. And we believe Romans 5:1-5 which says,
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
And we agree with James 1:2-4 which says,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be complete, not lacking anything.”
(I used this prayer by Pastor Scotty Smith this week.)
I don’t know where you are at today, and I don’t pretend to know what is going on in your heart – only God knows that. I can say with absolute certainty that there is something you desire very much, that you have worked for, that you have tasted, and that you want more of – I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that every one of us in the room today wants peace. As I’ve meditated on this idea, I wonder if the pursuit of peace might be the one, biggest thing in our life– possibly above all others – for much what we do as human beings.
Yes, we all want to be loved. We all want to have joy. We all want to know freedom. We all want physical, emotional and spiritual healing – but are those not all ways to find peace? Peace of mind. Peace of spirit. Peace in our jobs. Peace in our hearts. Peace in our families and relationships. If there is one thing that we all want, it is peace.
Our Powerful Desire for Peace
Many people who get addicted to something say they started because their lives were a mess and they needed an escape – it made them feel better, or because they were just trying to fit in (translate that – be at peace with their friends).
One might think that this wouldn’t apply to adrenaline junkies. People who love fast cars, roller coasters or jumping out of planes or off of cliffs for fun. But when you listen to them being interviewed, or talk to them after, they say things like, “I don’t know what it is, but when I’m up there… going fast… pushing the limits… it just feels right.” Some will just flat out say that that’s where they are most “at peace.”
When someone dies after suffering with a painful disease we comfort each other by saying they are “resting in peace.” Parents of young children are just looking for a little “peace and quiet”. Conflict counsellors are always talking about ways people can “make peace.” People spend hours and hours in front of tv and movie screens and on the internet because they are avoiding real life and escaping into a place where they can have a time of peace. At Christmas time we read the words “peace on earth and good will towards men” on all sorts of decorations and cards. Many people will decorate their houses with the word “peace” in blinking lights this year.
Our Pursuit of Peace
The pursuit of peace is a powerful desire in the human heart. And we’ll go to many extremes to find it. Many suicide notes simply say that ending their life was the only way they could find peace. Murder, in a sense, is a violent way of making peace. Eliminate the other person, and there will be a moment’s peace.
We have multi million dollar industries dedicated to bringing us a moment’s peace. We have spa’s and massage places. We get CD’s that have ocean sounds, and noise blocking headphones. Many people are addicted to online video games because their virtual reality helps them escape real-reality. Some people live online because it is the only place they can feel in control and at peace… the real-world is simply too messy.
We come from many different places, with many different issues, problems, hopes and anticipations… we all have a similar desire: Peace. We may not all define it the same say, or find it the same way. In fact, your version and definition of where you are most at peace may be a place that causes me anxiety. But it is the same thirst.
Peace is not found in a place. Some seek to find peace in nature, or among people at a party, or in a dark room. We have all come here… to this place called a “sanctuary”… this place of refuge… so that we can have at least an hour or so where we need not worry, fight, buy, sell, hunger, thirst, clench our teeth, or be concerned, bothered or anxious… but simply come to be in the presence of God and His people, to sing new and familiar songs to Him, and to hopefully hear some kind of message from His Word that we can take home and apply so that we can have a little more peace than when we came in. And while our location might assist us, it cannot bring us true and lasting peace.
Peace is not found in a substance. Unfortunately, there nothing I can say, do or give you that will give you peace. There is no way the singers, or song writers, or musicians can do that. No smell, food, chemical or physical sensation will give you true and lasting peace. Temporary maybe, but not true and lasting peace. The people around you cannot bring you peace, because peace is a condition that is found on the inside, and doesn’t come from the outside. No human can give you peace because peace isn’t something people can exchange with one another. Peace is not a pill or an exercise or a habit, or something that you can buy and import into your body because peace is not found in a substance.
Peace is not found in knowledge. You might think, “maybe when I have it all figured out, gain enough knowledge, ask enough questions, and understand how the universe works, then I will be able to have peace. Once I can figure out the reason why all these things happen, then I will have peace.” But the pursuit of knowledge alone, doesn’t satisfy. It took me a long while, but eventually I figured this out. Warren, in the little book we’re looking at says it this way:
“An educated mind does not automatically produce a peaceful heart.” (Pg 88).
Peace is not found in circumstance. You could be sitting in the most beautiful, peaceful spot in the world, and still be weighed down by the cares and worries of your life, the battles waged in your heart, and the confusion of your mind. And yet, in the same way, you could be in the most uncomfortable, war-torn, sad place in the world, surrounded by destruction and pain… and feel a “peace that passes understanding”.
We talked about this a couple weeks ago. We think that if we could just change our circumstance – more money (or less money), a sunnier vacation spot, a different house, a better job, a different family, a better marriage – if that person would still be alive, or that person would leave me alone – or whatever circumstance needs to change so that we can finally have peace.
But it doesn’t work, does it? If we’re honest, we know that when we finally get what we want externally, it doesn’t change our problems internally. We get it, but we don’t feel any more at peace! Why? Because peace doesn’t come from outside of you… it comes from within.
I said this before, too. The problem isn’t physical or emotional – the desire for peace is deeply spiritual – deeply internal. We are broken and at war deep inside ourselves. And so, when we try to fix the problem externally, it doesn’t work! The problem is spiritual, so we need to have it fixed spiritually.
Peace comes from the one who is called the Prince of Peace. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of peace. Peace comes when you allowing the message of the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ to take hold of your heart, have access to your soul, and then let Him release you from the burdens of your soul. It’s not something you can do yourself. True and lasting peace is not a human thing – it’s a God thing. And it will only come when you stop trying to make it happen through external means, and get into a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Peace to Men on Earth”
Let’s turn, once again, to the passage from Luke 2:8-14.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’”
The shepherds who heard these words for the first time were looking for peace too. Personal peace. Relational peace. Political peace. Being a Jewish person under the Roman occupation and King Herod was bad – but shepherds had it worse because they were outcasts even in their own society. We romanticize them because David was a shepherd and we all love Psalm 23, but shepherds then were rejected outsiders. Their work made them ceremonially unclean, so they couldn’t be around religious people, and because their work was so constant, they couldn’t get to the temple very often to make the sacrifices to be made clean. They were considered to be untrustworthy and unlikeable. To be a shepherd was to be someone who was never at peace with people or God.
There was one word they were waiting to hear so that they could finally know true peace was at hand… the word Messiah, (or Christ). There would be no peace until the Messiah came. Those words were tied together: “Christ” and “Peace”. The expectation was, and is for many Jewish people today, that the Messiah would come and bring destruction to their worldly enemies and bring political and economic peace. Restore Israel to its former glory. No more war, no more starving, no more shame.
“The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’…The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.”
How’s that for a song about Jesus? Wrath, judgement, corpses… Not exactly “Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, right?” But that’s the Christ the nation of Israel was expecting!
When these humble shepherds heard this heavenly announcement, their minds must have gone back to the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
They read that very differently than the passive reading we give it today, which is what compelled these shepherds to leave their sheep and go see this child for themselves! Our warrior Christ! Peace by the might of our King! At Last!
Imagine the conversation as they were coming back to the field after seeing baby Jesus. “I can’t wait for this kid to grow up. I wonder if I’ll be able to join his army.” A little more spring in their step and their chests sticking out a little farther. The next time they walked by a Roman Guard there was a little less fear. Now they walked as men who knew that their enemy’s days were numbered.
God’s Plan for Peace
But it didn’t happen the way they thought it would. And in fact, when the peace of God through Jesus Christ was made available to them, most people rejected it. They didn’t want peace in the way Jesus was bringing it. They loved singing Psalm 110, and loved listening to Isaiah 9, but they chose to forget that God would bring peace His way, not theirs, and didn’t realize how this peace would be won. Their thoughts were fixed on a military conqueror, but God didn’t send one.
Why? Because their problem was spiritual. They wanted the Messiah to change their circumstances, to change where they lived and how they lived, they wanted more food, more money, more land, less war, less troubles, to be on top of the world. But Jesus didn’t come to offer them the world!
God’s plan was so much bigger. It was not only a plan to free them from the oppression of Rome, but the oppression of Death itself. Not only to save them from their earthly enemies, but from their much more powerful and potent demonic enemies. Not only to cleanse their city of people who they didn’t want there… but to cleanse their very lives from sin and evil… and to make possible a righteousness in their hearts that hadn’t been available to humanity seen since the Garden of Eden. He didn’t offer the world – He offered something so much better.
God’s true plan was revealed by prophesied by Isaiah, but most people didn’t want to hear it. Let’s read together God’s revealed plan for bringing peace through Jesus Christ as told by Isaiah 53.
“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Pause there. That’s saying, “Who would believe the way God would work? Who would believe the prophecy that said God would send a suffering messiah who would be rejected by those he came to save? Who would believe how God’s power… His “arm”… would be revealed by coming Himself to Die for the sins of the world? Not many would believe this prophecy.
Problem 1: He Doesn’t Look Right
“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
This is the first problem many people had and have with Jesus. He not impressive enough for them. He’s ordinary looking, born to ordinary parents, had an ordinary job, and traveled with ordinary people. It was who Jesus was on the inside (not the outside) that made Him so remarkably different! But many people want their saviour to be someone who not only does the right stuff… but also looks good doing it. Someone who looks like they are super-religious and knows something about God that we don’t. Someone flashy, and strong. Someone super handsome that people are drawn to immediately. Someone powerfu who fits with their mental description of why they want their peacemaker to look like.
Jesus doesn’t play that game. He didn’t come with His full glory, but instead came humbly. A question to consider here: When Jesus offers you peace, do you reject it because it’s not coming in the way you want it, in the shape you want it, by the person you want it from? Do you reject the gift of peace through the Lord Jesus Christ because the wrapping paper is too plain for you?
Imagine getting an amazing present… a 10 karat diamond ring, or a state of the art computer, or priceless sculpture… and rejecting it because it was wrapped in newspaper. Many people do that with the peace that comes through Jesus Christ. He doesn’t match their mental picture, so they dismiss Him and reject the peace that comes through a relationship with Him.
Problem 2: Peace ≠ Comfort
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
This is yet another problem for many people who desire peace, but don’t accept it the way Jesus offers. For them, peace equals comfort and convenience. Let me try to use an illustration to explain what I mean.
Imagine someone offering to build you a beautiful home. You can design every part of it, and price is no object. You spend months planning out the perfect house, getting the swatches for the carpet, choosing the marble for the counters, setting out the perfect bathroom fixtures… and finally you’re ready to build. The benefactor says, “Ok, I’ll start building, but I need to know where you want the house put.
I’ve got two places in California picked out. The good news is that one place is on the side of a mountain, facing the ocean where you can see the sunrise every day… and the other place is in the suburbs. The bad news is that both places are next to a fault line and experience earthquakes from time to time. So where do you want your house?”
If your definition of peace is where everything in life… all of your circumstances, everywhere you go, and everyone around you is always nice and nothing bad ever happens… then that’s like choosing to build on the side of the cliff. For you, peace is all about the view. A beautiful home, a beautiful life, must look beautiful.
It’s always a surprise when bad things happen to you because you don’t deserve it. You did everything you could to be at peace. You make your life picture perfect on the outside. No one knows what is happening inside your house, but on the outside it’s beautiful.
But the earthquake inevitably comes – and in this life it always will – there will always be something coming to shake your life – instead of having the strength and foundation to ride it out, the security that you are well established, the knowledge that peace is not about your circumstance – you blame everyone else when things go wrong, especially God. When parts of your house fall off it can’t be because of you – you made everything look perfect.
And so you spend weeks completely stirred, shaken, lost, afraid, confused, until you can clean up everything on the outside, until the wound is no longer fresh, pushing the doubt and fear deeper inside – and you clean up the externals. You dress up, look nice, tell everyone you’re ok, put on airs, pretend that you are at peace because you desperately need to feel it. You push away everyone that reminds you of anything negative, you end relationships that hurt, you only seek people that make you feel good – and drop them when they no longer do. And you think that maybe this time, if you make everyone believe that everything is just right — it will be.
But there goes another rumble, and another part of your life falls off the cliff. And you never feel at peace because you’ve got the wrong definition of peace.
Peace In the Midst
Jesus teaches that peace is not about what’s going on around you. He teaches that peace is something that occurs despite what you’re going through. He says that you can access peace in the midst of suffering. That’s why peace isn’t something that can you can achieve all by yourself… your foundation cannot be of your own making. Peace is a gift from God that is only found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Chief Cornerstone and the Prince of Peace.
Read verse 5 again,
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
You see, were it not for Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, we would still be under the judgment of our “transgressions”, which means “rebellion, defection, sins” and could never be at peace with God. We would still be His enemy.
Were it not for Jesus, we would still be under the weight of our “iniquities”, which means “guilt, perversion, depravity” and no one who lives with guilt, is bent towards perversion, and lives a depraved life can ever be at peace with others. If it were not for the brutal punishment Jesus took for our sakes, we would always have fear of God’s judgment looming over us and we would never be able to have emotional peace or any kind of peace of mind — our guilt and shame would eat away at us for our whole life. And were it not for the punishment He took for us, we would be plagued by the evil around us, always looking to mete out revenge, trapped in a cycle of hate, always wanting to make sure that those who wronged us paid for it. But our faith in Christ lets us know that God is perfect judge who won’t let anyone get away with their sins – and anyone who has faith in Jesus has had their punishment give to Jesus and in no way would we ever want to add to that punishment.
If it wasn’t for Jesus being wounded for us, we could never be healed. His wounds allow us to be forgiven, to heal from the pain of our own sin and the sins that others have committed against us, and gives us the freedom and strength to forgive others.
Find Peace with God through Jesus Christ
How do we access this kind of peace? Through Faith.
Romans 4:24-5:11 explains how and why we can have peace:
“It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
I hope you see this because it is very important. Our faith in the risen Jesus Christ, who died for our sin, gives us access to peace with God. Through Jesus, and only through Jesus, we have grace and hope. That hope brings us through any sufferings and gives us a firm foundation and a new perspective on things that try to shake our peace. But since our peace is not built on circumstance, but on faith in the love of God proved in Jesus Christ, even suffering leads to more hope and more peace. Our weakness – our lack of faith and lack of peace – didn’t keep God away, but instead He came to die for us. No matter what we have done, no matter how not at peace with God we are, Christ died for us. We need not fear wrath, because Jesus took it. And now we are reconciled, made right with God, given life when we had death. This reconciliation leads to rejoicing and worship!
I hope you see that faith in Jesus leads to rejoicing and worship – peace in the midst.
Oh toothpaste, how you have let me down! You promise so many things! In your TV commercials you tell me that no person can respect, love or enjoy the company of someone without shiny, white teeth. You tell me that the reason that I’m not successful in life is because my choppers are too dull. You say that if my bicuspids were whiter, I’d smile more often, be more popular and have a more positive attitude towards life.
And it’s not just the positive hopes that have imprisoned me in your diabolical trap, but also the fearsome negatives… those scary promises that you and your cohorts with the drills have pounded into my brain since the days of my youth. My enamel will never, EVER grow back! Drinking pop or coffee may as well be drinking battery acid! If I forget to brush before I sleep, when I wake, after I eat, or snack, or chew too much… I could contract all sorts of terrible, fatal diseases like tartar buildup, halitosis, bleeding gums, heart disease, arthritis, or even cancer!!!
“BUT NEVER FEAR!”, you say, “I, TOOTHPASTE, will make it all better!”
And I try to follow your ways! I try to keep up with this maniacally strict regimen of brush-rinse-floss-rinse-pick-swirl-massage-rinse-repeat, but FORGIVE ME TOOTHPASTE for I have sinned — it has been 12 hours since my last brushing! Cleanse me of my filmy iniquity, wash me from the foul odor of last night’s garlic pizza.
I live in a world which is more concerned with my dental color and oral freshness than my talents, skills or personality qualities — so I need you. I need you to make me right with the world. I need you because there’s an outside chance that my wife and children may knock me out and leave me for dead on the side of the road if I wake up with dragon-breath one more time…
But alas, and to the shame of my family and kin, I have been using an older brand of toothpaste; one not fit for today’s diabolical dental attacks. And so I have given my offering unto another, better, NEWER toothpaste! It’s got baking soda. It’s got peroxide. It’s got ultra-foaming-action. It whitens, brightens, lightens, heightens and frightens plaque away.
And I brush. Two times a day I brush. Yea, verily, three times daily do I brush. Surely the wondrous technology captured within the chemicals of this intoxicatingly minty-mixture will overcome my shortfalls. Surely this seven dollar tube of menthol flavored miracle juice will make my life better. Surely the science behind this cool-blue gel will finally bring me everything I’ve ever wanted: success, fame, fortune, the adulation of an adoring public, respect, a secure home, a blissful, pain-free existence! Surely this is the missing link, the key to everything that I’ve ever hoped for!
But alas no. It has been two months now and I have no more fortune, success or adulation than I did before. And so I have turned my wrath unto the giver of the great promises… my toothpaste. I am angry with my toothpaste. It has let me down.
But I saw a commercial last night for something called “botox” and those people were pretty happy… hmm…