“The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, ‘What are you seeking?’ And they said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and you will see.’ So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘’You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).’
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered him, ‘Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’” (John 1:35–51)
We’re back into our study of the Gospel of John and have come to a transitional moment where Jesus begins calling his first disciples. It will help you to recall what we have studied already because we’re going to keep noticing important themes throughout the whole book.
What Are You Seeking?
John is obviously fast-forwarding the story a bit, but there is some really key phrasing to see here. For example, notice the theme of “seeing”. The whole passage starts with Jesus walking by John the Baptist and him saying, “Behold!” to his disciples. “Behold!” is the same word as “See!” The two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and John, leave to go walk behind Jesus.
Jesus hears them coming behind Him, turns and says His first words of the whole book, “What are you seeking?” or “What are you looking for?”, another reference to “seeing” used all over the New Testament for people who are looking for something or someone.
Considering how important the themes of light and seeing are in the Gospel of John, we shouldn’t pass by this too quickly – especially since that question and theme dominates the rest of this section.
John and Andrew dodge the question by saying, “Where are you staying?”, meaning “Our rabbi just told us that you’re the Lamb of God, one like the Passover lamb, through whom deliverance from death will come by the shedding of their own blood. And we would like to spend some time with you.”
Jesus’ answer? “Come and you will see.” Now, I promise that when Jesus, the One who created light, the One called the light of the world, says, “Come and you will see.” He doesn’t just mean “Come and see where I’m staying tonight.” He means, “I’m about to open your eyes wider than you could ever imagine.” And then, He does.
And that light shines from John and Andrew to Peter. What was Jesus’ first question? “What are you seeking?” What does Andrew say to Peter? “We have found the Messiah?” Can’t find something without seeing it, right? Seeking and finding. John says, “See!”, then Jesus says, “Come and you’ll see!” and then they say, “Peter, come and see!”
Now, look at verse 43 and we see something interesting. Who does the “finding” now? Jesus does. John and Andrew “found” Jesus. Jesus “found” Philip. Jesus looks for Philip, finds Him, and calls Him.
Excurses: Varied Responses
Pause for a moment and marvel at the different responses to Jesus here. First, notice that Jesus is always the first one to say or do something, but the responses are so varied!
John and Andrew leave their rabbi and Jesus turns and asks them a direct question, but they respond by wanting to spend the whole day talking to him. Jesus is presented to them as the “Lamb of God”, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, they call him “rabbi” or “teacher” and then spend the day working that out. It seems studious, careful, theological.
Jesus and Peter are different. Peter is introduced to Jesus as “The Messiah”, the “Christ” the “Anointed One”, the Great King and Saviour in the Line of David. Jesus is still the first one to speak, but it’s bold and direct – like a King. Bold and direct like Peter. “This is who you are, Peter. And this is who I will make you.” Peter’s response is to obey and follow, seemingly without a word.
Everyone up to this point is either sent or brought to Jesus, but Philip is different. Jesus seeks Philip out. How does Philip describe Jesus? He uses biblical language, describing Him as the one the scriptures spoke about, but then uses Jesus’ name and address! “Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Philip, at this point, sees Jesus as the man sent by God. That definition will very soon be changed to see Jesus not merely as a man sent by God, but as God become man.
And now, in verse 44 we see another, completely different response to Jesus. What’s really neat here, if you look at verse 45, is that when Philip goes to Nathanael he uses the words “we have found” meaning that John, Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael might have been close friends. Nathanael probably already knew who the “we” was; studious Philip, passionate John and Andrew, headstrong Peter. They had all had some kind of radical experience over the past day or two and wanted to share it with Nathanael. But Nathanael wasn’t an easy sell.
The whole crowd is headed off to follow Jesus, but Nathanael is a sceptic. He knows his Bible. Nathanael being “under the fig tree” may be pointing to the custom where scholars and rabbis would study under vines, fig and olive trees. It meant that Nathanael, a serious student of the Bible, had probably been studying when Philip found him, knew his stuff, and was absolutely committed to God’s word. But here’s the thing. He knows what Moses and the prophets wrote, and there’s nothing in there about Nazareth. Plus, he lived just a few miles away and knew it wasn’t a nice place. The Roman army garrison that lived there gave the town a pretty poor reputation for immorality and lack of commitment to God. Nathanael did the mental math and realized that there is zero chance he will follow any Nazarene as the Messiah.
What does Philip respond with? “Come and see.” There’s our theme again. There was zero point in Philip arguing with Nathanael. He’d probably lose anyway! So Philip says the only thing that would work: “Hey man, you’re smart enough to decide for yourself, but you gotta come and see. I’m convinced. John, Andrew, Peter are convinced. Just come and meet Jesus and you’ll see what we see.”
And to his credit, despite thinking he knows better, despite his prejudice against Nazarites, despite all the scriptures and stereotypes flowing through his mind that said, “This is dumb. Your friends are dumb. I’m not dumb.” he followed his friend anyway. Imagine if he’d been stubborn, stuck to his doubts, thought himself smarter than everyone else, and just stayed by the fig tree. He would have missed Jesus! But, for whatever reason – out of love and trust for his friends, or curiosity, boredom, or to save his friends from throwing their lives away, he went. He would go and “see” for himself.
He went and what does Jesus say? “Behold!” There’s that word again! John the Baptist said it of Jesus, now Jesus says it of Nathanael, “See! Look! Behold! A true Israelite, a man who loves the Word of God, a man in whom there is no deceit, no guile, no trickery, nothing shady. He’s 100% a straight-shooter. This man only cares about one thing: truth. You can’t fool this guy.” It’s an even more complex compliment, because, if you recall where the name “Israelite” comes from, you’ll remember that it was when Jacob, the usurper, the trickster, the one who got his way through deceit and guile and trickery, was wrestling with God. Jacob means “one who wrestles or struggles with God”. That’s how all of Israel related to God. They questioned Him, debated Him, dialogued with Him, tested Him, even aggressively confronted Him. And when they obeyed God, it was with ferocious obedience. 
That’s probably the kind of man Nathanael was. He didn’t just accept anyone’s word, even God’s. Instead, he wrestled and studied and made sure that when he believed something it was 100% true – and no one, like no one, was would have an easy time change his mind.
That sort of personality is a double-edged sword. How does one breakthrough to that kind of person? With a hard that stiff, eyes that focused, and a mind that skeptical, what can God do to breakthrough? Argument won’t help. No amount of conversation is going to change Nathanael’s mind at this point. How is Jesus going to shine light into Nathanael’s soul? Nathanael doesn’t need to hear something about the light – he needs to “see” it.
So Jesus performs a miracle of omniscience. He identifies himself as Messiah by displaying supernatural knowledge. Super-natural knowledge. Knowing things beyond the ability of normal, natural people. And more specifically, not just super-natural knowledge – super-Nathanael knowledge. Jesus demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that He knows more, sees more, and understand more than Nathanael ever has or could. And Nathanael gets it immediately!
Evidence confirmed, mind changed, allegiance given, 100% absolute commitment to Jesus as his new “Rabbi”, the “Son of God” and His “King”. He says, in effect – “You are now my teacher, my mind is yours to shape. You are now my saviour, my destiny is yours to control. You are now my King, my life is yours to command.”
And then, in an act of grace, Jesus says, “If you’re willing to believe because of one piece of evidence – just wait until you see the rest!” And tells Nathanael, the “true Israelite”, to recall another story about Jacob, often called Jacob’s Ladder – the vision of God’s heaven being connected to Jacob’s earth. Jesus was saying, “Nathanael, you call me Rabbi, and Son of God, and King, but there’s so much more. I’m Jacob’s Ladder, the one who connects heaven and earth – I’m the one you’ve been looking for, Nathanael. The one who will connect everything that you’ve been studying, and thinking, and pondering, and wondering, and wrestling with for your whole life with, together.
There are four things in this story that I want to connect together as some practical applications today.
First, I want you to go back to the first thing Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “What are you seeking?” This is the single most important question you can ask yourself in life and when talking about Jesus. What do you want out of life? What is the most important thing for you right now? What do you desire? Do you know what that is? I promise you it’s not money, or fame, or education, or food, or a mate, or a better job, or more stuff. All that is merely a means to an end. You might think you want freedom from pain, money in the bank, a healthy body, lots of friends, a perfect spouse, and lots of fun – but you don’t. Those are all too small. We’ve been talking about this over Christmas, but it applies today too. What you really want is love, hope, peace, and joy. You want to know you are loved no matter where you are or what you’ve done. You want to have the hope that no matter what happens in this world, it will all work out for your good. You want to have your life built on a foundation so strong that no matter what storms occur outside of you, you will not be shaken, but will always be at peace. And you want to know a joy that can never be taken away. Joy that goes beyond feelings, beyond fun, beyond momentary stimuli, beyond distraction, but comes from a spring deep, deep down in your heart that never seems to stop – even when things around you feel sad. Joy that destroys feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. That’s what you really want.
And so, when you come to Jesus, He’s going to ask you, “What are you seeking?” and if the answer is, “More money. No sickness. Something more interesting to do. A place where I can feel important. Some religion that makes me think I’m better than others because I’ve earned God’s love. To keep everyone I love happy and safe.” He’ll simply say, “No.”
But if you want True Love, Abiding Hope, Peace that passes understanding, and Joy that never fails – then come to Jesus and He will say, “That’s what I offer. But you must submit to me giving it to you the way that I deem best. Let me be your Saviour, Rabbi, God, Master, Lord, and King, and I will give you what your heart truly desires.”
The second thing I want you to notice is that everyone who comes to Jesus has the same story but different. Jesus always approaches first, confronts the person with their need, and presents Himself as the solution to that great need – but the responses and story that is written from that point are often very unique and special. Jesus is a real person, someone you can get to know, who listens and speaks and relates to us not only on a corporate level as humanity but on an individual level too. Everyone connects to Jesus in similar and different ways, not because we get to make up our own version of Jesus, but because Jesus meets us where we’re at and treats us like real, unique, special, people.
I personally resonate with Nathanael’s story. In fact, John 1:47 has made itself my “life-verse” because I want to be a man within whom there is no guile, no trickery, no deceit. If you know me, then you’ll know I don’t do secrets and sneakiness well. I have a skeptical mind that tends toward lots of arguments and trying to see lots of sides to things – and I can get trapped in arguments with myself, with God, with others, all in the pursuit of clarity and truth. I love truth, hate lies, and feel like I’m not easily swayed by opinions. Jesus meets me in a very Nathanael way: I study His Word, wrestle with obedience and understanding, and then Jesus shows His power and authority in my life with unquestioning clarity, proving Himself to know more than me.
And I’m sure many here have a similar relationship with Jesus and maybe relate to one of these stories yourself. Everyone does, and that’s ok. I shouldn’t measure your relationship with God by my standards, and vice-versa. Instead, I should share my special relationship with God with you, and you with me, so that we can see an even larger picture of who Jesus is.
Third, I want you to notice that no one really finds Jesus. Sometimes people use the phrase “I found Jesus.”, but it is always Jesus who found them first. Jesus is never lost. He’s the shepherd who finds the sheep. In Luke 19 he says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is never lost. He is the way, the truth and the life, and is the only way to be found. He invites you to seek Him and says anyone who does seek will find (Matthew 7:7-8), but it’s not like He’s hiding. He’s there, ready, available, open, willing to listen at all times. If you feel a tug on your heart, He’s found you. The only question is, are you willing to be found or do you want to stay lost?
And fourth, I want you to notice that a living relationship with Jesus Christ is one that naturally leads to being shared. Being excited about Jesus, who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing, what He’s been teaching you, how you’ve been learning, and all the things He is doing through you should naturally lead us to be sharing it with people who either don’t know Him or who have forgotten.
I’ve used this example many times. If you find a great product, like a super good razer that shaves like nothing else, or a restaurant with amazing food, or a book that really impacted your life, or a new habit that has helped you sleep better than ever – it is your natural inclination to share it because you want the people you care about to have a better life too. You want them to celebrate what you’ve found, and you want them to experience the same thing.
Why is our relationship with Jesus any different? It’s because there is no spiritual enemy constantly telling us to be afraid to share how great our razer. I’m not saying that we share Jesus as the answer to everyone’s problems – because we all know that committing to Jesus doesn’t mean everything in this world gets easier, in fact, it often gets harder. I’m saying that once we’ve experienced the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy that Jesus has given us – it should be natural for us to tell people where it came from. But Satan hates that, and so he makes us afraid to speak, afraid to share, afraid we’ll lose a friend, afraid we’ll embarrass ourselves, afraid we won’t use the right words, afraid we won’t be able to answer all the questions…
But that’s the thing. There is no right way to share. We just share our own stories in our own way. And Jesus has promised that when we speak He’ll be there to help us. And if we come up against a Nathanael we don’t need to argue. We just simply say, “Hey, why don’t you ‘come and see’? See my life before and after Jesus. Come see some people I know who have met Jesus. And, why not just talk to Jesus yourself? Ask Him to show Himself to you because you want to meet Him. He’s no performing monkey who is going to do magic tricks for you – but if you want to meet the real Jesus, just ask Him. He’ll respond. Talk to me, come to church, and then talk to Jesus yourself. Just be ready because this is no small thing to do.”
Let Jesus do the hard work of shining the light in their dark souls and converting them. All you need to do is introduce them to Him by sharing what He’s done in your life and then inviting them to “come and see”.
 (Borchert, G. L. (1996). John 1–11 (Vol. 25A, pp. 147–148). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)
We’re back into the Heidelberg Catechism and are now in Day 9. Just a quick review before we jump into it though.
Our church, since last August, has been working out way through a teaching tool called the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s called “Heidelberg” because it was written in the 16th century by a man named Zacharias Ursinus in the city of Heidelberg, Germany, about 20 years after the death of Martin Luther. It’s called “Catechism” because it is a question and answer summary, written for churches, to teach children and new believers the basic principles of Christianity over the course of a year.
We are currently in Week 9, or Lord’s Day 9, is it’s called, and we’ve already covered a lot of ground. It began on Day 1 with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”. That’s critical, right? “When it all comes down to it, when everything else is stripped away, when trouble and trial come, when you are faced with the discomforts of life and the danger of death – where do you, as a Christian, turn for hope?”
The answer was
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
The rest of the catechism is really an exploration of that first answer, using all manner of scriptures and creeds to explain why that’s true.
So it asks things like, “What do I need to know in order to have this hope?”, “What happened to make things go so wrong with the world?” “What is sin and why is it a problem?” And when we find out that sin leads to judgement from God and eternity in Hell, it covers topics like “How can I escape this judgment?”, “Why can’t I save myself?”, “What makes Jesus Christ the best and only answer?”
Which is the end of the first section and leads to the second, which asks question 21 and 22 on Day 7, “What is faith, and what must I believe in order to be saved?”. All of this leads to a study of what is called “The Apostle’s Creed”, the oldest and most trusted theological summary Christians have, dating back almost 2000 years.
The Apostle’s Creed is divided into three sections, God the Father and our creation, God the Son and our redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. This brought us to Day 8. Historically, it is on Day 8 that whoever is teaching is supposed to talk about not only those divisions, and the doctrine of the Trinity, but also a bunch of the attributes of God. That’s a tall order for one week, so I got stuck there for a few weeks – ok, a couple months – until the Christmas break.
This brings us up to now where we are about to get into Day 9 which covers the first line of the Apostles Creed, and which I think is incredibly applicable for us today.
Where Does My Help Come From?
Please open up to Psalm 121 and let’s read it together. I want you to notice, before we read, that at the top of the Psalm this is called a “Song of Ascents”. The Songs of Ascents are travelling songs meant to be sung by those who were making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God. Some of these Songs of Ascents are thanksgiving songs, others laments, while others are about the beauty of God’s city and the history of God’s people. They were written to prepare the hearts of God’s people to come before Him – to face their sins and admit their need, to declare their trust in God, to share their anticipation of standing before Him, and declare to each other God’s goodness and steadfast love, even in the face of difficult times.
I think it’s appropriate that we read this one today, especially in light of the events of the past while, especially this week. I think it’s good for us to read it today.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
Now, before we get into the question of the day, I want to show this video.
A lot of people say they “believe in God”, don’t they? We all have friends and family members that, when they are asked if they believe in God, they say they do. Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks that question as it covers the first line of the Apostle’s Creed, “What do you believe when you say: I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?” That’s usually the question we don’t really get to, isn’t it? We’re almost afraid to ask, because we don’t want to start an argument or get into a debate with someone we care about, so we just leave it at “Do you believe in God?” and rarely press forward to, “Ok, what do you mean when you say you believe in God?”
Psalm 121 ties right into all of this, because the first line of the psalm is like an Old Testament version of this question. As I said, this was a travelling psalm to be sung on the way to Jerusalem for one of the annual celebrations. Picture the pilgrim having walked for miles and miles through the wilderness – there were no nice roads or walking paths in those days. He’s been walking for days, his feet are sore, his muscles ache, and his destination seems very distant. Suddenly, he sees the hills of Judah in the distance.
This is where commentators are split. Either this guy looks at the hills of Judah, knowing that he is finally close to Jerusalem, and breaks into a song of praise to the Lord for protecting him on his journey and bringing him so near the end – ooooor… he sees those hills and thinks, “Oh, great! Hills. I get to walk up great big hills now. This is where it gets really dangerous. Now I not only have to worry about wild animals and exposure but robbers and terrain and having to climb and climb all day long. How am I going to get through this?” And then breaks into the same song, saying, “These hills won’t get the best of me, because my help comes from the Lord who made every one of them.”
I sort of wish the interviewer in that video would have asked the question the way the Psalm did, “When you lift your eyes to the hills, where does your help come from?” Or, “When good times and bad times come, where do you look for who will bring you through it?” because that would have given a better answer.
The Heidelberg answers like this:
“That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
One thing that always impresses me as we study is how beautiful this document is.
God the Father
When Christians say they believe in God, we are making a very specific statement. As we saw, a lot of people in western society, are not very specific. This is why we spent some time talking about Special and General Revelation, which tells us that we don’t get to create a god of our own design based on whatever makes us feel good or seems right to us, but that we must believe in God the way He has revealed Himself.
If you don’t, you end up with what we saw in the video. Like that guy who said, “Yes, I believe in God, because I’m Buddhist.” That’s contradictory because Buddhists do not believe there is a God. Or, “Yes, I believe in God, but not really one that can be written down.” Or “Yes, because you gotta believe in something but I have no idea what that is.” So, then, how do you know what you believe?
As Christians, we absolutely believe that our God not only makes sense, but has told us a lot about Himself, and so it makes sense that a Biblical catechism and creed would make some very specific claims about God. As it says, a Christian believes “in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?”
What does that mean? It means that we believe that God has revealed Himself as a Father. That means He is personal. We talked a little about this on Christmas Eve when I preached on how God makes us part of His family through our faith in Jesus Christ. If you recall, I quoted Ephesians 1:3-5 which said,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
God reveals Himself as a Father. First, He is the eternal Father of Jesus, which we already covered in the sermon on the Trinity. And second, He is the Father of all mankind, since He is the One who created us in His image and continues to protect and guide us. When we sinned, we tried to divorce ourselves from our Father, attempting to usurp His position and make ourselves above Him and were, therefore, cast out from His family, but through Jesus are invited to be adopted back as His sons and daughters again.
That’s why Romans 8:15 says to Christians who are tempted and afraid to call out to their Father,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
We are taught in scripture, in Old Testament and New, that God is our Father because He has chosen to be. In Isaiah 63:15-16, the people of God cry out to Him in distress and say,
“Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me. For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”
The Jews were always tempted to rest their hopes and prayers on the mere privilege of being descended from Abraham. Regardless of how messed up they were, they would say, “Well, Abraham is our father, so God has to bless us.” Here we see the Jews renouncing this attitude and saying that their genealogy doesn’t really matter – what matters is that God has chosen to make them His children, and it is by that relationship that they make their appeal.
When Christians say that we “believe in God” we are saying we believe in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has adopted us into His family to be His children.
God Almighty, Creator
The second thing we are saying when we say we believe in God is that God is “Almighty”. We already talked about this when we covered God’s attributes of Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence, but it is worth mentioning again. The Apostles Creed begins “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” Jeremiah 32:17 says,
“Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”
That’s the God we are talking about. The God who designed and upholds and governs all things. The God who is higher and wiser and bigger than all. The One who knew what would happen when He created everything, already had a plan in place, and that can use everything, no matter how terrible, no matter how difficult, no matter how much grief it brings Him or us, for our good and His glory. That’s the God we believe in. Which is why, as the Heidelberg says,
“In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
We covered this on Wednesday night when we talked about Jesus’ words about not being anxious because God knows what we need, right? This is why Romans 8 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (vs 28) and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (vs 31) and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs 35, 37)
I love the line out of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver says that Aslan is “not… a tame lion.” At the beginning of the story, when Lucy first hears about the Great Lion Aslan (who is a Christ-figure), she gets scared and asks, “Is he safe?” and Mr. Beaver gives the answer, “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
This is the God in whom we believe and trust. He is not only the Almighty Creator, but also our Father. We do not believe in a god of our own making, for that god would be weak and useless when we needed it. Gods of our own design always fail because we know in our heart they are pretend. But the One, True God, who has revealed Himself to humanity, is real, alive, active, and powerful. He isn’t a being of our own design and is therefore not someone we can control. But since He has shown us what He is like, what He is capable of, and what kind of character He has, we can trust Him. This is the God our church believes in, so let us have faith in Him.
In what areas of your life are you struggling to believe God is not only your caring Father, but the Almighty one who can make it happen? What part of your life do you believe you must control because you don’t think God will do a good enough job? What do you need that you do not believe God cannot or will not provide? Have you shown God that you trust Him? Have you given your Father the chance to provide? Are you obeying Him, in faith, demonstrating that trust? Because He is faithful.
This is the God our church believes in, which we pray to, who provides for us, cares for us, who sent Jesus to save us. Romans 8:32 says, “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?” Jesus Himself said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If you are a believer this morning, and part of His church, that includes you.
Over the past while our church has been going through a study of the Heidelberg Catechism, a 400-year-old summary of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. When we paused for Christmas a couple weeks ago we were only on Day 8, but we’ve already covered a LOT of material. We covered the bad news like sin, Law, guilt, and wrath – and also the good news about who Jesus is and why He is the only One who can bring salvation to the world. We spent a lot of time really digging deep into what it means to be a sinner saved by the grace of God.
Then, after learning how we can get back into a relationship with God we transitioned into getting to know God better by learning more about who He presents Himself to be. Along the way we’ve covered some pretty deep and intense topics, using a lot of important, theological language and doctrinal concepts. We’ve done introductions to why theology matters and where creeds come from. We’ve spoken of God as triune, omnipotent, omniscient, holy and righteous. We’ve spoken of Jesus as saviour, sacrifice, mediator, and advocate.
Studying these subjects and using theological language sometimes gets mixed reviews and actually be a bit of a danger. While my hope is always that these sermons help us grown in our knowledge and love for God, these types of studies can sometimes bring the temptation to detach our hearts from our minds, our relationship with God from our understanding of Him; to cerebralize our faith instead of letting the concepts inform our worship and relationship with Him. There is a danger that instead of expanding our love for God, the study of theology can cause us to sterilize our love for Him. He becomes a subject to study rather than a person to know.
This kind of thing happens to us all the time. Let me give you a couple examples. Humans have this capacity to get used to things pretty quickly. If we are surrounded by a certain smell – whether it’s good or bad – it’s not too long until we experience something called olfactory fatigue where we no longer even smell it anymore. We can be baking cookies and pies or trying to choose a new perfume or lotion, or up to our eyeballs in sewage, and at some point, our nose just gives up and we don’t even notice the scent anymore. It’s not until we leave the environment for a while and then return that we even realize how strong it was.
Bank tellers can handle thousands and thousands of dollars per day, and where at one time holding a huge pile of cash in their hand was something amazing to them, it’s not long until it becomes so commonplace that they don’t even think about it as money anymore – just something to be counted and stuffed in a drawer. Or consider museums. People fly around the world at great expense to visit the world’s greatest museums, to stand before great art for just a short period of time, sometimes even moved to tears by its beauty and the intensity of being near it, but the security guards and cleaning staff are so used to seeing it that they don’t even care anymore. It’s just part of the background of their job. The first time you watch a movie it changes your life, you tell all your friends, you want to experience it again – you even buy it to bring home and watch again – but then, after 3 or 4 more viewings, the surprises wear off, the experience dulls, and now the DVD just sits on your shelf among the others. This happens to everyone. Surgeons get used to seeing blood and holding people’s guts in their hands, factory workers get used to the huge or complex and dangerous machines they see and use every day.
There’s an old phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt” and while it’s not always true – like in marriages or friendships or study – there is a nugget of truth in there. The more we get to know something the more in danger we are of taking it for granted. The teenager with the new driver’s licence merges onto the highway for the first time and as they get up to speed they feel like they’re about to break the sound barrier and fly off the road – so they grip the steering wheel tightly, open their eyes wide, and stare intensely at the road. But it’s not long until that same teen is in the fast lane and passing vehicles while holding food in one hand, changing the music on their iPod with the other, and driving with their knees.
That’s the danger of familiarity, and it can happen to us when we study theology too. It can be tempting to take the things we know about God for granted, try to put Him in a box, or get so used to using words like “awesome”, “almighty”, “saviour”, “glory” and “grace” that they lose their intensity. And when that happens, blasphemy and pride aren’t too far behind.
The season of Christmas and Advent offer a cure to that though. Even with all the complexity of the season, the packed schedule, the family issues, the emotional intensity, the commercialism and stress, there is a haven found in Sunday morning worship. Over the past month, many churches around the world have chosen to pause their services and light an advent candle. We do that here too. There is a short reading, some scripture, a moment of pause as the candle is lit, and a moment to reflect. It is a simple and beautiful way to cause us to stop for a moment and elevate our thoughts to the real meaning of what we’re doing here and why this season is so special. Each week a different candle is lit, a different special scripture is read, and a different aspect of the life and promises of Jesus Christ come into view. Each week we remember one more gift that Jesus gave us He came at Christmas. And it’s done in simple ways, with simple language, and with materials that have been in use for thousands of years.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours, we have five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of Advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the colour of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represents these weeks as concentrated times of prayer, repentance, and reflection in preparation for the big celebration of Christmas, but the third, pink candle interrupts that intensity with a week of rejoicing and celebration. Traditionally even the priests wore pink vestments on that week to set it apart. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty and now I want one!)
As I said, each of the candles has a different theme, but these themes aren’t communicated with big words, deep doctrinal study, or intense theological exposition. Instead, the words are very simple, and the concepts very meaningful – even intimate. The candles represent Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we will light on Christmas Eve, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers everywhere that of our deepest longings – our desire for a hope that does not disappoint us, love that keeps us forever, joy in the midst of suffering, and a peace that passes understanding – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.
In Jesus There is Hope
The first candle represented Hope. Hope, one could say, is the thing that keeps most of us alive. We can live for a long time in many difficult circumstances, but if we lose hope, it is then that we are in true danger. Hope is something we cannot live without but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news and uncertainty, so many doom and gloom voices out there that sometimes it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved from scum, there is no such thing as eternity, nothing they do ultimately matters, any emotion they feel, even for their parents or loved ones, is just learned behaviour and biochemical trickery. As they move through life the best they are given is to be told to try to squeeze as many years of pleasure and distraction as they can out of this messed up world before death comes and they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that, is there? That’s a dim view of life, and we can see it in the rise of depression, addiction, abortion and suicide. The world doesn’t promise much. We put our hope in politicians or scientists or friends, but things never really change much and these supposed saviours fail us over and over. So the best we can come up with is to distract ourselves from thinking about the future, use chemicals to stop the scary thoughts in our head, and keep ourselves trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because when we stop for a moment all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker.
But then comes the first week of Advent that says, “When Jesus came, He brought with Him a great hope.” The scripture we read on that day was from Isaiah 9:2 and it describes the coming of Jesus this way: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” The coming of Jesus at Christmas was the coming of a beam of light into a dark place. Suddenly, because of Him, because of His, His words, His message, His life, and His work on the cross we are no longer faced with meaninglessness and oblivion, but salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, a mission in this life, and then eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says it this way:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…”
Is that not what all humanity longs for? Isn’t that why you are here today? Because you’ve looked at the things of this world and realized that the hope it offers perishes, spoils and fades, but that in Jesus Christ hope never can. That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
What is this love rooted in? What foundation does it have? It is established in love. But not a worldly kind of love. Our hope doesn’t come from one who only loves those who love Him back. It’s not the kind of love that happens as an exchange of goods, or because someone did something for Him. He doesn’t just love people who achieve some kind of level of loveableness. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. And it’s the kind that we worry about, the kind that fades, the kind that we feel like we can mess up and lose. But God’s love isn’t like that. God offers a better kind of love – a deeper love.
When we lit the Love candle we read John 3:16-17 which talks about the depth of God’s love for us. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Romans 5:6-8 describes the love we find in Jesus this way:
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. Jesus didn’t come for those who had earned the right to be saved or were special enough to be saved. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless” – other scriptures say that we weren’t just powerless but were “dead in our… sins” (Eph 2:1). It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness or goodness. He doesn’t just love those who are “good people” but for those who were “ungodly”. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends.
A couple of verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that Jesus died while “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and His opposites, to live among us and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He went through Hell so we wouldn’t have to, gained nothing so we could gain everything.
In Jesus there is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. We always feel like God is against us, like we are alone in an out of control world. Without the guidance of Jesus, the good shepherd, we never know what it means for God to give us such a love for our enemies that we are able to pity them, feel bad for them, even find peace while sitting at a table with them. It is only knowing that Jesus is in control that we are able to be at peace in a world filled with strife and turmoil. Without Jesus, we are always trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world so we can control it better – but they all fail us because it’s impossible to find true peace anywhere else but in the presence of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday we lit the peace candle we read the prophecy about Jesus that came 600 years before He was born in Isaiah 9:6-7 which said that when Jesus came His people would say,
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
In Romans 5:1-2 we read it about our peace with God this way:
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (knowing we have been forgiven so much). Peace in the knowledge we cannot lose our salvation and that we can trust God because He has everything under control. Peace knowing that we are loved so very much by a God who traded His Son for us.
In Jesus there is Joy
And, therefore, knowing all of this – when we are secure in the hope Jesus offers, understanding the love Jesus has for us and knowing we are at peace with God and others and within ourselves because of what Jesus has done for us – we have joy.
Without Jesus, a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can experience happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time, even smile and laugh for a moment. We can surround ourselves with lots of good things like family, friends, finances, food, and fun – but all of those things only bring temporary moments of happiness. Our family lets us down or passes away, our children grow up and leave, we fall out of friendships, the food runs out or makes us fat or sick, the money doesn’t keep its promises, and the fun only lasts so long. It’s not too long before we realize that the things we thought were supposed to bring us everlasting joy don’t last.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness but instead promises us more. He offers us Joy, and it is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – transcendent joy comes from our transcendent God. We already read a joy scripture today when we lit the candle, but I want to read another from when Jesus speaks about the mixing of Love and Joy in John 15:8–13,
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.’”
What brings a person joy? What makes a person full of joy even when their circumstances aren’t very happy? Jesus tells us here. We have joy when we know that we have a life that leads to more life. When we know we are in right standing with God. When we are mindful of God’s presence and the good things He provides every day. When we know we are bearing fruit in our lives because God is working through us. When we live a disciplined life, free from folly and stupid decisions because God’s Spirit is helping us moment by moment. When we feel the ever-abiding love of God, knowing the Creator is on our side and works all things for our good and His glory. When He brings us to a family of believers who surround us with His love, accept us for who we are, and care for us no matter what because they know Jesus too. What brings us joy us knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to lay down His life for us, call us His friends, advocates for us, and will be with us every step of every day for the rest of eternity. That kind of joy is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that church and Christmas and theology and doctrine can get complicated. I know that when you look inside there are a lot of things you don’t even understand about yourself, let alone the world around you. But I know this for certain: that everyone here wants these four things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. And I know this: The message of Christmas, the message of the church, the message of the Bible is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.
So take time to consider that this week. To meditate upon Hope. To remember it and pray and journal about Love. To sing about Peace and share that Joy with others. All centred around the person and work of Jesus Christ.
*Sorry, no audio.*
Have you ever read the book of Malachi? It’s the last book of the Old Testament and sort of has the qualities of a sunrise. You’ve heard that phrase, “It’s always darkest before the dawn” and this little book reads like that. It starts off super dark but ends with a glimmer of light on the horizon. Those who heard it first really needed that glimmer because even though they thought things were bleak, they were about to get darker.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and helped Israel restart their worship practices, but things were still pretty rough. The generation that had returned to Judah did okay, but as usual, it didn’t last long. The prophets told them that if they rebuilt their temple and turned their hearts back to God, then they would receive the promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, and peace – all that good stuff that meant God was with His people.
But after a hundred years they were feeling pretty disillusioned. The Promised Land didn’t look anything like it was supposed to. Sure, they were no longer slaves in a foreign land, but the glory days of peace, prosperity, popularity, and power that they had under King David and King Solomon were long gone. Now, though they were being mostly left alone, they were still the least important territory in Prussia, ruled by a the pagan king Artaxerxes. They were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, were constantly fighting with their neighbours, and couldn’t even get along with themselves.
Actually, it wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them most. What troubled Israel more was the spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt and the sacrificial system was working, but the temple was much smaller and inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. Everyone knew that 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 first drop of blood spilt on the altar, that the miracles would start automatically raining down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
But was God gone? Had God abandoned His people? Had He broken his promise to be faithful to them? Of course not. Look at 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.’”
Do you hear what they are saying? It is not that God left His people, is it? Instead what we see here are a people who are upset that God isn’t giving them what they want, so they have given up. God says, “Your words have been hard against me!” That means they haven’t just been grumbling, but actually accusing God of being unfair, unjust, unkind. Maybe they didn’t say it aloud – that would be pretty unjewish – but this is what they said in their hearts and their actions show it. They thought, “What’s the point of keeping the faith if there is no profit to it?” So their worship was lethargic and passionless. Their prayers were lists of complaints about God’s lack of love, about how He was unjust in His dealings, and full of bargaining to try to get something out of Him. They even withheld their tithes and offerings because they didn’t think God would take care of them and were worried they wouldn’t have enough.
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? I have. You read the Bible, see the promises, do what you’re supposed to do, and things seem to get worse? That’s the kind of month I’ve had. I try to do things right, and things get worse. The spiritual attacks are relentless, the voices in my head are terrible, the circumstances add up, the suffering around me grows, and I get more and more bad news and I spend my time confused, angry, sad, and afraid. I try to pray, to read my Bible, to call a friend – but I can’t sleep, don’t eat, and feel miserable. I honestly feel like I’ve aged 50 years in the past 2. My tinnitus screams in my ears, I can barely hear sometimes. Some days my whole body hurts and I can hardly get upstairs. I spontaneously burst into tears in front of random people now. It happened the other day when I asked the optometrist at Costco to adjust my glasses. I literally choked up.
Have you ever had a rough patch in your life where nothing seems to go right and you start to ask yourself, what’s the point in following God? Where’s the “profit” in following God’s rules, doing things His way, saying prayers, reading his word, doing what we’re supposed to, denying ourselves pleasures – which almost always makes life more difficult? But you stick to it, believe God’s way is right, try to do things His way, but things seem to just get worse? You wonder where God is? Where’s all that “peace that passes understanding” and “joy in the midst” you’re supposed to be feeling?
And then you look around, read some stories online, or hear from others that things seem upside down. The Christians you know are all going through tough times, but the God-hating, hedonistic, non-believers are prospering. People who are outright committing evil, lying through their teeth, spreading gossip, killing babies, mocking God to His face, are not only getting away with it but are being praised and rewarded for it! Hypocrites are adulated and the faithful mistreated. One starts to think, “Where is God in this? What’s the point in doing things God’s way if it never seems 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. I know I’m not alone in this. Israel was 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 but fighting amongst themselves and then losing every other battle to the enemies that they used to be able to defeat easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi isn’t a book of complaints and accusations. In this book God reminds His people that He is more than happy to bless them, stands ready to help them, but there’s a problem. Malachi reminds the people that God hasn’t abandoned them. It was God who chose Israel and God who stayed faithful, even demonstrating great love when they had completely turned their backs on Him. He even restored them back to their land and saved them from their enemies when they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. He demonstrated his willingness to bless them.
But what was their response to God’s amazing grace? Was it to worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? It was for a short time, but not for long. It wasn’t long before they forgot the agony of being slaves in Babylon and started to grumble and complain that things weren’t good enough. They wanted more comfort, more prosperity, more gifts from God – and faster. But when God didn’t come on His magic sleigh with His eight tiny reindeer to deliver presents to everyone, it wasn’t long until they got upset with Him, so they started to dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings to the temple, holding back the good stuff to themselves. Then they started to withhold their worship, love, and obedience, saying that they would only do what God wanted if He would start doing what He was told. Then, when God didn’t fulfil their demand for more worldly pleasures, they decided to do it themselves. They committed sexual sin, divorced each other, married unbelievers, took advantage of each other, and refused to help the needy. But they still wanted to be called “Holy” and “Believers” and “God’s people”, so they kept doing their religious activities.
So God tells them that the reason they aren’t feeling His presence right now, the reason they aren’t connected with Him right now is that their hearts and lives are a mess. That’s what the whole first part of Malachi is about.
God told them they were treating Him like a sugar-daddy. They proved they didn’t want a loving relationship with Him but just wanted to use Him to get nice things. And when the nice things stopped, they dropped Him like a hot-potato. That’s not love.
But here’s the revelation for us today, certainly for me, but maybe for you to. I can’t just point fingers at Israel in this because I know I’ve done this too.
It starts to feel like God only does nice things for people who love Him enough. That He’s always trying to get away and we are the ones who need to hold tight to Him. That God has lots of blessings to share but He’s giving them to the wrong people. But is that true? Is it true that if we loved and obeyed God enough, tried hard enough, worshipped good enough, served and tithed and sang enough – that things would be easy? Is it true that all the hard things in life are just God being mad at us for not trying hard enough?
The wisest man to ever live struggled with this. In Ecclesiastes 8 Solomon puzzles about how the world works. It all seems upside down. In Ecclesiastes 8:14 he says,
“There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous…”
A few verses before, in 8:10–11 he says,
“Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.”
He felt it too. He feels like the world is topsy-turvy, that evil is rewarded and good is punished, and God isn’t showing up fast enough – and so our hearts start to think that maybe it would be better to do evil because it seems to work.
We wonder why doing bad things seems to easy and good things so hard, don’t we? 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. The rest of the world is another thing. I don’t understand what the government is doing. Corporations are getting more powerful and sometimes eviler. 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 scientists doing all sorts of insane things like creating and destroying human embryos and messing with their genes, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
And when all the difficulty hits, Christians fall on our knees and cry out to God, but nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, give some money, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for a bit, feel some peace when we read a psalm or our eyes are closed, but the troubles invariably come crashing back when we get up and get back into life.
It’s easy to slip into that Malachi mindset. Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little back because we are worried about the budget. We skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries because there’s lots of work to be done elsewhere and church stuff hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises. We start to indulge more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – because it gives us that little rush we were trying to get from God, but He wouldn’t provide. Sure, it produces shame… but if we keep at it we know that will eventually go away.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music because it just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either more miserable or better off – and we don’t want to hear from either one of those people. We head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution and they prescribe 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 doesn’t help. We rarely pray except to complain about how unfair life is or say that if He’d just fix things then we’d start doing what we’re supposed to. But nothing changes, and we start to wonder if 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. Sure, it goes against everything we think we believe, but by that point, oblivious seems like a better option than constant pain, sadness, and disappointment, right?
That feeling, by definition, is hopelessness, and it’s not only where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi, but something felt by a lot of people today. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, 400 years later, except for a few exceptions, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the entire nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? Where do we find that Romans 5:5 “Hope that does not disappoint”. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Look at Malachi 3:16. Here we see something special. After the complaining, faithless, disobedient and hopeless have had had their say against God, another group emerges: “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 the first part of Malachi, we see God listening to the conversations and blasphemies of the first group – the complainers. Now, we see God listening into the conversations of another group – the faithful. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God there was one group that was still faithful, still hopeful, still hadn’t bowed their knee to another god, still hadn’t turned to sin, but had remained 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 had a campfire. Some of you even have fireplaces in your homes. And you know how it goes, right? You can’t just stick one log in at the beginning of winter and let it go until you don’t need it in the spring. Sure, you start with a nice fire, but as time wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, and if you don’t pay attention, you’ll be left with only a few charred, little blocks with a few tiny, flickering, little flames, surrounded by some orange glow and grey ash. So what do you do? When the flames are dying down, and the heat is dying out, what do you need to do to make sure the flame doesn’t go out altogether? You bring those 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 draw together. One of Satan’s main tactics is to get us alone, to tell us all the reasons to stay home, stay alone, not share our thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and temptations with people. He wants to divide and conquer. But to keep the flames of faith alive we must draw together.
Above my monitor, I have two cards that were given to me at just the right time with just the right message. The first has a quote from Isaiah 46:4 that says, “I have made you and will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” They remind me of God’s love.
The other one simply says, “We’ve got your back!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at that card, reminding myself that my church has my back. Let me tell you that I’ve had some dark times lately, some dark thoughts, and Satan has been non-stop trying to tell me some very evil lies, trying to make me feel alone and forgotten. But I look at that card and remember that my church loves me, my church cares for me, my Christian friends have my back, and it gives me the strength to send a text to a friend, an e-mail to the elders, and ask for help and prayer. It reminds that when I am too weak to pray for myself, too sad to read anything, that I can draw closer to God by leaning on His people.
And what do God’s people do when they get together? They “spoke with one another.” Hebrews 10:23-25 was given to believers in a very similar situation to Malachi’s. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says to believers, “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.” I would imagine that God’s people of Israel in Malachi’s time and God’s people when Hebrews was written, and all of God’s people who have come after, speak the same things, right?
They confessed their hope to one another. They spoke God’s word to each other, reminded each other of the truth about of God, combatting the evil lies that were in their heads. They asked each other what brought them hope that week? They told stories about how they saw God that week. They remembered God’s promises and told stories of his faithfulness.
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. Christians stopping their lives to come to one another and simply say, “How have you been this week? How can I help you? How can I serve you? Did you know that so-and-so needs something? Can we work together to help them? Tell me about how you’ve struggled with sin and temptation this week, and let me help you. How are you doing with guilt and forgiveness? Do you know that God has forgiven you?”
What else do Christians speak about to generate hope? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but let me remind you how far you’ve come. I know you feel lonely right now, but you’re not. God’s here and I’m here too. I know you feel like your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I see answers that you’re not seeing. Let me tell you about them. I know you feel worthless but I want you to know that I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it even though you don’t. Don’t give up on God or yourself.”
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…”
He’s saying the same thing. Don’t go to sin to try to get the things that only the Spirit of God can provide. But look what he says next because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
“…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? How do we keep the fire of faith from going out in our heart? How do we feel better when we feel like God and the whole world are against us? Satan will tell you to get alone, turn away from God, from friends, from prayer, from church, from your spouse and children, to get alone and get selfish. What does God say? Connect with God by connecting to other believers. He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, communicate and get together with His people. How do you resurrect dying coals? Gather them together and then blow on them! So how do we encourage ourselves when our spirit is dying? By connecting with other believers and letting the wind of God’s Spirit blow on us.
This whole section of Malachi is leading up to the prophecy about the coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. It’s an advent scripture. Advent means “arrival”, but the Season of Advent is the waiting for that arrival. As even the faithful people of Israel groaned in frustration, but kept the faith, so Christians participate in advent as a time of waiting, of groaning, of knowing things aren’t right with the world, but anticipating that God’s plan will come to fruition, that He will make things right, that He is victorious, and that all of His promises in Jesus are true.
Christmas time is such a mixed bag, isn’t it? I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you look forward to and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know for others, there is so much going on in your life and heart that you wish Christmas would be cancelled. Both of those feelings are necessary to understand Advent and the Christian faith.
So my encouragement to both of you, whichever side you are on, is to do the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses to get together and invite people from outside your usual circles so more people are encouraged.
And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear some space in your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, to find ways to talk and sing with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, into temptation, being sucked into the dark, or call text another believer and tell them. Ask them to pray for you. I have been rescued from the dark so many times by doing that because it’s what I’m supposed to do. It works because gathering with other believers is 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?
 The Lexham Bible Dictionary & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
John McCrae and Flanders Fields
In Canada and around the world, the poppy has long been a symbol of the immeasurable sacrifice made by those who have died defending and preserving the rights and freedoms of others. It was a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae who made it a symbol of Remembrance Day. I did some reading about him and learned about how his poem came about.
In April 1915, John McCrae was in the trenches near Ypres, Belgium, an area traditionally called Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of the First World War took place/ During what was known as the Second Battle of Ypres neither side was giving way. On April 22, the enemy used deadly chlorine gas against Allied troops in an attempt to break the stalemate. Despite the debilitating effects of the gas, Canadian soldiers fought relentlessly and held the line for another 16 days.
In the trenches, John McCrae tended to hundreds of wounded soldiers every day. He was constantly surrounded by the dead and the dying. We can get an understanding of what saw by reading part of a letter he sent to his mother around that time.
“The general impression in my mind is of a nightmare. We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…..And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.” (Prescott. Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae, p. 98)
On the day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Because of the absence of a chaplain, he himself presided over the funeral. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. We can imagine him meditating over what his friend, and the many soldiers who had fallen before him, would say to those who were still living in the trenches –holding the line. It was through his poem that he gave them a voice. (http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history/firstwar/mccrae/flanders)
It reads like this:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
During the summer of 1917 Lieutenant Colonel McCrae was troubled by attacks of asthma and bronchitis, possibly aggravated by the chlorine gas he inhaled at Ypres. On January 23rd,1918 he was admitted to hospital with pneumonia. He died five days later at the age of 46 and was buried in Wimereux Cemetery north of (Bull-oy ne) Boulogne, not far from Flanders fields.
No Greater Love
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) We take time on Remembrance Day to honour those who have laid down their lives serving our country. It is a terrible loss when a soldier dies in battle, and we will often say that their life was “taken from them”. An enemy, took this soldier’s life. But their life was not only taken from them – it was given by them, laid down by them, because they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way – standing in front of the innocent, defending their countrymen, placing themselves where the danger would be greatest, knowing what could happen, so others could be safe. Their sacrifice was a choice. One that ought to be remembered.
Jesus Christ and The Cross
As Christians, one thing we do every week – not only once a year, but every Sunday – is to remember the One who willingly laid down His life not to defend our nation, but to save our souls; Jesus Christ. What makes Jesus’s sacrifice different than that of the soldiers’ is that we can never say that anyone “took Jesus’ life”. The symbol of the Poppy is a powerful symbol of sacrifice and dedication, but it pales in comparison to the most perfect symbol of sacrifice – the cross.
In John 10:17-18 Jesus says, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” We often say that God sent Jesus to die on the cross, but we must also remember that Jesus is God and chose, even though He didn’t have to, and could have walked away at any time, to give His life in our place.
We are the ones who committed cosmic treason by sinning against God. We are the ones who deserve death and Hell. We are the ones who should have received our just punishment. Yet, because of Jesus’ love for us, He was willing to literally give His life for ours.
It was neither Satan, nor the Jews nor the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. His life was not taken by someone else. Jesus put Himself there. He had the power and authority to stop His suffering at any time, but He stayed out of obedience to God and love for us so we might be saved from damnation.
A soldier’s life and death can inspire great things. Politics and worldviews around the globe have been shaped by the death of individuals and battalions who have fallen in battle. World leaders, religious authorities, and common people everywhere, can point to the soldier as an example of bravery, tenacity, excellence, dedication, and sacrifice.
But the Christian understands this best of all because we see all those attributes most perfectly in Jesus. It is His perfect sacrifice that compels Christians to worship, serve, pray and give their own lives to Jesus in return. The fact that Jesus exchanged His life for mine is the most powerful message I have ever heard. That kind of sacrificial love boggles the mind. I don’t any believer is fully able to process what Jesus has done for them.
Martyrdom and Persecution
But, there are some who can more than others. In the same way that a soldier understands Remembrance Day better than most, it is those under persecution for their faith and those who have sacrificed themselves because of the name of Jesus, that can understand what He did on the Cross better than most. Like Remembrance Day, Martyrdom and Persecution aren’t subjects we are comfortable talking about. They evoke a lot of emotion, and therefore some people prefer to avoid the subjects altogether. But it’s important, and I think today as we look at Remembrance Day, is the right day to talk about it.
The word Martyr itself comes from the Greek word MARTYS which means “witness”, as in a witness in a courtroom. It literally refers to those who were willing to give an official testimony before civil authorities. As Christians gave their lives for their faith, pointing to Jesus as the reason for their sacrifice, it came to be known as the term for those who were suffering in the name of Jesus,and finally settled to be the word people use to describe someone who is so committed to their faith, so willing to testify before anyone – even a persecutor – of their commitment to their beliefs,that that they are willing to die. The ultimate witness of truth.
But this isn’t just yesterday’s problem. Some people may think that Christian martyrdom and persecution ended hundreds of years ago, but it didn’t. It’s a present reality for many people today, and we’re hearing about it more and more in the news. The website Voice of the Martyrs, among others, is dedicated to telling those stories. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. Jesus promised that anyone who serves Him will risk persecution and martyrdom.
Jesus looked right at his followers and said in John 15:18-20, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
And there is no point at which this will stop. It is a future reality as well. When the Apostle John was given the revelation of the future he saw this, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9-11)
It has happened, it is happening, it will continue to happen, and it’s going to get worse. Thank God that today, as we sit here in this room, we are not in a country like North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, or Iraq where Christians live in constant fear of losing their lives because of their faith. But it is coming and we should pray it doesn’t come soon.
A Special Place in the Kingdom
For those to whom it has come, let us remember this: Jesus loves and honours those who suffer and are martyred in His name. They aren’t suffering or killed because God loves them less or forgot them because they are cursed, or because they didn’t have enough faith. They did not suffer because of their sin –Jesus already paid for that. They were not abandoned by God because they had done something wrong. Their death was attended by God, and Jesus was next to them in every moment. Our identification with suffering as losing God’s blessing is a very Western, very wrong idea. The Bible says that Martyrs have a special place in His Kingdom.
I don’t want to get into a whole study of the end times right now, but listen to the special place Jesus affords martyrs during the end times. Revelation 20:4-5, “ThenI saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.”
These men and women are not forgotten in the eyes of God. They are not abandoned in their suffering. No, these martyrs have a special place beside Jesus in the kingdom and will be given things byGod that those who are not martyred will not have or experience.
A Realistic Picture of Christianity
When a soldier signs up to defend their country, whatever their motivations, the government is given the responsibility to train them for the job they will be asked to do. They need to teach the troops how to obey orders, improve their skills, fitness and strength, to learn how to care for and use their weapon. They must learn first aid so they can treat wounds, how to march so they can move as a unit, and study tactics so they can be prepared for battle.
It would be a disservice to the recruit if they weren’t given an accurate picture of life as a soldier. It would be foolish if boot-camp was an easy place to be, and if the officers lied about what life in the service was like.
When Jesus spoke about the Christian life, He didn’t paint a rosy picture for those who would believe in His name. In fact, the life he described for those who follow Him seems hard, unfair, and dangerous. In the same way, when Jesus was sending His disciples out to preach that The Messiah had come and the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, He said,
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles…. [and a few verses later] Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:16-22)
Being a follower of Jesus requires the commitment of our entire being. Our lives, our choices, our hearts, our possessions, our plans, our marriages, our families, will be tested. Those who believe in Jesus must be ready to give everything to Him because it may be asked of them – knowing that Jesus has already given everything for us.
What Sustains a Persecuted Christian?
A lot of people practice their faith the same way they choose a car, a piece of art, a vacation, or food. They go by taste. “I like trucks better than cars, modern art better than classical, warm places over cold ones, black licorice over red.” If they like that part of the Bible or theology or Christian discipline, they keep it. If they don’t like it they throw it away. They see Christianity as a smorgasbord of options from which they get to pick and choose.
When talking about their faith they say things like “This is what I believe. It might not be true for you, but it’s true for me and that’s good enough. We all need to find what works for us, and create our own truths, our own version of God. Then we can be happy.”
God forbid you call yourself a Christians to make your family happy, or because it’s politically helpful, or culturally expected, or because you like the idea. That faith will not sustain you when persecution comes. The only way to stand up to persecution, to suffering, to the inconvenience that comes with being a Christian, is to believe with every fibre of your being that what Jesus says is true.
We are often amazed by those who are able to withstand persecution, even unto death, and wonder if we would be able to do the same. What gives them the strength to sustain their faith during those difficult times?
In a word, “Assurance”. Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…”
God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose things about Him. We don’t have the right to decide our own morality, or what we think God is like. Our God is a revealed God. We may not like what He has revealed, but that doesn’t change who He is. We’re not talking aboutsubjective truths based on our preferences and tastes. We’re talking about objective truths. As surely as 1+1=2, as consistently as the force of gravity keeps us on the ground, and as absolutely sure we are of our very existence, so is the objective truth that God has revealed Himself and His will in a very singular way; through His Word, through the person and work of Jesus Christ. These are not truths to be chosen amongst, picked through for what we like and don’t like, but truths that are meant to be found, taught, discovered and believed.
Christians who suffer through persecution, or for that matter, Christians who suffer through anything in this life, learn that they don’t have the option of treating their faith in Jesus as a pie-in-the-sky, subjective truth which they can pick up or put down at their convenience. For those who suffer, their beliefs must have certainty. Suffering tests the quality of our faith. Their relationship with Jesus can’t be merely based on peer pressure, feelings, or fashion. If your faith is only as strong as your feelings, then you are in real trouble.
Your decision to be a Christian must be a very real one, because it affects every moment of your life, from when you get up in the morning to when you go to sleep at night. If God changed your heart, revealed His presence, sent His Son, made you His, and sealed you salvation by His Holy Spirit, then you must live that way. When you go through suffering or persecution you faith is no longer your opinion – it becomes either true or false, life or death – because you need to be absolutely certain you’ve put your faith in the right person.
In suffering we are sustained by what we “know”. When Job was going through is great suffering he said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last, he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25–27)
Nebuchadnezzar looked at Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and said to them, “…if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”
And their response was, “Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Da 3:15–18)
How could they do that? Certainty.
The heroes of the faith in the scriptures and the Christian martyrs who have come since, were not certain in themselves. It wasn’t about their own strength, their own will, their own abilities. They were not strong in themselves. They did not build their lives on their own foundation. Their strength lay in the God they knew would deliver them.
When Paul was under arrest for preaching and teaching Jesus, he said 2 Timothy 1:12 that he wasn’t ashamed ofhis suffering, nor the Gospel, nor Jesus. He said, “I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.”
When a suffering Christian prays, they must know with certainty that God hears them and will answer. They don’t have time for spiritual games, they need Jesus to help them. 1 John 5:14-15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we knowthat he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
A believer in suffering must have certainty in the God who loves them and will deliver them, or they will fall apart and go all manner of other places for comfort. The question is whether or not they believe Jesus when He says in Matthew 6:31–34, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Butseek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Or Romans 8:31-32, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
I believe that with the same certainty with which I believe 1+1=2. We should not be afraid to talk about Christian martyrs or those facing suffering because they teach us about being committed to Jesus. They, in their lives and deaths, point us to Christ and give us a picture of what it means to be totally free from hypocrisy, to be absolutely certain of their faith. They didn’t say one thing and do another. They said it, lived it, and it cost them their lives.
Let me close with a few simple questions to consider:
First, do you ever take the time to read the stories of the Christian martyrs? Have you readFoxe’s book of Martyrs, Jesus Freaks, or any other book about someone who died for their faith? Or, maybe do you skip over the difficult parts of scripture that talk about suffering? Let me encourage you to read those books and verses. They are a powerful way to challenge yourself and grow in your faith.
Second, how certainis your faith today? Is it subjective like a favourite flavour, or is it anunshakable, objective truth? When persecution comes, do you have your rootsburied deep in the truths of God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s presence in yourlife? Or, when suffering comes, do you find yourself falling into doubts,fears, poor coping strategies, sinful habits, even avoiding God and otherChristians? Could that be because you aren’t doing those things, like prayer,study, meditation, and worship, that are necessary to grow your faith deeper?
Third, are you avoiding something difficult, that you know God wants you to do, but you don’t want to because it will be uncomfortable or inconvenient? Do you walk away from situations where you could glorify God, choosing to pretend you are not a Christian in that moment, because acting like a Christian will bring unwanted attention? Is it possible that God has been calling you to do something important – or stop doing something – but you know that obeying in that way will bring a time of hardship or suffering… so you choose not to obey? If so, you are missing a great blessing.
A 2nd-century Christian author named Tertullian said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” which means that it is possible that your sacrifice, your blood, your pain, your loss, your obedience, will be the seeds by which many others will grow in faith and obedience to Jesus. I don’t want you to miss out on that kind of blessing because you fear man more than you fear God!
There are many places in the world that only know about Jesus because one brave Christian was willing to obey God and go preach and die for the gospel. I do not want to suffer, nor should any of us, but Romans 5:3-5 is the absolute truth and cannot be circumvented. Whatis the recipe for hope? “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” To believe that all suffering is evil is to deny what God can do with it. And to run from and try to avoid all forms of suffering is to avoid Jesus and thereby avoid building hope and faith – in yourself and others.
I heard an ad on the radio for the Canadian Legion that started with something like, “Think of all the things you enjoy in life, like summer fun, going out with your family, kissing your kids goodnight. We can take these things for granted because a veteran didn’t. They fought so we could have the freedoms we enjoy without thinking every day. So thank a veteran and join the Legion.”
I think any right-thinking individual wouldn’t argue too much with that statement. We know that there are countries in the world that are still torn by war and oppression and that those powers have tried to export their ways onto free countries. And we know that many Canadian soldiers have gone to war with these evils to protect our freedoms and those of others around the world. I think that anyone with even a passing knowledge of just twentieth-century history would agree with that. The only ones that argue against it are the ones who simply don’t know their history books.
Along that same vein, I’ve found that the more a person studies the Bible, theology, and church history, the more they should be thanking God for the heritage of theological veterans that have come before us. We should be thanking God every day that we live where we do and when we do. We take so much for granted about what we know about God these days, especially in conservative churches like ours. But the truth is that the most fundamental things we believe about God, things which we talk about every day, even things that the average non-church going Canadian knows and speak as though they were patently obvious were once hard-fought battlegrounds.
But those hard-fought battlegrounds are slipping away more and more. There’s an old phrase; I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it from many different people, and it says, “There are no new heresies, just old heresies dressed up in new clothes.” I read a similar thing from Albert Mohler who said, “False teachings emerge anew in every generation it seems, but inventing a new heresy is quite a challenge. After all, once every doctrine vital to Christianity has been denied, all that remains is a change in packaging.”
As one learns more about church history it becomes blatantly obvious all the so-called “new ideas” people have about God, Jesus, or the church, are not “new ideas” at all, just old heresies in new packaging.
Whenever I attend or watch a pastors conference someone always asks the keynote speaker the inevitable question, “What are the biggest problems with the church today?” and the answer never changes: People don’t know their Bibles.
Perhaps the best answer I heard was John Macarthur:
He said, in essence, that the weakness of the church is not a singular issue, it’s a holistic issue. Just as the AIDS virus doesn’t kill you, but weakens your immune system so that other diseases can kill you more easily, so the bland, vanilla, imprecise preaching of the Word weakens Christians and leaves them open to a thousand “heretical diseases” which can kill their soul. And therefore, the cure isn’t to treat the symptoms with a bunch of topical studies or fancy ministry packaging, but to get to the cause, to kill the virus by preaching and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity at all levels.
That means not only preachers that are extremely concerned for the accurate preaching of the Word, but elders who labour in their own realms of teaching. It means small group leaders choosing good, biblical material for their groups rather than merely interesting material. It means Sunday School teachers doing the work to make sure they know their Bibles well and are more interested in their children falling in love with the Bible than just being babysat and getting their craft done. It means parents doing the work to study the answers to their kids’ difficult questions so they can give good answers and ask “Did you read your Bible?” as much as they ask “Did you do your homework?”.
But that takes time, effort and energy – and reading, studying, learning, prayer, humility – which are things our society generally doesn’t do well. Which is why we are spiritually unhealthy, infected, and in danger.
Turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians 1:6-12. He says,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul was writing to the Galatians to combat the false, heretical teaching that had cropped up, that was corrupting people’s faith in Jesus, and was honestly shocked at how fast it had happened. He had preached to them the one, true, and pure gospel – the truth about Jesus – and he had just barely left town before they started believing dangerous lies – especially the like that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough to save them, but that they also needed to follow all the Jewish laws too or God wouldn’t accept them. It was a dangerous, false teaching that struck at the heart of the gospel.
Paul’s argument there is threefold, right? First, there is only one gospel and many counterfeit ones, so don’t be fooled. Second, the gospel isn’t something that man came up with but was given to man by revelation from God. And third, anyone who preaches something different from the truth is an accursed heretic who is hurting the church.
When Christians use the word “heresy” or “heretics” need to be very careful. Heresy simply means to believe something that is wrong about the established doctrines, so technically, every time someone says something that departs from Biblical truth even a little bit its heresy, but that’s not how it’s used. When we say “heretic” or “heresy” we’re not talking about people who are still learning, who use bad analogies, or who are simply making mistakes because they’re still trying to figure it all out. We wouldn’t call a new Christian or the kids in the Sunday School heretics because they aren’t 100% accurate. Instead, the word “heresy” is reserved for teachers who purposefully distort biblical truth in such a serious way that they attack the very essence of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther was excommunicated by Rome as a heretic because he taught that Christians are justified by faith alone. Luther replied that the Catholic Church and the Pope were heretics because they had departed from a biblical view of salvation. But that wasn’t the case for all of the disagreements. The Reformers, and many churches today, still disagreed on lots of things, even important ones like the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and how the church is to be structured, but they didn’t label each other heretics, just as we don’t label most other protestant churches heretics – it’s just differences in interpretation.
That’s not to say there haven’t been dozens of important debates over the centuries which remain today. In fact, the more we learn about the Bible, Theology, and Christian history, the more we realize that there really is nothing new under the sun. The wrong theology that people have today are the same errors that people argued over, fought against, declared counsels to settle, and even shed blood over, hundreds of years ago. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants – and must of us don’t even know it. But sadly, a lot of those old theological victories are being forgotten.
I don’t want to go over the data again, but I want to remind you about a couple of important surveys conducted over the past couple years about the beliefs that Christians hold today which I’ve talked about before. The first is from Lifeway and the other is from Ligonier. I’ll link them on my blog if you want to read them, but the results are dismal. Lots of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in sin or hell and believe everyone is basically good and will go to heaven to see all their relatives. And the beliefs about Jesus are all over the place!
And people’s beliefs about Jesus are just as bad. Half believed God makes mistakes. A little over half believe Jesus isn’t God but was created by God. Less than half strongly agreed that Jesus rose from the dead. Only two-thirds of Christians say that Jesus death on the cross is the only way to remove the penalty of sin, and less than half believe that He’s coming back.
Where’s the good news in that message? If people are basically good, God doesn’t care about sin and accepts worship from other religions, and everyone goes to heaven anyway, then why even talk about Jesus? But also, if God makes mistakes and Jesus death wasn’t enough, then how can anyone be sure of their salvation? If the word of God isn’t true, then what should we believe? What about all the Bible verses where Jesus makes exclusive claims or talks about sin? What do we do with those? How can God be good and just if ignores sin? How can God be perfect and holy if He allows evil people into Heaven? Doesn’t God care what we say about Him? Is the Bible just a pile of human contradictions? Where’s the good news? Where’s our hope then?
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19,
“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…. 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.”
I saw a great example of this on Instagram this week where I saw this comic: On one side there’s a man at a booth with a sign that says John 3:16 and a huge line of people in front of him. Next to him sits another booth that says, John 3:16-21. The joke is that a lot of people really like the message of John 3:16, but not so much when they read it in context.
Turn there with me. It starts with the famous verses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Everyone loves that verse, right? But let’s keep reading,
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Hey, that’s pretty good, we can get onboard with that. Keep reading: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” Still good…
“…but whoever does not believe is condemned already…”
“because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
That’s not very inclusive, is it? What do we do with verses like with verses like these, or like John 14:6 where Jesus says,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
or Acts 4:12 which says,
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Or the one that we talked about last week in 1 Timothy 2:5,
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…”
Those statements are either the gospel truth and the most important decision ever – or a lie. The only choice is to either believe them as the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to be saved, or to deny them, ignore them, or rewrite them so they say something that we prefer.
This is why we’re going through the Heidelberg Catechism. Not because it’s a divine document, but because it’s one of the greatest teaching tools to summarize the Biblical teaching about salvation through Jesus Christ in a way that people can learn. It’s a way for us to do what John MacArthur said: to learn and preach and teach the Bible with precision and clarity so we can combat that “spiritual AIDS” he was talking about. HIV may not have a cure today, but there is a cure for “spiritual AIDS”, right? There is a way to combat heresy, right? It is to commit to learning and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity. Especially about the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” We must get that right because so much rides on that answer. Because with precise and clear teaching on Jesus comes hope, confidence, understanding, as Jesus called it, “Light”. If we are vague or wrong about Jesus, we’re in the dark, we lose hope, we are to be pitied – but if we get it right, then our faith, hope, strength, and confidence in the love of God will grow.
Heidelberg LD6: The Nature of Jesus
Take a look at the questions in today’s lesson from the Catechism. Recall a couple weeks ago when I gave that courtroom illustration talking about how Jesus was the perfect mediator between God and Man because he was both a perfect human and yet also God? Well, I got a bit ahead of myself because the structure of the catechism doesn’t really mention who that perfect mediator is until Question 18.
Remember, this document is meant to be an apologetic, a logical argument, teaching people the basics of theology, right? It’s designed to set up a problem and then show us why Jesus is the answer. First, it explains the misery of sin, why sin must be punished, and how we can’t save ourselves or wriggle away from God’s wrath. Then, when we understand our desperate position, it gives us a glimmer of hope: that there is one way we can be saved – if someone else takes our punishment. But (and this is where we were a couple weeks ago), that person would need to be very special and have very unique qualifications:
As question 15 said,
“He would need to be One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
That narrows the field, doesn’t it? And that reasoning is clarified in today’s questions, as Ursinus makes the case in Question 16 for why Jesus is the only one who fits the qualifications:
“Why must he be a true and righteous man?”
The emphasis here is on the “man”. Why does our perfect mediator need to be a human being?
“He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.”
We covered this a little bit last time, but the answer here is simply that the only way to pay for God’s wrath against human sin is for a human to die, right? Equal payment is just. If someone owes you a toonie, you don’t accept a button. If someone is condemned to jail, he can’t send a picture of himself or his pet poodle.
But this mediator must not only be human but a perfect human. They cannot have any sin of their own to pay for, or they wouldn’t be able to die in someone else’s place, right? Again, we talked about this in the previous sermon.
Look at question 17:
“Why must he at the same time be true God?”
So we know why our perfect mediator, the one who can take our place, must be a human, but why must that person be God too?
“He must be true God so that by the power of his divine nature he might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Essentially, because no mere human is strong enough to handle the full wrath of God for all the sins of those who believe for thousands of years multiplied by millions or billions of people. Only one who had the power of God could do that.
Just saying that reminds us of how much Jesus loves us, doesn’t it? What a Saviour, to face that kind of agony for us when we have done nothing to deserve it.
Now to question 18:
“But who is that Mediator who at the same time is true God and a true and righteous man?”
Here we see that apologetic, logical progression of the questions: Ok, so if we agree to all that has come before, about the qualifications for the perfect mediator, then who fits those qualifications? Who has the power to save us from the wrath of God and cleanse us from sin?
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor 1:30)”
We sure quoted that passage a lot during our study of 1st Corinthians, didn’t we?
And question 19 comes quickly on the heels:
“From where do you know this?”
And the answer:
“From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise. Later, he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. Finally, he had it fulfilled through his only Son.”
The only One who fits the bill, the only One who meets the qualifications is Jesus. The only one who fulfills the promise to Eve, to Moses, to Isaiah and Mary… the only One who fulfills all of the Laws and who was foreshadowed in all of the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament is Jesus!
But do you see how this all falls apart once we degrade our belief in the authority of the Word of God, ignore the clear teaching of scripture, and incorporate heresies and false teachings about the person and work of Jesus?
Let’s go back to question 1. Do you remember it? When you face trials and troubles and pains beyond your ability to cope with or comprehend, when you face death and guilt and shame and eternity, when you come to the end of yourself, when you are, as 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “afflicted… perplexed… persecuted… and struck down…”,
“What is your only comfort in life and death?”
Your answer cannot be, “Me, my own strength.” Because it is spent. I can’t be “My medicines or my religion or another person” because they are not enough. Or worse, if you have been listening to false teachers or being lazy in your study, believing lies about Jesus, then when you come to the end of yourself and look for strength in the god you invented for yourself you will find it lacking and say, “He isn’t enough. I don’t know where my hope is. I’m not sure anymore. I have no hope.”
But the answer of a faithful believer, one who has done the work to be diligent and precise and humble in their learning says,
“My only and greatest comfort in life and death is ‘That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit e also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.’”
Therein lies our hope – in the one and only Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we must know only from the true and infallible Word of God.
So, are you reading it? Are you studying it? Are you meeting with other believers to work out your faith with fear and trembling? If you are not, then you are going to be in trouble when trials come. But if you are strong in your faith, strong in your study, in your theology and understanding of the Word, strong in your knowledge of Jesus Christ, you will be able to echo the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….”
Because you will know the One, True Jesus.
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.
Kickstarter Update: The Kickstarter has stalled at $2400 and it’s been a few days since it has seen any new hits or pledges. The goal is $3000 and there are 9 days left. Please consider pledging towards the goal so I can make this new book a reality. If you can’t pledge, or have already, would you please consider sending the Kickstarter link to your pastor, youth pastor, small group leader, book store, or any friends and family that might be interested? It would help me a lot if you would! God bless!
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. The world came into being by chance, everything is a collection of random atomic accidents, and we are only here by coincidence. Everything we see – for good or ill – we have achieved on our own and there is no guiding hand or purpose to anything in life. We are all merely highly evolved animals – of no more value than a virus or a pinecone.
If you are successful, then it is because you either lucked out in the genetic or economic lottery. If you are not successful, then you need to try harder and fight more to get what you deserve in this world. Sadly, none of it matters though, because all you have – your home, money, and relationship – are merely forms of reorganized dirt that will be long forgotten within a few generations anyway. “Meaningless, meaningless… Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” — or so goes the opening lines of Ecclesiastes, setting the theme of the entire book – that nothing matters and no matter what we do, we all die anyway.
Depressing, isn’t it?
That’s a world without thanksgiving – without gratitude – without the understanding of grace and mercy. That’s the secular world that doesn’t understand James 1:16-17 that says, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” They are deceived. Or the words of John the Baptist in John 3:27, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” Or 1 Corinthians 4:7, “Everything you have was given to you. And if this is so, why do you brag as if you got these things by your own power?” (ICB).
Everything we see, have and experience comes through the Father’s hands – all of it. Good, positive, happy, joyous experiences – and painful, confusing, hurtful, frustrating experiences. None of it happens without God’s consent.
- The creation of the world in all its wonder and perfection – and the fall of Adam and Eve that brought the curse upon it.
- The choosing of elderly Abram and barren Sarai to be the father of a great nation – and the children of that nation being enslaved by Pharaoh for 400 years.
- The building of the glorious Temple of Solomon – and it’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar 400 years later.
- The calling of the Prophet Jeremiah when he was about 17 years old to bring messages of God to the people of Israel – and when these same people hated him so much that they stoned him to death 50 years later.
- The golden years of the Great Kings David and Solomon and the evil times of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel.
- The writing of the Law of God, and the losing and forgetting of it.
- The rise to power of evil Haman and the rise to power of Queen Esther.
- The advent and birth of Jesus Christ, and the slaughtering of the babes two years later.
- The coming of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, and his beheading under a pagan king.
- All of the amazing life of Jesus, His miracles and teachings – and His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
- The rise to power of Saul, the persecutor of the church, responsible for killing Christians – and his conversion to faith which resulted in the writing of most of the New Testament and the spread of Christianity all over the world.
He allowed the earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Japan, the droughts in Africa, the Flood of the Yangtze River, the Halifax Explosion, the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, and the Spanish Flu. He’s also overseen the organization of the United Nations World Food Program, the Red Cross, Compassion International, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, UNISEF.
God ordained the birth and lives of Nero, Caligula, Genghis Khan, Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Ayotollah Khomeini, Joseph Stalin, and Osama bin Laden. He also ordained the lives of Constantine, Saint Augustus, Saint Patrick, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, William Wilberforce, Corrie Ten Boom, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Schindler, Mother Theresa, and Billy Graham.
All of these people and things have been decreed by God. None of them were an accident. Every action was an act of His will and His design.
A believer recognizes that everything – everything – happens because of God’s plan and His design. A Christian trusts that God knows what He’s doing. They believe that God’s plan is better than what they can come up with and refuse to sin in order to get their way (Ecc 8:12). They believe that “for those who love God, all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28) – and they don’t define “good” as “comfortable, healthy, and wealthy”. They know that the greatest good is a closer fellowship with God, a closer likeness to Jesus Christ, the bearing of fruit for His Kingdom, and our final glorification as we go from this life to the next. We have a big picture – not a small one – of God and His plan.
This morning I want to talk a little about the importance of having that big picture – and how we can gain that kind of big picture by doing something very important: giving thanks. And I want to start with a quick survey of thanksgiving in scripture so we can see how incredibly pervasive has been for the people of God.
In the Old Testament we find believers who knew that the only condition under which life could be enjoyed is the life of gratitude. For the Jewish believers, everything under God – both good and bad – was a reason to give God thanks, because they knew that their thanksgiving was an act of trust that God would deliver them. These believers breathed thanksgiving with every breath.
The psalms are full of thanksgiving, of course. The praise book, the emotional book of the Bible, interplays suffering, fear, doubt, anger and loss with thanksgiving, worship, deliverance, confidence and joy – sometimes in the same verse!
David, the author of many of the Psalms was a man who gave thanks to God. When the Ark of the Covenant was finally coming into Jerusalem, He appointed a special group of Levitical priests that had the singular job of remembering, thanking and praising God. It was an official title that day – the official ThanksGivers. It was seen as a requirement for all of God’s people – but David went a step further and made sure that God was thanked by people dedicated to nothing else.
Job, even after his great wealth and large family was destroyed in a series of sudden and terrible accidents, chose to acknowledge God and worship. In the midst of great pain and struggle, it says “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20-21). He was in agony. He “tore his robe and shaved his head” (acts of intense grief and emotion), “fell to the ground and worshipped”. Why? Because he knew that all things come from God’s hands and chose to react with thanksgiving – which was an act of hope for deliverance and of humility before God’s plan.
Before interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel gave thanks to God. He was standing in front of the ruler of the whole world, who wanted an answer to an dream, and instead of jumping to the end, he stood right in front of him and said a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the ability and opportunity to interpret the dream (Dan 2:23). Later, after King Darius had made the law against praying to anyone but him – on threat of being torn apart alive by hungry lions – Daniel went to his room and continued to “get down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God.” (Dan 6:10). He was a champion of thanksgiving and wouldn’t stop for anyone.
Paul had a lot to do, and much to say in his letters, but he very often takes time and space to not only give thanks not only for his salvation, and teach thanksgiving to the other believers, but to relate to the people receiving the letters how thankful he is for them. (Rom 1:8, Eph 1:15-16; 1 Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-5) His letters drip with thanksgiving. Why? Because Paul was truly thankful that he had been saved by Jesus from a life headed to hell and brought into a life of service in His Kingdom. Everything else compared to knowing Jesus was “rubbish” (Phil 3:8) – and Paul was thankful.
And this thankful man, over and over, commands the followers of Christ to be thankful themselves – and to remind others to be thankful. Over and over we are not only encouraged, but commanded to remember to be thankful for our salvation through Jesus Christ For example, Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Or Ephesians 5:20, “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (See also 1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor 2:14, 9:15)
And finally, we know that Jesus had a regular habit of giving thanks before almost everything. Jesus Christ, Son of God, was thankful. Let that sink in for a minute. Through Him it was all created. He was on earth, surrounded by fools and enemies, there to suffer and die… and yet he spends a lot of time thanking God. Why? Because it was commanded of Him as an obedient son, and also because He was truly thankful to His Father for all that He was experiencing – both good and bad. He thanked God before the feeding of the 5000 (Mk 8:6-7), and again on the night of His arrest before He instituted the Lord’s Supper (Lk 22:19). He thanked God in public prayers that everyone could here (Mat 11:25).
He thanked God aloud, as His voice choked and with tear stained eyes, as He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:41). His weeping didn’t cancel out his thankfulness. His pain didn’t mean he was faithless. He was moved by loss, grief and the sorrow of death and yet at the same time He thanked God.
Why is Gratitude Such a Big Deal?
Why is this such a big deal to God? Why do we see gratitude in the face of trials and blessings, over and over throughout scripture? Why have thousands of Christian preachers, teachers, elders, writers, mystics, puritans and saints stressed the importance of having a heart filled with praise and gratitude? Because Thanksgiving has a lot of power behind it.
I think I know two important reasons: Our capacity to thank God shows the condition of our heart – and our willingness to thank God is an antidote to poisoned thinking.
Thanksgiving Shows The Condition of Our Hearts
We’ve already seen that thanksgiving is a choice to worship to God – but our choice to thank God shows what’s going on inside of us. It shows what we believe about ourselves and our relationship with God. It is a litmus test of our faith and an acknowledgement of who we think our provider is “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” says the psalmist in Psalm 121:1? Is it in my fields, my finances, my strength, my army, my country, my abilities, my knowledge, my relationships? No, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The question is a heart check.
One of my commentaries had a great quote:
“Gratitude is a joyful commitment of one’s personality to God.” (Baker encyclopedia of the Bible, p. 900)
When we are being thankful, we are committing our personality – or who we are, what we think, and what we find important, our source of joy and security and self – to God. We will not be thankful if we are full of pride, thinking all we have is ours. We will not be thankful if we are grumbling beause we believe we deserve more. We will not be thankful if we are coveting other people’s things, jealous of what they have. Thankfulness shows what is happening in our hearts – and a lack of thankfulness shows that there is something wrong.
If you can’t give thanks, then there’s something wrong with your heart. It means that you no longer remember the amazing grace of God, His salvation through Jesus, and you have forgotten all the other gifts you have already received. If you cannot give thanks, then you’re not seeing straight, and there is something wrong.
Do you remember the story of the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18? It’s a story where two men walk up to the temple to pray at the same time. One man, the self-righteous Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”. The other man, stood far off “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus says it was the second man whose prayer was received. The way that the Pharisee gave thanks showed the condition of his heart – as did the tax collectors humility. Thanksgiving shows the condition of our hearts.
An Antidote to a Poisonous Thinking
The second reason I think scripture keeps reminding us about gratitude is because making the choice – as in, putting the time, energy and effort into giving thanks – is actually an antidote, a medicine, for a broken, darkened, sad, hopeless heart. Romans 1:21 gives one of the signs of us hardening and darkening our hearts as a lack of thanksgiving. It says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They didn’t honour God or give thanks to him – which showed the futility and darkness of their thinking.
But the opposite of that is true as well! We can fix our foolish and dark thinking by choosing to give thanks to God. Turn with me to Philippians 4:6-7. It says, “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The “and” clause there seems to me to be a promise. It’s an “if, then” statement. If you pray and give thanks, then you will receive the peace of God. If you want a guarded heart, then pray and give thanks.
Look a little further and see that this verse comes right before a verse that address something we’ve been talking about for a couple weeks: taking charge of our thinking :
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Thanksgiving and taking control of our thought life – and even choosing to rejoice if you look up at verse 4 – are all tied together. If you can’t rejoice, then start giving thanks. If you are not at peace, start to give thanks. If you are anxious about something, start giving thanks. If you feel like your mind is out of control and you need divine guarding, start giving thanks. Thanksgiving is an antidote to poisonous thinking.
Examples of Thanksgiving
But how do I start giving thanks? If you’re really in the dumps, and really down, and frustrated, it’s really hard to start just – giving thanks. You don’t feel like it, right? Well, that’s where taking control of your thinking comes in, and I’ll give you a tool to help you out. Look again at Philippians 4:8 and let’s ask some questions. If you can’t think of what to give thanks for, then turn that list into a series of questions:
What is “true”? What is the truth about my salvation, my God, my hope, my assurance? I’ll tell you again to go read Romans 8! What “true” things can I thank God for? The scriptures are true. They are a fount of cool water in a world filled with dark lies. We all know people who are truthful – people we trust – let’s thank God for them. What else is true in this world?
What “honourable” (dignified, reverent) things can I thank God for? For me, I think of some of the great preachers and teachers of the past that stood for God despite great pressure to conform. I think of the martyrs who suffered for their faith. Of heroes past and present that stand for the name of Jesus. Of men and women I know who worship God with reverence and faith.
What about thinks that are “just”? What kinds of “justice” can I thank God for? We know God is just and will make everything right in the end – evil will be punished and goodness rewarded. But we also see justice in this world if we look. We live in a nation with law and order, police protection and military force that seeks to bring justice to those who have been wronged both here and around the globe. I am also thankful for all the people I know who live rightly, fairly, and don’t compromise. For the stores that don’t cheat me and for missions organizations that are fighting for the protection of those who can’t fight for themselves.
What does the word “purity” bring to mind that I can be thankful for? I think of the amazing joy of teaching eager children the gospel, and how open their minds are to it. I think of the scene of a land covered in new-fallen snow, all white and perfect. I think of how God is perfectly holy and can never be corrupted, and how, because of Jesus I am pure in His sight, and each day He is making me more like Him.
What around me is “lovely” or beautiful and causes me to praise God and give thanks? This one is easy. Just take a look outside. Fall is my favourite season. But there are many other things. Art, photography and music have a lot of beauty in them. A well designed building, car, technology or even appliance can be an object that allows us to thank God. Wonderful stonework on a building, a piece of jewelry, a sunset, the smell of a book, a nice cup of coffee. All lovely things that can give us another reason to give thanks.
What “commendable” things or people can I thank God for? I’m reminded of my wife, who lives a life worthy of commendation, and of my children who continue to have a good reputation with all who know them. I think of the commendability of good bible translators, teachers and writers who work hard to be perfectly truthful. Of all the missions and relief organizations that we can trust to do their job and spend our money well. Of the members of our leadership team who are working hard, doing their jobs without grumbling and complaining, and bring a good reputation to our church.
What do I see around me that is brimming with “excellence”? Certainly the design of creation – it’s magnificence and microscopic intricacies cause us to think of God’s perfection. But what about a cell phone, how a bridge is constructed, or that we can now fit 200GB on a memory card that is only 15mm wide. A well designed garden, a kept field, a motor that runs in perfect time, are all things of excellence. Now, these things are my list – and yours will be different – maybe a 200GB memory card doesn’t immediately draw you into worship like it does to me. That’s ok.
What do I know about God that is worthy of “praise”? Well, everything, when we start to read about Him. Open up Psalm 121, 145 and 146 and read about salvation, protection, and deliverance from God.
“The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 146)
This is my list, and I’m sure yours is different, but I hope you see my point. If we take the time to do this, then it not only gives us an antidote to poisonous thinking, but is an act of worship and obedience to God. He honours those who honour Him.
We live in an age of expectancy, selfishness and pride. We live in a darkened world that refuses to thank God for His provision and will not acknowledge His grace. His people ought not be like that. Thanksgiving takes practice, effort, time and energy – but it’s benefits are incredible. It will bring us closer to God, realign our priorities and adjust our attitudes.
Thanksgiving is powerful – so let us not take it for granted. Like Jesus, let us make a habit of it.
Over the past month many churches around the world have celebrated Advent using a special wreath of candles. It is a simple and beautiful way to remind us that the meaning of Christmas. Each week we light a different candle, read a special scripture, and are reminded of another meaning of what Jesus Christ brought with Him when He came at Christmas.
Different traditions have different shapes, different readings, even different amounts of candles, but each one is full of symbolism. In ours we see five different candles – three purple, one pink, one white. Purple is the historic liturgical colour for the four Sundays of advent. Pink (or technically “rose) is the color of the third Sunday. The purple traditionally represented a time of prayer, penitence and repenting from sin as we prepare ourselves for Christmas, but the third candle interrupted that time with a time of rejoicing and celebration that Jesus has come and will come again. Even the priests wore pink vestments. (Unfortunately, our church doesn’t have such a tradition because I think they’re pretty!)
Each of the candles has a different them representing Hope, Love, Joy and Peace, and they surround the middle candle which we are lighting today, the Christ candle. It reminds all believers that all of our deepest longings –all that the other candles represent – are found only when we have Jesus at the centre of our lives. That’s what I want to talk about tonight.
In Jesus There is Hope
Hope is something we cannot live without, but is tough to come by these days. There’s so much bad news that it’s hard to find any hope. Most people are taught, from the moment they enter school, that they are evolved scum, there is no such thing as eternity, that their choices don’t ultimately matter, and that any emotion they feel is merely biochemical trickery. They are told to squeeze as much pleasure out of this world as they can before they slip into oblivion.
There is no hope in that. And as we look at the world, it doesn’t promise much. No hope for the future as the world gets more violent and all of our worldly saviours fail us over and over. No hope for anything of real consequence, no hope of true love – and so we distract ourselves from thinking about the future, staying trapped in the immediacy of entertainment, because all we see when we look forward is a black hole that is getting blacker – no hope.
But the whole Christmas story is about hope! Jesus came into that black hole to shine His light. In Jesus there is salvation from sin, resurrection from the dead, restoration of our lost souls, and eternity with God! 1 Peter 1:3-4 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you…”
That’s what we are all longing for! There is no hope in this world, but there is hope in Jesus Christ! A hope “that can never perish, spoil or fade!” That’s a hope we can build our lives on. That’s the hope that Jesus brought at Christmastime to offer to all people.
In Jesus There is Love
Why? Because He loves us. Not a worldly kind of love. Not one only for people that love Him back. Not only caring for those who do something for Him. He doesn’t just come for those He deems worthy. We’ve all experienced that kind of worldly love. No, that’s not the kind of love we’re looking for, is it? We want a better kind of love – a deeper love.
Romans 5:6-8 talks about that kind of love, which is only found in Jesus Christ. It says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That’s remarkable. It says that Jesus came “when we were still powerless”. It says that Jesus came when we were “ungodly” – when we had no dignity or worthiness. He came to a people who are His opposite. And then He “died for the ungodly”.
It says that God showed us the deep kind of love that we have all been so desperate to experience. It says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Jesus came at Christmastime He wasn’t coming to help His friends. A couple verses later, in Romans 5:10 it says that “we were God’s enemies”. That’s the story of the deep love at Christmas. Jesus came to the unlovely, the unlovable, His enemies and his opposites, to live among us, and save us the trouble we brought on ourselves. He gained nothing, we gained everything.
When we sing Silent Night in a moment, we will sing the words “Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light.” The love of Jesus was pure – not clouded by selfishness, or ulterior motives. He came to pour out His love on a undeserving world.
In Jesus There is Peace
Which is why, if there is no Jesus, there is no peace. Many of you know this feeling. Without Jesus, we are still enemies of God and our spirits can never be at peace. Without the guidance of Jesus, we will never know what it means to love our enemies and be at peace in a world full of strife and turmoil. Without being in relationship with Jesus, we will always be trying to fill our lives with something that will quell our fears, give us security, and help us understand the world – but they will all fail us because it’s impossible to find anywhere else but in Jesus Christ.
In Romans 5:1-2 we read, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”
When we put our trust in Jesus, He grants us is peace. Peace in our hearts that we know our eternity is secure because we don’t have to earn heaven. Peace with others because we understand forgiveness (because we have been forgiven so much). And the peace that comes with being loved so very much.
In Jesus There is Joy
And, of course, when we are secure in the hope we have in Jesus, understand the love of God found in Jesus, and are a peace with God and others because of what Jesus has done for us – then we have joy.
Without Jesus a person can’t have true joy. Certainly, in God’s common grace, even the most godless pagan can have momentary happiness. We can be entertained and distracted for a time. We can surround ourselves with many good things – family, friends,finaces, food, fun – but all of those things are fleeting. Our parents pass away, our children leave, we fight with our friends, the food makes us fat, the money doesn’t keep it’s promises, and the fun is temporary.
Joy is so much more than happiness, and is perhaps the greatest gift God gives to His followers. It is more complex than an emotion, but comes from a connection to something that transcends this world, transcends our emotions, is bigger than what this world can offer – joy comes from our transcendent God.
Jesus talks about Joy in John 15:8–13, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
What brings a person joy? Know that we are on the path that leads to more and more life, in right standing with God, thankful every day for the good things given to us by Him, bearing much fruit as we see His hands work through ours, living a disciplined life free from folly, abiding always in the love of God, knowing the Creator is on your side, being surrounded by a family of believers who love you, accept you and will care for you no matter what – and to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus loved you so much that He was willing to lay down his life for you and call you His friend. That’s the kind of joy that is the exclusive province of the Christian who believes in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
I know that everyone wants these things: Hope, Love, Peace and Joy. The Christmas message is that they are found ultimately, fully, perfectly and only, in Jesus.