Have you ever seen the movie “Inception”? It’s about a group that invades other people’s dreams so they can plant ideas. It’s a cool movie. One of the cool parts is that they end up going deeper and deeper as they make the person fall asleep within their own dream so they can start a new dream within the dream – and then they do it again – a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s a cool concept.
I recognize that my sermon series has been a little like this lately. We’re at the tail end of a series on 1 Corinthians, which recently launched a mini-series on Stewardship, but now, we’re coming into the Easter Season and I need to pause the Stewardship series so we can prepare ourselves for Easter. In the movie going this deep into inception wasn’t a good idea and almost caused a bunch of people to die – so I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.
Please open up to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. But first, I want you to watch this:
Carman’s story is like many that are in the church today, not just youth, but a lot of people. Coasting along in the faith, serving here and there… as he said, “Christianity is just what we did.” That sort of faith, if you can call it that, doesn’t really hold up for very long and invariably leads to drifting from God and the church, what Christians have historically called “backsliding”.
But then something happens. In Carman’s case, his mom got sick. He was faced with the suffering, and eventual death of a loved one. At that moment, in the face of suffering and death, all the questions that he had been pushing aside came rushing at him, whether he wanted them to or not, and he was forced to evaluate where he was with God, ask himself who God is, and whether or not he was going to trust Him. I know some here have faced this moment of crisis too.
The reason for human suffering and what happens after we die has been a topic of debate since almost the beginning of time — and after thousands of years of discussion, we are obviously nowhere near a consensus. Religious leaders, theologians, philosophers, and scientists have all spent time, energy and much ink giving their opinions, but people are as divided as ever.
And, though I don’t want to assume where you’re at today, though I do know many of you, my guess is that even in this room there are a myriad of perspectives, and we know a lot of people that hold different beliefs. Some grew up with religious background that told them from an early age that there is some sort of force outside them that controls everything, will judge their actions, and send them somewhere after they die. Others have a view where suffering is all in the mind, there is no judgment on our deeds, and everyone gets their own perfect afterlife. Maybe you know someone who believes in reincarnation.
Or perhaps they are more like the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking who died this week. He suffered from ALS for most of his life, was on the edge of death many times, and when he was asked about his beliefs about God he said,
“I believe the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either.”
In 2011, he said,
“There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
It’s possible there are those here or among our friends that take this nihilistic view of the universe, believing that nothing happens and that everyone else is simply believing fairy tales because they don’t want to think about simply disappearing.
Some people love talking about these sorts of subjects and are open to new ideas, others are rock solid in what they believe and will never change – but more often, I find, people these days take a more agnostic view where they simply say they don’t know why bad things happen or what will happen after death and don’t think anyone ever will. Often, these sorts of people work pretty hard to distract themselves from having to ever think about suffering and death at all.
A lot of people are in that state – which we could simply call denial – but they can’t stay there. Death and suffering are all around us. We can’t actually escape them. I just conducted a funeral yesterday and it’s in moments like that, when we are faced with the suffering and death of someone that we knew, someone who was close to us, who had an impact on our lives, that we are forced to contemplate why they went through what they did and what happens next. Did their life matter? Did their suffering have a purpose? Is there a reward for the good they did and justice for the wrongdoer? Is there a place that is free from pain or do we simply disappear into the ether? It is in the moments where we are confronted with death that we are given the opportunity to wonder what happened and where they are now. To wonder about their condition. Which, in turn, forces us, if only for a fleeting moment, to wonder about our own condition, about how we will face suffering and what will happen to us when we die.
Many people aren’t comfortable with this subject, but it’s something that Christians talk about a lot – or at least they should. We’re coming up to the Easter Season which is all about moving from the dead of winter to the new life of spring, of fasting and prayer during lent to mourning the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, to the celebration of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. The stories of Jesus in scripture are stories of Him being surrounded by spiritual and human enemies, sickness, oppression, and death, and overcoming them all. And part of our mission in the world is to go out and minister to those who are weak, suffering and who have come face to face with death. Christians don’t run from these topics, we run towards them, just as Jesus did.
A Vacuum of Knowledge
Let’s read our passage today in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
This passage is a microcosm, a summary, of the Christian view of suffering and death. Many here are Christians. I am a Christian pastor. We are in a Christian church. And Christians have a very specific, very defined, view of suffering, death and the afterlife, something that we have been sharing and proclaiming and comforting ourselves with for literally millennia.
But this hasn’t always been the case. At the beginning of Christianity, as the Gospel of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the Roman world and beyond, there was a lot of confusion. They, like us here today, had many, many views on why things happen the way they do and what happens after death. They had as many religions and philosophies as we do. And so, as the message of Christianity spread a lot of teaching and clarifying had to be done.
What we just read was a message sent from the Apostle Paul to a Christian church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. According to Acts 17, the Apostle Paul had been through their city, had told them the story of Jesus, about His life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection, and had planted a church there in Jesus’ name. But he wasn’t able to stay long. Within a very short time, a group of Jews rose up that opposed Paul and his message. They spread lies about him, formed a mob, threatened violence, attacked the house they were staying at, shook them down for protection money, and then ran Paul and Silas out of town. Paul didn’t have time to teach the Thessalonians everything they needed to know, and that vacuum of knowledge left them in trouble.
They were like many people today. They had heard about the One, true God. They had learned that God has a standard for the world, a moral law written into His Word and into the consciences of men, and that we have all broken it. They had learned that every human being has sinned, that we all stand guilty, and that in our hearts we all know that we have done wrong — and that this God, the Creator of all things, will judge our deeds.
But they had also learned about Jesus. They had learned that, as the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says, that “God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him, wouldn’t perish, but would have everlasting life.” The Thessalonians, in Paul, had met a man who had seen and spoken to the risen, Lord Jesus, and he had invited them to look into the evidence themselves. They had learned that on the cross Jesus had taken the punishment for the sins of everyone who would turn to Him, that He literally traded Himself for them, took their punishment, wiped out their sins, and offered to them a new life with Him guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. As a result of this message, they felt the conviction of their sins, asked forgiveness of God, and accepted Jesus as their Saviour and their God.
But then Paul left, abruptly. I would imagine that for a time it was all good. Everyone was excited about their new life, new faith, was celebrating and worshipping Jesus and sharing His love — but then someone in the church got sick. They were prayed over, they expected a miracle, but then, instead of seeing a miracle, that person kept suffering, got worse, and died. This put the believers into crisis — the same crisis that many people feel today.
They had been told that Jesus loves them, that God is all-powerful, that all good things come from Him, and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life — but they just watched someone they care about get sick, suffer, pray for help, and then die. Maybe you’ve felt this way too, even asked the same questions. What happened? Was their faith not strong enough? Was the story of Jesus a lie? Where was God in all this? This was a crisis of faith. People started to turn away from God and the church and wrote to the Apostle Paul, begging him for an answer to what had happened. If God is so good, why do bad things happen? If God is powerful, then why didn’t He fix everything and stop our friend, our family member, from suffering and dying? If Jesus gives eternal life, why do believers die? What went wrong? Is it all just metaphors and stories? They were bewildered and they had lost hope.
Where Our Hope Lies
And so Paul writes to them these words. He says,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
He starts by saying, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep”. Their bewilderment and hopelessness, their confusion and panic, the loss of their faith had come because there was something they didn’t know. This is the danger of choosing not to think about it, being willfully ignorant, of not studying the word or believing lies. The vacuum of knowledge or false knowledge causes us to be confused, open to lies, and hopeless when we are faced with suffering and death. We become a target for our spiritual enemies, false teachers, and our own temptation to simply make things up – and there is no comfort in that.
But the Bible says that there is a truth, there is a sure hope, there is an answer to the deepest questions, “Why do people suffer and what happens after we die?”, and it’s an answer that needs to be shared by someone who already knows it. That’s why Christians share the gospel. We know something that others don’t. We know how God’s goodness, His power, and His plan, work in the face of human suffering and death. And it’s our job to share it.
The end of verse 13 says tells us why this knowledge is important: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. There’s an important truth there: everyone grieves. Both Christians and non-Christians grieve. The natural, human response to suffering and death is grief. But there are two different kinds of grief. There is a grief with hope and grief without hope. Most of the world’s religions and philosophies give very little hope. They present a judgemental god who is eager to toss people into Hell who don’t follow his rules. They present a cruel or powerless god who has neither the authority nor the inclination to help anybody. They present a chaotic universe that has no order, no reason, no meaning. Or they simply present, utter, darkness – no hope. It is only the Christian message that presents hope in the face of suffering and death because it is the only one that presents the truth, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
Verse 14 says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” In short, our Christian hope comes in the knowledge that God is good, God is loving, and God is in control. Christians know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our birth, life, sufferings, and death are all known to a good God who loves us. But how do we know it’s true? How do we know He’s good? Because of the birth, life, sufferings, and death of Jesus. We find our hope in knowing that God deals with us as He dealt with Jesus.
God sent Jesus to be born to a certain family at a certain time. So were we. God allowed Jesus to see both good and bad in His life, to face joys and sufferings, friends and betrayal, purpose and grief. He does the same with us. God set the date and appointed the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus sufferings and death were God’s idea, His plan to save us from the beginning of time. In the same way, the events of our lives, the sufferings we face, and the moment of our death are known to God.
But more than this, and in this lies our hope, God rose Jesus from the dead. God’s power brought Jesus from the grave, conquering death. He was seen by hundreds, maybe thousands of people. When Jesus died His disciples were completely distraught: hopeless, bewildered, listless, afraid. But seeing Jesus alive had such an effect on them that they dedicated their lives to sharing that message with as many people as they could — even at the cost of their own lives. They knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus had died and is now alive – and they staked their lives and their eternities on it.
In the same way, Christians stake our lives, our hopes, and our eternities on Jesus. Just as His sufferings had a purpose and He rose from death, so do ours, and so will we. First our spirits to heaven, and then our bodies later. This is where we find hope.
As Romans 8 says,
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My hope for you today, and for the rest of this season, over the next few weeks, is that as you face suffering, grief, and death – as you are confronted once again with bad things that are happening to yourself and those you love, that you will open your hearts and minds to the Gospel, to the message of Jesus, to the comfort of knowing Him. That you will not grieve as those who have no hope but will be able to accept that Jesus knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes, has great compassion for you, and invites you to walk with Him. You don’t have to be perfect or cleaned up, or anything — His grace is available to you right now.
My hope is that you will come to trust more and more, even when the world gets dark, that in this place, at this moment, and no matter where you go from here, that Jesus has given a purpose to suffering, that He knows them all, that He has conquered death, and that you will know beyond the shadow of a doubt – and be able to share with others – that eternal life and perfect hope is available to all who would turn from their sin, ask His forgiveness, and trust in Him.
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and shines like a beacon in a dark place. And those who first heard it really needed a beacon because even though things weren’t at their darkest, it still wasn’t a great time in the life of Israel.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene in the years after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system, but things were still pretty bleak. Though things were going ok for the generation that had come back to their homeland of Judah things were far from perfect. The prophets that had encouraged them to rebuild their temple had given promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, peace, that would come when God’s glorious presence would once again come to the temple.
But when they looked around at their life they were disillusioned – it wasn’t anything like that. Sure, they were no longer being oppressed in a foreign land, but the glory days of expansion under King David and the peace and prosperity under King Solomon were long distant memories. Now they were the least important territory in Persia under Artaxerxes, were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, and were constantly fighting with their neighbours.
It wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them, there was also a spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt, but it was much smaller and spiritually inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple that the miracles would automatically rain down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
Of course, the problem wasn’t that God was gone, but that their hearts were far from him. Their worship was lethargic and empty of love or passion. They constantly complained about God’s lack of love and how he was unjustly punishing them. They even withheld their tithes because they were worried they wouldn’t have enough. It can be summarized in Malachi 3:13-15, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? What’s the point of following God? Where’s the gain in following all God’s rules, doing things His way, which is almost always harder, and then things just getting worse? God is the “Lord of hosts”, the “God of gods”, the “God of angel armies”, but where is He? The arrogant, self-willed, atheistic, non-believers all seem like they are doing better than us. And people who are outright committing evil, mocking God to His face, are getting away with it! What’s the point in believing in God when He never does anything to make our lives any better?
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. They were tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God and then losing every other battle to those which they used to conquer easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing, so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi doesn’t allow for that. Malachi comes to God’s defense. He reminds them that God is more than happy to bless them, but refuses to bless their sin. He reminds them that God was the one that chose Israel and has stayed committed to them, showing them great love even when they had completely turned their backs on Him, and then restored them back to their land. And what was their response? To worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? No… it was to grumble, complain and dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings – to withhold their worship, love, and obedience – to commit sexual sins, divorce each other, and marry unbelievers – to dishonour and live unjustly towards one another – and to live as hypocrites who say one thing and do another.
He tells them that they aren’t receiving God’s blessing right now because their hearts and lives are a mess… which is a story we’ve all heard so many times, right? Almost to the point we’re tired of it. I know I can start to feel that way.
God, where’s the good news!? Why is everything so hard? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. This world is a whole other thing. I don’t understand what the government are doing, corporations seem to be getting more powerful and sometimes more evil, people seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have crazy scientists who are doing all sorts of terrible things like creating human embryos and then destroying them, messing with human genetics, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
Our spirits cry out to God, we hit our knees, we cry out to God and nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for an hour or two, but invariably it all comes crashing back on us. Or worse, we come into church hoping for an uplifting message with some answers and just hear once again how our problems are somehow all our fault – and we go home feeling even more miserable. Seems to be the same story over and over, right?
Then it’s easy to slip into the mindset that Malachi was writing about: What’s the point of all this religious stuff? What’s the point of believing in God if things are just going to be miserable anyway? Where is God when all this insanity is going on? We hear stories about amazing things happening in India, China, and Florida – but what about Beckwith, or Ottawa? And like Israel, we get disillusioned and disappointed with God and start to back off our faith.
Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little more back each week because we are worried about the budget. We think, “God hasn’t given us enough money, so how can we afford to tithe?”
We start to skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries – after all, there’s lots of work to be done and attending church hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises about “finding joy in suffering”.
We start to indulge a little more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – and it gives us that little rush we weren’t getting when we were trying to connect with God. Sure, it produces some shame… but if we keep at it we know that the shame will eventually be quieter.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music, because it all just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either just as miserable or better off– and I don’t want to hear from either one of those people.
So we head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution, and they are more than happy to give us something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it just produces more guilt and we rarely pray, except to complain to God about how unfair life is, how He’s not doing His job, how if He’d just fix things then we’d come back to doing what we’re supposed to. But the prayer bounces off the roof, nothing changes, and we start to contemplate not only why we started to believe in the first place, but whether God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. That, by definition is hopelessness, and that’s not only where a lot of people are today, but where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, except for a few people, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? The simple answer is hope. “Hope that does not disappoint”, as Romans 5:5 puts it. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart and who were losing hope? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Open up to Malachi 3:16. After all the complaining and faithless and disobedient had had their say against God, another group immerges:
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God, there was one group that was still faithful, one group who had not bowed their knee to another god, one that had continued to remain obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How?
Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”. I’m sure most of you have gone camping and had a camp fire. These days they make you buy your wood from the store at the campground, and it’s really expensive, so you really need to enjoy every little piece. You start with a nice fire, but as the night wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, until there is only one little charred block, with a tiny flame, surrounded by orange embers. So what do you do? You stoke the fire, right? When the flames are dying down, and you’re all out of wood, what do you need to do to make sure it doesn’t go out? You bring the embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should be drawing together to keep the flames of faith alive. And what did they do? They spoke with one another. What did they speak about?
Hebrews 10:23-25 shows believers who were in a very similar situation. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
They confessed their hope to one another: “What brings you hope this week? How have you seen God this week? What do you remember of God’s covenant to us? How has He been faithful to you this week?”
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. “How have you been doing this week? How can we help you? How can we help others? Have you been caught in sin? How are you doing with forgiveness?”
What else did they speak about? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but you’re doing great. I know you feel lonely but I’m here. I know you feel your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I know you feel stuck, but I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it. Don’t give up!
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” Which all makes sense right? Sinning by drinking or doing drugs isn’t really going to help, right? But look what he says next, because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
Verse 19, “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? When the fires are going out in your heart? Satan will tell you to get alone. Turn away from God, away from friends, away from prayer, away from church, away from your spouse and children, to get alone – so you are an easier target. What does God say? Not just “Speak to each other.” But “sing to each other!”
He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, get together and sing to each other! Sing your praise, sing your thanks, sing about God, sing about Jesus… but not just to feel better, but out of submission and reverence for Jesus. When we sing songs of faith together our hearts knit together, and then fall before Jesus.
How do you fire up dying coals? Blow on them! So how do you encourage yourself when you feel your faith is dying? Draw together with other believers and speak and sing!
Elijah is John the Baptist
Let’s close by reading the end of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament, starting in 3:16 again,
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”
I can almost hear the words of the faithful in response to this, “Yes God! We will keep meeting together, keep remind one another, keep speaking your name and singing your songs. We believe you will completely save us one day. But when, God? When will you come and deal with the evil once and for all? When will you come and raise up your people like the sun? When will healing come? When will you tread down the wicked and cause us to leap for joy?
And God tells them the sign to wait for in 3:5 that will kick off this glorious time,
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Who was this one that would come right before the “great and awesome day of the Lord”? Who would come to prepare the land so it wouldn’t be “utterly destroyed”? According to the Bible and the words of Jesus it was John the Baptist, who would come and proclaim Jesus’ coming as Son of God and Saviour of the world. (Matthew 11:7-14; Luke 1:17).
Choose to Meet
Next week we enter into the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing ourselves for Christmas. I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you are looking forward to, and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know that for some of you, you’ve got so much going on in your life and in your souls that even the idea of celebrating Christmas seems like more of a chore than a blessing.
My encouragement to both of you is to keep doing the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then that’s great, come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses for people to get together and invite those from outside your usual circles so more people can encourage one another. And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations so you can be with your fellow believers more and more. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, and to find ways to sing and talk with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, that’s the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 Acosta, D. R. (2016). Lord of Hosts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
The Gospel Truth
Today I want to talk about the “Gospel”. That word has been hijacked a bit by our culture so I want, at the outset, to clarify what that word even means. The term “The Gospel Truth” has actually become an idiom in our culture – meaning a group of words that have a meaning you can’t get from the words themselves. Like “it’s raining cats and dogs” (which means there’s a lot of rain coming down), or “beating round the bush” (which means to avoid talking about something), the words “the gospel truth” have now become idiomatic for something that is supposed to be unquestionably true.
A quick Google search for showed people using the phrase in concert reviews (“she loves singing, that’s the gospel truth”. scientific studies (“don’t take this study as the gospel truth”), marriage advice (“here’s some advice, but don’t take it as the gospel truth), and of course, attacks against mainstream media (“CNN, NBC, ABC all present their claims as the gospel truth”). It seems to either a way to double down on how truthful you are, or to squirm out of having people totally buy what you are saying.
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word EVANGELION, which is where we get our word “evangelism” or “evangelist”. An “evangelist” is someone that tells the “good news”. The world simply means “good news”. When Mark begins telling the story of Jesus, he starts with the word EVANGELION: This is the good news. At the time the word meant any kind of good news. 2000 years ago if someone knocked and said “Have you heard the good news?”, you wouldn’t immediately think they were religious, but simply thought it could be a good sale down at the camel emporium or they just found some money in their sock drawer. [Did ancient Greeks have sock drawers?] Today, however, the word “Gospel” or “good news” is synonymous with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, when knocks on your door or stops you in the street and says “have you heard the good news?” almost everyone immediately knows this person is going to say something about Jesus!
My least favourite example of culture appropriating the word “gospel” is from the old Disney movie “Hercules” which opens by presenting the Greek myths with gospel-style, church music, using the hook on the chorus “and that’s the gospel truth”. It’s annoying to me that they would use what sounds like upbeat church music to present myths. It puts the Bible at the same historical accuracy level as Homer’s Odyssey. Which simply isn’t true.
Not a Myth
Christians don’t follow myths. What we believe is not based on philosophy or stories that make us feel good. Instead, we believe the true gospel, the real gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, really happened. Jesus life, death, and resurrection were the plan of salvation, the gospel, that God had written since the beginning of time. We stake our lives and our eternities on it.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 the Apostle Paul writes to the church about the importance of remembering that the resurrection of Jesus really happened. He 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. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He’s telling the Christians that no matter what happens in this world, the reason we can have hope is because of the historical reality that Jesus really was raised from the dead. He reminds them that this is what was taught to them, this is what they believed, and when the world around them starts to shake, this is what they need to “hold fast to” – not because it is a nice story, but because it’s true. God’s plan, “according to the scriptures”, was that Jesus would die on a Roman cross. He really was buried and He really did rise three days later. And how could they be sure? Ask Cephas and the apostles, who were still around. If you don’t believe them ask one of the other five hundred witnesses who are still around.
Some people had come to the church and said, “That’s impossible! People don’t come back from the dead!” To which Christians reply, “No duh. That’s why it’s so special! That’s why we have a great big celebration about it every year! Because it’s a miracle.”
But some of the people in the Corinthian church had forgotten the good news were starting to lose faith – and this was only 30 years after the resurrection! As they lost their faith in the resurrection they started to lose hope, which meant the foundation of their lives started to wobble, which caused them to flail about looking for something to make the world make sense, and they were starting to wander into sin, hopelessness, fear, worldliness, sadness, greed, and anything else that would distract them or some level of control – and their pastor, Paul, blows the whistle and calls everyone back to the centre so they can do a big reset.
I’m an Edmonton Oiler fan and I’m very glad to see my team back in the playoffs this year. It’s been a long time. But I still remember 2006 when they made the trade for a big defenseman named Chris Pronger who took the team to the playoffs. He was a huge guy with lots of experience on a team that no one thought would be able to win. I remember watching as the Oilers would get behind, start chasing the puck, start freaking out, and then 6 foot 6 inch, 220 pound Chris Pronger would get the puck, look around at the rest of the guys and reset the whole team. It happened time and again. The young, inexperienced guys, would be buzzing around, and Pronger would basically stop the game and give everyone a chance to get back to where they needed to be.
That’s what Paul did to the church. He stopped their buzzing and reset the whole church. “Guys, remember the truth! Remember what you heard! Remember what you believe and why you believe it! Put down the idols, sin, greed, fear, and foolishness and remember that God is real, Jesus has risen, the Holy Spirit is active, and you are His!”
He goes on to say in verse 12 that if Jesus has not be raised from the dead, if the resurrection isn’t true, then there is no point in being a Christian – life has no hope. He says: “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
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
That’s what we are proclaiming today. My message and the message of this church is the same. “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” and therefore we have hope. Adam sinned and brought death to the world – but Jesus’s death made it so that we could be alive again.
I opened the Good Friday service with a prayer that I want to read part of again because I found it so powerful. It said, “It was on the cross that grace removed our burdens and heaped them onto Jesus, where he was made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for our sake…. Christ was all anguish that we might be all joy, rejected so we could be accepted, cast off so we could be brought in, trodden down as an enemy so we could be welcomed as friends, surrendered to hell’s worst so we could attain heaven’s best, wounded that we could be healed, thirsty so we would be able to drink, tormented so we could find comfort, made shame so we might inherit glory, entered darkness that we might have eternal light. Jesus Christ, our Saviour, wept so that our tears might be wiped away, groaned in agony so we could have an endless song to sing, endured all pain so that we could have unfading health, bore a crown of thorns so we could have imperishable crowns of glory, life, and righteousness. He bowed his head so that ours could be lifted to heaven, he experienced reproach so we could be accepted, closed his eyes in death so we could gaze on the unclouded brightness of God. He died so we could live forever.”
The world seems upside down right now, but, Christians around the world proclaim today: remember the gospel! In a world awash with bad news, and a life full of frustration, remember the good news.
We all need some good news these days, don’t we? But for some reason, the media doesn’t really like reporting “good news”. Can you imagine turning on the TV to your favourite news program and hearing only good news for 30 minutes straight? I can’t even fathom what that would be like.
How about instead of saying “1 in 6 people lie on their tax form”, they could say, “Did you know that 83% of people are very honest and do a great job on their taxes every year!” Instead of hearing about how the legal system is failing, the police have problems, and the bad guys are getting out of jail on a technicality, we heard stories like “The police saved countless lives this month by giving out tickets to people who drive too fast, took care of special needs people by giving out tickets, arrested lots and lots of bad guys, saved many families from harm, and visited a whole bunch of schools to help children have a better life.” Instead of hearing about the crooked bankers, wouldn’t it be nice to hear that like 99.9% of the people at the bank aren’t crooked and are just trying to do a good job. That’d be a nice change, wouldn’t it?
I would love to turn on the TV and see some positive stories: “This just in… 20 kittens were born today – here’s some pictures. Baskin Robins has a deal on waffle cones – here’s a coupon. And now for the weather: Hey, the sun us up, it’s nice outside, there are flowers blooming in the park, and everyone should go outside and play. Now for the sports: Almost every athlete in every sport practiced really hard, played exactly by the rules, worked well with their team mates, made lots and lots of money, donated some of it to charity, and the vast majority are still very happily married. Oh, and half the teams won their games! And now for entertainment news from Hollywood: there are actually a bunch of fun movies to take your kids too … and some of them are in 3D.”
Yes, I know that life sucks sometimes and everyone wants us to freak out all the time. ISIS is killing people, Christians are being blown up while they sit in their churches, Syria is gassing civilian woman and children, the US just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in their arsenal on Afghanistan. Add to that the incredibly difficult things that we are all facing in our day-to-day lives – addiction, abuse, illness, pain, loss, depression, anxiety, sadness… and it’s easy to start to feel hopeless.
As the world presses in and our foundations start to shake, we also start to flail about looking for something to grab onto to steady ourselves. Even committed Christians find themselves wondering what God is doing, where Jesus is, why we are going through this, and we start to grasp for immediate answers and instant comfort. Our fight or flight instincts kick in and we want to rail against those around us, or do anything for a moment’s peace – even if we know it will harm us.
But we need more, don’t we? We need more than just a quick fix or a boost of good news from the world around us – we need something ultimate, some piece of good news that we can build our whole lives on. Something that, when all is lost, the world is dark, the demons are swirling, we feel desperately hungry, angry, lonely, tired and sad, that holds us fast. Some people call this a metanarrative – an overarching story that gives meaning to everything. And that metanarrative, that overarching meaning, that good news is found in the resurrection of Jesus.
What the Good News Means
Some of you know that my family has been through a rough time lately. And I know from talking to you that many of you are also facing some very difficult situations personally, emotionally, financially, relationally. And so I want to share with you, from a bit of a personal side, what the Good News means to us – what it means to me – especially during dark times.
On Easter Sunday we wake up early, put on our itchy pants and fancy dresses, come to church and celebrate, sing about, and talk about the resurrection of Jesus. And we sometimes phrase it as “God did this for the world. God loves everybody.” But today I want to close with what the good news means to me… and hopefully you can resonate with it.
I could do this in 10 words: “The gospel of Jesus Christ means everything to me.” Or I could preach endlessly, for hours and hours, about the ways Jesus has changed my life, what the scripture says, what I have studied in my theology books, and what He has done for me in my darkest times.
No doubt you are wondering which one I picked. You’re hoping for the 10 word conclusion, and hoping against the endless one, right? Well, I’m hoping to lean more towards the former than the latter, if that means anything.
So, when the world is at it’s darkest and I need good news, I am reminded of the resurrection of Jesus and all that it means for me and those who believe. Let me share a little of what gives me hope during those hard times.
First, the resurrection of Jesus means that absolute truth and absolute morality exist. What a horrible insecurity it is to believe that there is no such thing as truth that nothing can be certain, everything is pliable, and that everyone’s opinion, conjecture and feelings are equally valid. That somehow even if something is a lie, it can be the “truth to someone”. That’s an unsettled, foundationless existence.
I have comfort in the knowledge that there are some non-negotiables in this world – that not everything is up for grabs. Some things are categorically bad, and others are absolutely good. Yes, there arere some grey areas I don’t understand, but its good news that God has given us black and white. Jesus died to save me from the wrath of God against sin which leads to eternal death, and because of Him I can be free and clean. It’s as black and white as that. There is right and wrong, good and evil, saved and unsaved, and those things are set by God – not man, not me, not anyone but God alone.
I Am Loved
Second, the death and resurrection of Jesus tells me that I am overwhelmingly, undeservingly, and unconditionally loved by the One who created me. When life is at its worst. When I feel like I’m on the edge of madness, people let me down, and I am utterly confused, I look to the cross and know that God loves me, to the tomb and know that Jesus is alive and with me. It is He who gives me comfort, teaches me, holds me together, and willingly grants a peace that passes understanding. When I can’t count on anyone, I can count on Him. When no one will listen, I can talk to Him and He understands. And when I am alone, I can listen to Him because He really does speak. When I am alone He’s always there. He will never leave me, nor forsake me.
If I had to continuously wonder if I had done enough to earn God’s love, I would be forever paranoid and afraid of Him. If God only loves me because of the good things I do, say, think then I am in real trouble, because, in truth, I know that am a wretched, selfish, sinful man.
But He doesn’t. God so loved the world, and so loved me, that He sent His one and only Son to earth, to live as a human being, and to take the punishment that you and I deserve. He did this because He loves us with an everlasting love.
I Have a Purpose
Another piece of good news that Jesus reminds me of is that we are specially created to have a purpose and a destination. I am not a being who is simply tossed upon the winds of time and space, only to exist for a moment and then disappear into nonexistence. The bible teaches me that God knew us before we were born, put us together in a very specific way, with special gifts and talents and a unique temperament. He chose our parents, where we would grow up, and designed us in such a way that we have a reason to live.
In a world where we are taught we are the summation of a random occurrence of molecules and that we are governed more by chemistry and electrical impulse than an eternal soul… were we are only as valuable as long as we are producing and being good consumers, but where life has no ultimate meaning, there is no assurance of a bright future, and only oblivion to look forward to in eternity… it is good news to know that the opposite is true.
God Has Power
The resurrection also reminds me that no matter how bad life gets messed things up, God is big enough to fix it. Jesus showed that, if He desires, He has the power to solve every problem and turn every bad thing into something good. From making the blind see and the lame walk to turning water into wine just so someone wouldn’t be embarrassed, He showed He isn’t just about big problems but He is also concerned with everyday problems too. He fed 5000 people with one kid’s lunch to show that we never have to worry about provision when He’s in charge. When all of the disciples were terrified that their boat would capsize in the storm, Jesus stood up and literally rebuked the wind and waves and the storm just stopped. And He can, and has, done the same thing for the storms in my heart, my mind, and in my life as well. And the resurrection proves that even death has no power over Him! When things look bleak, it is good news to remember that God not only loves us, but has great power.
I Am Free
And of course, the best news, to me and anyone else who believes, is that we are free from the consequences of our sins. This is the core of evangelism – that because of Jesus we are free. Jesus knows what I’ve done. And Satan, who’s other name is the Accuser, has every right to stand on the other side of God’s courtroom and proclaim to the Judge of all mankind, that I am guilty and deserve death, hell and eternal punishment for breaking God’s divine law over and over. And I do – I deserve the punishment. And yet, there stands Jesus, who’s other name is the Advocate, telling God that every punishment I deserve, every sin I’ve committed, every wrong that I have done, has been atoned for… has been paid for, by Him on the cross.
You see, God couldn’t just let all my sin go. He can’t just forget about it. He is perfectly good and righteous, and upholds perfect justice. Every wrong must be given exactly the right punishment. No one will get away with anything. But for those who believe, that punishment was poured out on Jesus. I was a slave to sin, he bought me back. I was chained to the devil, on my way to the blackness of hell, and Jesus Christ proclaimed light, broke the chain, and brought me back. He exchanged His body for mine, His blood for mine. He went through Hell so I wouldn’t have to.
Christians don’t follow Jesus because we have to. We don’t do good because we are afraid of God. We do it because we want to show our love and thanks to Jesus and because I trust that God knows what He’s doing with my life WAY better than I do. When God tells me I’m doing wrong I try not to see it as Him taking something away but as a Father who is protecting me.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us of all of this! The story of humanity, from Adam to today, is only good news because Jesus is in the story! No matter where we are, what we have done, or who we think we are… God still loves us, Jesus died for us, forgiveness is available to us, and we can live forever in the knowledge that we are God’s people.
If you believe that this morning, I would ask you, and encourage you to remember that today is a day of celebration! And that no matter how bad the news is in your life… and no matter what your dark days, your bad thoughts, or the TV says… there is still good news.
No matter how tough you have it this morning… and I know that some of you are in a very dark place, and it is very hard to see any light… there is good news that if you are willing to turn your life over to Jesus, ask forgiveness for your sin, and open your heart to what He would like to do in you, He will give you hope. He’s never let me down and has taken such good care of me, that even when everything looked really messed up and beyond hope, He has done great things far beyond what I could have asked or even imagined.
Steve gives us some reflections on Advent hope.
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.
Voices In Your Head
One of my favourite country songs is one by Chris Young called “I Hear Voices” which is about a man talking about how thankful he is for all the good advice he’s gotten in his life –from his mom, dad, grandparents, etc – who now exist as voices in his head that help him make decisions. It’s a song by a man who is thankful for those voices, but I think we can all admit that not all the voices in our head are as positive and helpful. Many people, me included, live with a barrage of negative thinking that we simply can’t stop.
“You’re not good enough. You’ll never measure up to where you need to be. You’re a constant disappointment. If people knew what you were really like, they’d hate you even more than they do now. You’re a wreck. You’ll never have enough. You’re not worthy of love. You should just quit. All of your friends are just pretending to like you.
You are small, insignificant, and useless. If you died, you would make the world a better place. You’re the reason that everything has gone wrong.
You are stupid and worthless. Your mind is falling apart, your body is falling apart, and your dreams are falling apart. Your life has no point, no reason, no purpose. Why are you here? Who do you think you are? What is wrong with you?
You don’t deserve happiness! You don’t deserve good things. And every good thing that happens to you is just a trick anyway. It’s a setup. For every moment you feel good, two more are waiting to make you feel even worse.
Your world is on the verge of collapse and it’s all your fault. If you would have tried harder, worked more, loved more, prayed more, saved more, got up earlier, stayed up later, made better decisions, then you might have saved yourself, but you didn’t and now you’re doomed – and you’ve doomed everyone you care about. And it’s all your fault.”
Have you heard those voices?
I’m sure you have. Those thoughts and the sadness, anxiety and fear that come with them are a universal, human condition. You’re not alone. Christians aren’t immune to those voices. In fact, some might say that Christians have it even worse because along with all of that comes the guilt of knowing that we are sinners who have disappointed our Heavenly Father. And Satan loves to grab onto those moments and squeeze them for all they’re worth.
“You are filthy. You said you’d stop doing that and you didn’t. You said you loved Jesus and clearly you don’t. You said you’re a Christian, but you can’t be. You shouldn’t even pray anymore because God’s not listening. Why would he listen to a hypocrite like you? There’s no point in asking for forgiveness because God is sick of you committing the same sins over and over. He hates you. That’s why things are so hard right now, because you’ve made yourself an enemy of God. You don’t act like a Christian. You barely act like a human being! All of the people at church are better than you. No one else sins like you do. You’re a sham, a fake, a fool. You shouldn’t even go to church. You’re not good enough. You should quit. Give in. Stay home where you belong. Your presence profanes the very building! I know where your hands have been. I know what you’ve said. I know the horrible things you’ve been thinking. I know what you’ve done. So does God. And God hates you for it. Give up this bogus faith. You’re not cut out for this Christian thing. It’s too hard. Give up. Go back to your old, easier, life. It made sense and you didn’t feel guilty all the time. God hates you, the angels hate you, the church hates you, your pastor hates you – because you are worth hating. Stay home. Stay alone. Just quit.”
Have you ever felt that? Ever suffered through that kind of thinking?
It’s immensely painful isn’t it? And sometimes, it’s very, very convincing. You feel like that thinking is right.
“I am a mess. I am a sinner. I am filled with sadness, anxiety, pride, fear, and shame, and no matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it. Christians aren’t supposed to feel this way, are they? I’m supposed to be happy, victorious, joyful, nice, loving, aren’t I? Maybe I am beyond help. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I am a fraud.”
The Truth Will Set You Free
This is why we need to know the truth. So we can take these thoughts captive and evaluate them for whether or not they are actually right (2 Cor 10:5). Last week I reminded you that Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) and reminded you that when we start to believe things outside of God’s word, we will find ourselves in bondage.
The church in Corinth, just like many today, had started to listen to other voices and accept other beliefs that were contrary to the Bible, and consequently, they were in bondage to sin, division, lust, greed, and more. They were no longer set free by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but had allowed false teachers and false thinking to place the shackles back on their souls – and this grieved the Apostle Paul who had spent so much time with them. Just like Eve had done in the Garden of Eden when she took the forbidden fruit, they had accepted the words of a liar, exchanged the truth for a lie, turned their backs on God’s Word, all the while thinking it was going to bring them more freedom, but actually brought death.
Now, instead of living in freedom, their lives and their church was falling apart. And so Paul kicks off his letter with some extremely important words reminding them about who they were and where they had come from.
Let’s read 1 Corinthians 1:1-3:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Over the next couple weeks, I want to concentrate on two super-critical words that God has Paul write to this church that was spiraling out of control. It’s two words that we need to keep in our mind at all times, especially when the negative thoughts, accusations, anxiety, fear, and depression starts to take hold. When those thoughts start to roll in, instead of allowing them to overwhelm us, we need to stop, evaluate them and see if they are true or not. And I believe that these two words will help us: Called and Sanctified. Let’s talk about “called” today.
How Salvation Works
We talked a little about this last week when we said that Paul was reminding the Corinthians whose they were. He was an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the Will of God, and they were the Church of God. But we need to notice something important here: It is not Paul who decided He would be an Apostle, nor the Corinthians who decided they would be a church – it was God who had “called” them to Himself.
This is such a hugely important truth! When the voices in your head start to tell you that you aren’t worthy to be a Christian, that you don’t deserve God’s love, that God is sick-and-tired of you, and that He’s given up on you, you can lean on this unshakeable truth: becoming a follower of Jesus wasn’t your decision. God picked you. He chose you. You are one of His chosen people. Becoming a Christian wasn’t your idea, it was His. He knew exactly what you were, all you had done, and everything that you would do – and He picked you anyway.
Theologians call this the Doctrine of Election, which includes things like Predestination and God’s Foreknowledge, and it’s an extremely comforting bit of theology that simply means that Jesus loved you, accepted you, and died for you way before you even knew about Him. He loved you first. Let me take you through this a bit so you can understand it.
People sometimes think that they are the ones that choose to become Christians, as though one day they just decided that they now hate their sin and want Jesus to take over their lives. The picture they sometimes use of salvation is that people are drowning and God is in a rescue boat throwing out ropes for people to grab onto. All we need to do is grab onto the rope and God will drag them into heaven. And as long as they are holding onto that rope, then they are saved. Not everyone will grab the rope, but instead will try to save themselves by treading water or trying to swim to another island. But, they say, Christianity is the only boat and grabbing onto God’s rope is the only way to be saved. BUT – they caution, don’t let go of the rope, or you’ll be lost again! Make sure you hold on! Do good things, pray every day, be a good person, or you’ll drop the rope and drown.
That’s a false picture of salvation. The Bible says it this way in Ephesians 2:1-9:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
No boat, no rope, no hanging on. You were spiritually dead. You could not and would not grab a rope if God sent it to you. Why? First, because you are dead and can’t save yourself, and second because you were his enemy. You followed “the prince of the power of the air”, God’s enemy, Satan. You played for the other team and lived in the passions of the flesh. You were under God’s wrath because you were on Satan’s team. But, even though you were a dead, rotting, enemy corpse, who loved sin, God loved you with a “great love” and chose to resurrect you to new life in Christ. He gave you grace – undeserved merit – “that he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”!
You see, if you’re the one who grabs the rope, then you get the credit (or the glory) for having the strength to hold on to it. God doesn’t share glory with anyone and wants all the credit for Himself, so that’s not how it works. You were dead and God made you alive!
You were Lazarus, dead to the world, rotting, stinky, a corpse, and yet Jesus yelled into your tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” Let me read that part to you because it is a picture of your salvation:
“When [Jesus] had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:43-44)
That’s what Jesus does for us. He calls us out, takes away that which binds us, removes the disgust, and gives us freedom to “go”.
This truth is a powerful weapon against the enemy when he starts to fill your mind with thoughts about how little you are worth and how much God hates you. You take that thought captive and you ask yourself, “Is that true? Is it true that I’m worthless, that I’m on my own, that God doesn’t love me, that I’m a big disappointment, that I’m alone? Is that true?”
“No!”, you must answer yourself, “I didn’t choose this life, God chose me for it. God’s love for me isn’t based on how good I am, but on how good He is. God raised me from the dead! He didn’t have to but chose to do that for me! I don’t know what made me special in His eyes, but somehow I am. I’m a called person. I’m a child of God because God wanted to adopt me. Out of all the billions of people who have existed on this earth, God reached down and picked me to be one of His own. I did NOTHING to deserve it, in fact I was His enemy, but He called me. He yelled into my tomb and brought me back to life because He loves me so much! So shut up, Satan. I don’t believe you.”
Live as a Called Person
This is something we see all over the Bible, and it’s important we get it clear because it’s something that Paul is going to refer back to a few times in 1st Corinthians. The word “called” appears 13 times in this letter as he reminds the church about where they came from, how much God loves them, and how important it is to live as a “called” people.
Part of the reason that they must live different lives from those around them is because God called them to a different kind of life. God brought you from death to life and bought your soul with the life of His beloved Son. You’re His now. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” (6:19-20) So lived as you were called to live.
For example, when he is about to talk about the divisions in the church, and their unfaithfulness towards one another, He says “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1:9) Why should you stop dividing and divorcing? Because you’re not there by your own choice; God called you to be there. If marrying that person or joining this church was your idea then go ahead and leave, but if the God of the universe called you to be there, then you better work things out.
When he talks about singleness, marriage, and divorce, he doesn’t just give advice, He reminds them that they need to do what God called them to do. “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (1 Corinthians 7:17) “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” (7:20)
He keeps reminding them that they are different now. They are not self-governing but are governed by Jesus, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. His argument, throughout the letter, is to take them back to the truth. Someone convinced them that they were allowed to set their own rules and come up with their own standards. They had forgotten that they were “God’s church in Corinth” and had started to think that their church was their idea.
In chapter 2:26-29 Paul says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Over and over and over Paul says, “Remember, you’re not a believer because you decided to be! God could have left you in stuck in your sin and forgotten your pagan city – but He didn’t. Instead, He called you to be part of His family – and it wasn’t because you were so great, but because you were so weak and foolish. You were called, washed, cleaned up, and made right with God by Jesus Christ and the Spirit, because He loves you. Why would you want to go back to living like those who are deceived?”
You see, this word “called” not only brings us hope when we are in a dark place but also motivates us to action! God chose and called you because He loves you. And now, as a beloved and called person, you are to live your life as a citizen of His Kingdom. He breaks the power of sin, and cancels your debt, so now you go out and forgive others too. You love because you know you are loved. You hate sin and work against it because you know the truth about it. You obey because you honour your new king. You humble yourself because your Lord and Master Jesus did the same for you.
When the voices in your head say, “You’re not powerful enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough…” you can say, “Yep, exactly. And yet God loves me, He called me, He takes care of me anyway, and I live for Him. And there’s nothing that will change that. He picked me!” Knowing you are “called” has enormous consequences to how you think and live your life, doesn’t it?
More Biblical Evidence
Let me close by sharing just a few more verses about this idea of being “called” or “Elected” or “Predestined” to salvation, so you know that I’m not coming up with this with only a couple of verses. I want you to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your salvation – and the salvation of those you are praying for – has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with God.
In Acts 13:17 Paul explains salvation by starting at the beginning. He says , “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt….” Who chose Israel to be God’s people? God did. He said to them in Deuteronomy 7:6-8,
“For you are a people holy [or “set apart” or “called”] to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers…”
Do you see that? God didn’t save Israel from Egypt because they were so great, but because they couldn’t save themselves! In the same way, God didn’t choose Abram to be the father of the Jewish nation because he was so great. Abram was a worshiper of pagan gods who had a wife who couldn’t bear children, and yet God chose them to be the parents of “a great nation”, to make Abram’s “name great”, and to “be a blessing to others.” (Gen 12:2) Why? For no other reason than because God decided to show Abram some grace. He didn’t deserve it, but God called him anyway.
Same with Noah. Noah wasn’t perfect. He was a sinner who deserved to die in the flood too, and yet he “found favour in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gen 6) Moses too. He was a murderer and a coward and God chose him anyway (Exodus 2). Gideon was a coward too, and yet God used him in mighty ways. Jephthah was a social reject. David was a warmonger and philanderer. We’re all sinners who give God every excuse not to love us.
But this is the story of how God deals with His people. God chose prophets from unlikely places. When Israel wanted a King, God picked him. When God sent His Son to be born as a human, He’s the One who chose Mary and Joseph. We don’t tell Him how things are going to go. He calls us. God is the one who chooses.
Jesus says to the disciples, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44) and when He speaks to them at the Last Supper He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (Jn 15:16) God drew you, I called you and I promise you will be equipped to do what I called you to do. And later in verse 19, “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.”
Later, God would say this to the Christian church, through Peter,
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pe 2:9–10)
Don’t Forget Your Calling
That’s the give and take of the word “called”. It means you are loved beyond your understanding, and were so before you were even born – and there’s nothing you can do to lose that love. And since your calling was God’s idea, that means that He’s the one who has the responsibility of taking care of you! He’s the one who cleans you up, changes your heart, defends your spirit, and gives you everything you need to do what He’s called you to do.
The only way to mess that up is to either forget it. When we forget that we are called, then it’s easier to start to think that God hates us or that we need to impress Him for Him to love us or that He’s forgotten us and left us to fend for ourselves. None of that is true. That’s why you need to be in God’s Word and talk to God every day – or you’ll start to forget your calling.
If you are a Christian today, then He has proven His love for you, and will continue to. The only question you have to ask yourself is this: Will you live in that love? Will you allow God to love you, speak to you, comfort you, equip you, challenge you, and change you? That’s God’s job and His gift to you. Or do you think all of that is still on your shoulders?
Maybe you need to let go of some things because He wants to bring you healing.
Maybe you need to stop trying to be in control so He can take over.
Maybe you need to get back on your knees, and get back into the word, so God can remind you of how much He loves you.
Maybe you need to change something in your life because you know that you’re not living as you are called to live.
Maybe you need to repent of allowing the lies of Satan to flood your mind and convince you that you are unloved and unwanted.
Maybe God’s been tugging on your heart for a while now, but you don’t want to let Him in because you know He’s going to make a mess in there, ruin your plans, change you into something else, and require you to live differently. He’s been calling you, but you’re resisting, choosing to live your way instead. You know what He wants you to do, but you are refusing.
If that’s what’s going on this morning, I give you a warning: Don’t harden your heart to the voice of God. Don’t be someone who feels the presence of God, and willfully and persistently rejects His call. Don’t reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit that is trying to call you to repentance and forgiveness – or you will be condemned.
The more you practice hardening your heart to the voice of God, the easier it will become until eventually you can’t hear it anymore. Don’t allow yourself to get there. That is asking God for life outside of His presence, which is Hell. Instead, listen to His voice, hear His message, submit to His call, and receive His grace.
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.