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.