If you recall last week, question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism told us how a Christians greatest comfort is found in life and in death is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, and then question 2 asked, ““What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer was three things: “First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
Those three things are the outline of the rest of the catechism. The next 127 questions over 51 Sundays are broken down into three words: Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. The argument there is basically: You cannot understand how important the solution is if you don’t really understand the problem.
Have you ever had a car that started making noise, and even though you have no idea what’s wrong, you know something is? I’m sure you have. So you walk into the shop and what’s the first question that they ask you? “What’s wrong with it?” or “What’s it doing?” Which changes the event from a professional encounter between two adults to some sort of sound effects radio drama. “Well, when I drive down the highway, there’s a really loud scream like ‘EEEEEEEE!’ and a sort of rumbly grrrrrrr sound in the back and then when I stop it gets all crunchy and then goes ka-thunk!”
And then, if you have a good mechanic, they go, “Oh, ok. I think I know what that is. Let me take a look.” And then miracle of miracles, you come back in a couple hours and it’s fixed! They say, “Oh, you needed a new fan belt, some brake pads, and your CV joint was damaged.”
That’s kind of what the second question is saying. If you don’t understand your problem, which is the misery of your sin, then you can’t really understand the grace of God or the works of Jesus Christ. You’ll know there’s something wrong. You’ll hear the weird noises of your life – strained relationships, broken promises, debt, anxiety, out of control anger or lust, shame – but unless you understand the problem of sin, you won’t really know how to deal with the problem. You need someone who can interpret the weird noises in your life, explain what’s wrong, and then offer a solution. That’s what the Bible does.
Am I A Sinner?
The questions the Heidelberg Catechism has for us today continue the thought from last week. If the first thing we need to know is “how great my sins and misery are” then the next logical question is say: “From where do you know our sins and misery?” The answer is: “From the Law of God.” Question 4 follows naturally with:
“What does God’s law require of us?”.
Ok, if the Law of God is what shows us our sin, then what does it require? But instead of giving the answer as the 10 Commandments or the hundreds of other laws in the Bible, it quotes what Jesus said when He was asked the same question:
“Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Question 5 comes next, and it’s one that we likely wouldn’t come up with as our next question, but is critically important to answer:
“Can you keep all this perfectly?”
In other words, “Can any human being perfectly love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly love their neighbour as much as they love themselves?” To which the answer, if we’re honest with ourselves, should be “No”, right? The Catechism says,
“No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.”
That’s where some people usually start to argue. They say, “I don’t actually hate my neighbour. I don’t hate anybody! Sure, I’m not perfect in my love for God or others, but I don’t hate anyone…”
Hold that thought for a moment and let me show you a quick video. It does such a good job of explaining it in such a short time that I think it’s better if we just watch it together. It’s from “The Bible Project”, which can be found either on their website or through our Right Now Media subscription.
The LAW is a Mirror
I know that’s a lot to digest, but for today the thing I want you to remember is simply that God’s Law, the Bible, is a mirror. All the rules and expectations that God set through the prophets in the Old Testament, that Jesus taught in the Gospels, and that the Apostles said in the New Testament, are written to be a mirror that reflects the truth back to us.
James 1:22–25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
It’s not one of those mirrors that makes you look bigger or smaller than you really are, it’s not tinted like rose coloured glasses to make things look better, nor is it tinted like dark sunglasses to make everything more gloomy and depressing, it’s just a mirror that simply reflects back the truth.
Have you ever known someone who has said, or perhaps you yourself has said, “That’s why I don’t like to read the bible, it makes me feel guilty.” That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that the Bible is written. If you are in good standing before God, if you know you are forgiven and are living righteously, then the mirror reflects that back. You see God’s love, patience, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, and how He’s on your side. But if you don’t know where you stand with God, if you still love your sin, if you haven’t asked forgiveness, then the mirror of the Word is going to reflect that, and you’re going to feel guilt, shame, fear, and see God as a judge who hates and condemns you.
That guilt, that shame, that fear of condemnation that you feel, is not a bad thing. It’s not a reason for you to put down the Bible and ignore God and stop praying – it’s supposed to drive you to humility, to admit your wrong, and then to call out to Jesus for salvation and help!
Sin Goes Deep
The book of Romans is divided up just like the Heidelberg Catechism. The first three chapters are about sin, chapters 4-11 are about how we are saved from that sin, and then chapters 12-15 are about how our lives are transformed by that salvation. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude. The whole first section is written so that anyone who reads it understands the universal problem and misery of sin and could not possibly walk away thinking that they are in good standing with God. It shows the picture of how everyone has an immoral, messed up conscience and a broken relationship with our Creator – how deep the problem goes.
Turn to Romans 3 and let’s read starting at the middle of verse 9:
“For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”
Notice how all of those are quotes from the mirror of Old Testament. To our modern ears, which are so used talking about self-esteem and blaming everyone and everything else for our problems, that sounds harsh, but remember what the video said: “Jesus showed that love is far more demanding than we realize…. And that our hearts are not currently equipped to fulfil even the basic command of God.”
In Matthew 5, which the video quotes, Jesus says love isn’t just about not murdering people, it’s about everything we say, do, and think about others when we’re angry – even to the point of forgiving and doing good for our enemies. He says that loving faithfulness to our spouse isn’t just about not committing adultery. That love encompasses is about everything we look at with our eyes and all the things happening in our hearts with every other person we meet. Jesus says that the law of love doesn’t just say, “Keep your promises”, but says that every word you say should be the truth.
James 2:8-10 says something similar,“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
In other words, if you show any partiality towards someone, even once, – because of race, colour, gender, financial status, celebrity level, or personal relationship, you’ve broken the entire Law of God and stand guilty before him. A commentary I read this week said it this way,
“God as the highest good desires to be loved perfectly…. Indifference and lack of love toward Him are only lesser degrees of hatred…. [And] from the same root of sinfulness… arises also that relation toward our neighbor in which we love ourselves more than we love him….” (“Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism”, Otto Thelemann; Pg 124-125)
But, some say, “Can’t non-believers, non-Christians feel love towards people?” That form of love is not a divine love, born of sacrifice and obedience, but a “natural love” that is ultimately for one’s own pleasure and to one’s own advantage – a love that is more about self than the other. That’s why it so easily moves from love to hate. Have you ever known someone who once loved a person but now hates them? At one time they would have argued tooth and nail that their whole heart was for that other person, that they would do anything for them, but now, they won’t speak to them, won’t forgive them, insult them behind their back, and are filled with bitterness that won’t stop. That’s natural love.
The love that is from God doesn’t work like that. The love that we have from God is one that, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That’s why, when Romans 3 says, “None is righteous, no, not one…”, it’s exactly right. When we compare the light of God’s love to ours, our love looks like darkness. When we compare our life to God’s Law, we can’t say that we love like Him, our only conclusion must be that we hate Him and hate our neighbour. Why? Because we’ve all lied, and we don’t lie to people we love, we lie to people we don’t like, people we hate. We’ve all preferred someone over someone else, and loving people don’t do that, hateful people do. We’ve all done something with bad, selfish motives, proving that our greatest love is ourselves and not God or others.
When we look into the mirror that is the Law of God, the Bible, the purpose isn’t merely to look at a mirror. That’s one of the dangers of Bible Study or trying to read the Bible in a Year. No one looks at a mirror to see the mirror, they look at it to see themselves. In the same way, when we read the Bible, the Law, the commandments of God, the purpose isn’t merely to learn about them or memorize them – but to have the Spirit of God, through the living and active Word of God, look at us, pierce our soul, and discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart, so we can know our true selves through it. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
So Romans 3:19 continues, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
When we look into the perfect mirror of the Word, it should shut our mouths from all the excuses we give for our bad behaviour and all the ways we try to defend ourselves. It should stop our mouths and make us know that we really are accountable to God. And when we face that knowledge of sin we must tremble. It should cause us to feel fear, guilt, and shame. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
And that fear, guilt, and shame, should drive us to want to do something. When the noise of our broken car gets so bad we can’t stand it, we bring it to the mechanic, right? And so, when, through the reading and hearing of the word, we start to understand and feel the misery of our sin, the sickness of our souls, the damage we have caused, and the judgement of God, it should drive us to want to do something – to be rid of that fear, guilt, and shame. And how do we do that?
We come to Jesus, the one who paid for our sins on the cross.
Look at the next verses in Romans 3:21-26, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
We talked about propitiation last week. It is the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift. Jesus offered His blood for ours, taking God’s wrath which we rightly deserved, so that anyone who has faith in Jesus, who recognizes their sin, hates it, wants to be clean from it, and believes in Jesus alone for that Salvation, could be justified before God.
Once that happens God changes our hearts, cleans us up, and we see ourselves in the mirror very differently. Suddenly instead of being covered in sin and feeling fear, guilt and shame, we see ourselves as cleaned up, redeemed, and the Bible looks like light, guidance, and hope. It’s not the impossible standards of a terrible judge, but the loving words of a kind father who is helping us navigate this life.
Let’s close with the reminder of the story of the Rich Young Ruler found in Matthew 19:16-22.
“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’”
Sounds like question 2 from the catechism, doesn’t it? Jesus’ answer sounds a lot like our questions from today.
“And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“How can you attain salvation? Obey every law perfectly. Love God perfectly and love others perfectly.” How does the young man respond?
“The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’”
“Sure, Jesus, I looked into the mirror of the perfect law, all 613 commandments, and know for a fact I’ve kept every single one of them perfectly. I’m good. I’m a good person.” Jesus had already told him that there’s only one that is good, and the young man probably wasn’t Him, but the young man missed that one. It’s just like a lot of people who think they are “good” and don’t really need salvation, don’t need Jesus, don’t need repentance, don’t need prayer. Maybe that’s you today. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked and asked if they need prayer or help with accountability or with study and they say, “Nah, I’m good.”
And what does Jesus say? He just grabs literally the first commandment. “You shall have no other god’s before me.” (Exo 20:3) Or the first part of his summary, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Verse 21, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
That was quick. Did He really love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength? Nope. He loved money and possessions. Did he really love others, like “the poor”, as much as he loved himself? Nope. He wanted to be rich and giving his riches to the poor would make him equal with them – and even thinking of that made him sad.
The Rich Young Ruler was lying to himself. I implore you not to do that. First, don’t make the mistake of avoiding the Bible because it makes you feel guilty, but second, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are “good enough for God”. Allow the conviction of scripture to drive you to your knees, drive you to repentance, drive you to beg for God’s grace, to turn to Jesus for mercy, to thank Him for salvation, and to want to live a better, more righteous way.
If you were to ask people what their favourite day of the year is, you’ll get a lot of answers. For some, it’s a holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween. For some, it’s tied to a cultural festival like New Years or Hanukkah or Cinco De Mayo. Others are more personal and will tell you it’s their Birthday or a special Anniversary that is meaningful to them. Usually, these days are chosen because of the events surrounding them, the pomp and circumstance, or the special memories that come to mind on that day.
But what if you change the question slightly? What if instead of asking people what their “favourite” day is you ask them what the “most important” day of the year is. That takes it out of the personal realm and makes people think more about how that day impacts others.
I googled “What is the most important day of the year?” and came up with some interesting answers. My favourite of which was from one dude on the internet. And he super likes this day. Can you guess which day it is?
And apparently, he really likes “Earth, Wind and Fire” too – but then again, who doesn’t?. When asked “What does September 21st mean to you?” His answer was: “Absolutely nothing. And hopefully it means even less in the coming years.” If that’s not commentary on modern life, I don’t know what is.
Good Friday or Easter?
If you ask a group of Christians what the most important day of the year is, you’d think you’d get a consistent answer, but you won’t. There are some pretty important days in the Christian calendar and it’s easy to make an argument for why they would all take the lead. Christmas was when the God of the Universe was incarnated as a human baby – that’s a pretty big deal. If there was no Christmas then there would be no Jesus, no New Testament, no Christianity, right?
Other believers will tell you that Good Friday is the most important day of the year. That was the day when Jesus died on the cross, having the wrath of God poured on Him instead of us, dying so anyone who would believe in Him would live. That’s a pretty huge day. If there was no Good Friday, there would be no cross, no salvation, no restoration of lost sinners to God, no freedom from sin.
We’re here today celebrating Easter as another super important day in history – the day that Jesus rose from the dead, proving everything He said to be true, showing Himself to be God and Messiah and Saviour. No one else has ever done that.
So you can see why Christians are torn on which day is most important and why we make such a big deal of this season – why our whole Christian year, our worship services, our songs, our sermons, our prayers, so many of our conversations and meetings, revolve around what happened over these three days.
If you were to ask the Apostle Paul what the most important day was, he would say it this way: from 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” What is of “first importance” to Christians? What’s the most important thing that all believers need to remember at all times? The death of Jesus on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. They are inseparable.
Of First Importance
Please open up in your Bibles (or the ones in the pew in front of you) to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and let’s look at that passage together. Verses 1-11 have already been read today and I want to spend some time going through this section to see why the events of Good Friday and Easter are so important – not only to Christians but to everyone.
Right off the start, from verse 1 we read,
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
This is the final section of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. He’s gone through a lot of topics so far. He’s spoken about everything from theology to culture, worship to family issues, and more, and now he’s come to the end of the letter and wants to make sure that above everything else he’s written they remember one thing: “the gospel”.
What is the gospel? It’s explained in the verses we just read. The gospel is the good news, the message about Jesus and which they received and believed – but had gotten off track from. They had messed up a lot of things in their life and church, and he had told them a lot of ways to fix it, but above all, if there was one thing that was going to bring them back from the brink it would be this: Remember the Gospel.
What does that mean? It means that even though that when Paul was with them he had taught them a lot about God, the Bible, life, and morality, there was one message that was over, under and around all of these things: the Gospel. One foundational message that everything else stood on: that God became a man, died, was buried and rose again.
The Foundation of Everything
If you’ve ever been on a sports team or been a coach or done anything at a competitive level, there’s one thing that you keep being told. Whether you are playing intermural floor hockey or competing for the Stanley Cup in the NHL there is one thing that stays consistent: “The Fundamentals”. When things go wrong at the highest level, what do they say: “We weren’t sticking to our game. We got too fancy. We forgot the fundamentals.” When they’re asked how they’re going to win, they never say, “Trick plays and fancy footwork”, right? No, that’s why the interviews and “keys to the game” are so repetitive and boring: “Stay focused, solid goaltending, get pucks on the net, execute the plays, do the fundamentals.”
That’s kind of what Paul is doing here. He just wrote them a huge, complicated letter addressing a lot of subjects, but then at the end he says, “Guys, none of this matters if you forget the fundamentals, the basics, the foundation of everything: that God loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to take your punishment, to die on the cross, to be dead and buried for three days, and then rise again on the third day. Everything else starts to make sense once you get that into your heart.”
And it does! Pick an issue. Pick a problem. Pick a crisis. Maybe you have a broken heart. Bad self-image issues. Maybe you live with anxiety, fear, depression, or anger problems. Maybe you are a child of divorce or were abused. Maybe you were the abuser, you did the bad stuff, you hurt people. Maybe you are lonely, or overwhelmed, or exhausted. Maybe you are childless, or your body is sick, you have needs, or you are going through a confusing situation.
It’s in these moments that our souls want to cry out to God for help, but then we stop ourselves because we aren’t sure if God listens to one person’s problems, if God cares about us, if God is real, if God is kind. Does God care about my feelings, how I look, whether I have friends? Does God know what it’s like to be anxious, afraid, sad, or angry? Does God know what it means to be abandoned and abused? What does God think of people who have done terrible, selfish things? What does God think of abusers? Are they beyond hope? Does God know what it’s like to be lonely and exhausted and overwhelmed? Has God ever been bent over with emotion, so exhausted that He couldn’t stand, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” to the point of sweating blood? Has he faced political problems, religious problems, relationship problems, sickness, tragedy, fear, pain, and death? The answer is yes. Jesus knows what that’s like.
Isaiah 53:3 describes him as, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Jesus, the Son of God to whom all glory is due, gave it up. Why?
Why go through that? Why leave heaven, leave the Father, leave the perfection of beauty and the worship of angels to face a life of pain, rejection, shame, betrayal, and crucifixion?
Isaiah 53:4 continues with the answer:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Jesus, the Great Shepherd, saw us as sheep that had gone astray, lost in the dark woods, torn to pieces by the wolves of temptation and sin, dead by our own choices – and then, the Great Shepherd became a sheep. He came into the dark, faced the wolves, and traded places with us. He died so we could live. In heaven he God has no grief, no sorrow, but Jesus came to earth to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows. All the wrath God had against sinners – all his hatred for those who had insulted Him, blasphemed Him, broke His laws, spread hate, destroyed others with their lust, stole from Him and each other, lied and murdered – would be placed on Jesus. Why?
For the love of sinners. He did it so it there would be no one who would not have grace available to them – no matter how bad they are, no matter what they’ve done – no one would be lost forever if they would admit they are a sinner, turn away from their sin, turn toward Jesus, and ask forgiveness in His name.
When we start at the gospel, building everything we know about God and this world on the foundation of the story of Jesus – when we start to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18), then everything else starts to come clear.
Are you loved and valuable? Is there someone who sees you as beautiful and worthy of kindness? Yes, so much God traded His one and only Son for you. Is there someone that knows what is going on in the depths of your heart, has faced the same issue perfectly and is willing to help you? Yes, Jesus stands ready at every moment to hear your prayer and help you. Is there someone who has seen the bad you have done, the sin you’ve committed, the hurt you’ve caused, and will still forgive you, clean you up, welcome you into His arms, and give you a new mission in life? Yes. Jesus died for your sins so you could have a new life in him.
And this understanding, this truth that we call the Gospel, fills us up and then spills onto others. How can we forgive someone who hurt us? By realizing how much we have been forgiven by God. How can we know our lives have meaning and purpose? Because God’s word says as long as we have breath, God has something for us to do. How can we know that our sufferings, the worst years of our lives, weren’t wasted? How can we find meaning in such deep pain? Because of the cross and the empty tomb. The worst day in human history, the day sinners tortured and killed the most perfect, most valuable person to ever live – the most unjust, cruel, terrible day ever, led to the greatest miracle, the most important day in history, as God attributed Jesus death to us. When Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday we see that the most terrible day become the most glorious day as man’s greatest enemies were utterly destroyed.
Look back at 1 Corinthians 15 all the way down to verse 54 and see the power of the empty tomb:
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Without Jesus we are perishable, swallowed up by sin, stung by death, overpowered by temptation, disloyal, changeable, fruitless and labouring in vain. But when we turn our lives to Jesus, everything changes: The fear of death becomes powerless. We are no longer slaves to temptation. We become stable, abounding in the knowledge that so long as we are following Jesus, no matter what happens, the labor is not in vain. Or in the words of John Newton from Amazing Grace,
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
But How Can We Know For Sure?
This all sounds well and good, but how can we know for sure this is true? Is it all based in our feelings? Are we simply to take it on faith? Is it all about that tingle in the spine, that twist in the gut? How do we know this isn’t just a comforting thought that someone came up to give weak, stupid people comfort?
Turn back to 1 Corinthians 15 and let’s read in verse 3 again,
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
We can know this is true for two reasons: First, because this was all “in accordance with the scripture” and second, because there were so many witnesses to the empty tomb.
In Accordance with Scripture
The passages I read to you from Isaiah 53, which accurately describe the events of Good Friday, were written almost 700 years before Jesus was born. God’s plan of salvation, Jesus dying on the cross and rising again, wasn’t an afterthought, wasn’t a way of making a bad situation into a good one – it was the plan since the beginning. We read about the coming of Jesus in prefigures and prophecies in every book of the Old Testament – from Genesis to Malachi. This shows the power and accuracy of the Bible.
Nothing is ever out of control for God. Even the worst day in history was planned out ahead of time and told about in scriptures. God gave His people hope by telling them how they would one day be saved. One way we can know that all of this is true is because of the Bible. It holds up to scrutiny and shows us that God is trustworthy and has a plan.
The Empty Tomb
The second evidence that everything I’m saying about Jesus is true is how many witnesses there were to crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is why the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday are both of “first importance”.
When this was written Cephas, also known as Peter, was still alive. So were the other apostles. You could literally ask them what they saw. But not only them, hundreds of other people saw Jesus alive after being dead and buried, and most of them were alive too. Jesus’ own family including James, his brother whom he grew up with, worshipped Jesus as the Risen Lord. (Consider what it would take for you to worship a member of your family as Creator of the Universe.) And Paul, who was an enemy to Christians, who hunted them down, tortured and even killed Christians, met the living Jesus and then gave His life to preaching the gospel.
This is no small thing. People don’t die for a lie. The apostles didn’t make this up so they would get fame, fortune, comfort, and power. No, instead they were despised, rejected, impoverished, faced many dangers, chased down, and then tortured and killed for sharing the story of Jesus. People don’t do for a story they made up.
And since that day, many, many more, have met the living Jesus. They have experienced the love of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the friendship of Jesus – not merely as feeling, but as fact. People have lived and died for Jesus – not because it was their “religion” or their “culture” – but because they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
My invitation to you this morning is to simply give your life to Jesus. Admit that you are a sinner, that you have broken God’s law, that you stand guilty before a righteous God, and that there is no amount of good you can do to cancel it all out. Once you admit that, ask for forgiveness from God for all you have done. Accept that Jesus died on the cross for that sin, that He traded Himself for you, that He did all the work necessary to save you, and accept His forgiveness. Agree that Jesus really did rise from the dead, conquering sin and death once and for all and that because of your faith in Him, death and sin have no more power over you.
And then, once you have done that – you need your make Him your Lord. Christians, this is a message to you too. Step off the throne of your life and put Jesus on it. Take your plans, your designs, your work, your family, your whole life, and give it to Jesus. Bow to Him as your Lord, your Boss, your King. The Bible says He already is your King anyway. There will come a day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10–11) Today is the day you are invited to do it by your own choice. Will you accept Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord?
This week Steve shares some scripture and devotional thoughts about Jesus as the Coming King. Advent is a special time of year when Christians remember the incarnation of the Son of God at Christmas and prepare our hearts for the time when Jesus will come again. As we’ve done each year, Carnivore Theology is taking a break from our usual schedule of hot topics and interviews to share some personal thoughts, meditations, sermons and reflections on this special time of year.
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People, as much as they are creatures of habit, are also addicted to novelty. I think it’s part of the coming of sin in the world that humans not only hate change but we get bored if things stay the same for too long. Have you noticed this?
We have things we consistently like– traditions, foods, favourite toys, certain authors, or styles of movie – and we will get quite put out if someone messes with them, right? But then, at some point, we look at that thing and we’re just sick of it and want something else. We wait all year for some special Christmas treat, but after a couple days we don’t ever want to see it again – but somehow it’s not Christmas if it’s not there.
This happens in pop-culture all the time. Right now, in Hollywood, a lot of people are wondering if we’ve reached peak saturation with superhero movies. No one was making them 10 years ago and this year we had 6 of them, and together they made over 4.5 Billion dollars. But everyone is wondering when the bubble will burst. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. This happened years ago with Westerns too. First, there were none, then they were being cranked out by the dozens, and then audiences got tired of them.
It’s that same give and take we just talked about. We love it for a while but end up getting tired of seeing and hearing the same story over and over, so we want something new. But ironically, it’s not even that new. If you think about it, there’s a lot of similarities between the old westerns and the new superhero movies, right?
There are clear distinctions between good and evil. The problems are usually solved with some mashup of personal sacrifice and violence. The archetypes are similar. There’s the very good guys, like the lawful sheriff and then the antihero outlaws. The good guys are usually traditional North Americans and the bad guys are often people with different coloured skin – then it was red or brown, now it’s purple. And then, at some point, instead of lone ranger defending one place, they put a whole bunch of them in the same movie.
So, it’s not that we get tired of the story – what we get tired of the package the story comes in. We still want a story about good conquering evil, heroes overcoming villains, the strong protecting the weak, and people sacrificially working together for a common cause that is greater than them. We just want the packaging to change.
Bored with The Christmas Story
Christians believe that the Christmas story is one of the most important stories in history and that we need to keep telling it. The incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby, announced by angels and miracles, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, fulfilling thousands of years of prophecy, is a really big deal – but, after so many years of telling it, we somehow get tired of the story.
I think this is how we end up with so many retellings of the Christmas story from so many different perspectives. We see it from the perspective of Mary and Joseph, like in the Bible, but after that we get bored. So then we watch it from the perspective of the Shepherds, King Herod, or even the Wise Men (who weren’t even there when Jesus was born). But then we get tired of that, because it keeps coming around to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in some cave or barn somewhere and we want even newer packaging, so we stretch things. Then we get the story from a few more obscure characters that don’t have a lot of backstory, like the Angels, the citizens of Bethlehem, or the man running the overfilled Inn.
But then that gets boring, so where else do we turn? Well, then it’s time to start really getting creative by changing the story a bit, making it funnier, sending people back in time to have adventures – and then finally of course, we come to where we are today – a non-Christian celebrity voiced, comedic version of the Birth of Jesus from the perspective of some random animals who are tasked with using their animal kung-fu skills to save Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And the main song they use in the trailer is by Stevie Wonder and is about how what Christmas really means is “lots of mistletoe, kissing, pretty trees, and snow”.
Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade because I like stupid Christmas stuff too. I’ve told you guys over the past month how tired I am of disliking things, right? My personal motto has become “Take serious stuff serious and not serious stuff not serious”, and I’ve always liked silly stuff anyway. I think dumb songs about red-nosed reindeer and magically animated snowmen are fun. I think that watching a movie with Santa in it is fine, the Grinch is awesome, and having an upside down tree is cool, so whatever.
But, from a pastoral perspective, I think there is a spiritual danger to getting bored by the actual Christmas story and concentrating not only on the peripherals, but everything else. Why do I think this? Because the current problem of the day isn’t that we have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are too familiar with it, but that we’ve spend so much time on the edges of it that we’ve forgotten the actual story.
We don’t know the prophecies being fulfilled, why it was in Bethlehem, why Joseph being of the house of David matters, who Gabriel was, the actual meaning of the name Jesus means, or the other titles He’s given in the Christmas story. We’ve lost the drama of the virgin being with child and then almost divorced and what an incredible person Mary was. We feature Shepherds and Wise Men in our Christmas play, but have forgotten Zachariah and Elizabeth whose story is interwoven with, and takes up just as much space in scripture, as the birth of Jesus. It is not that we are too familiar with the Christmas story, it is that we think we are too familiar, but many have actually forgotten it.
The Nativity Story
Turn with me and let’s read Luke 1:26–55. We talked a bit about John the Baptist last week, the forerunner of Jesus, and if you scan back a little bit you’ll see that his story is told first, before Mary and Joseph are even introduced. If you recall, the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth was the natural place to start the story after the last lines of Malachi 4, because John the Baptist was the one who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:11; Luke 1:17). The story of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist are interwoven in the first chapters of Luke. But for today we are going to start with the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel. Look at Luke 1:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’
And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
There’s a lot packed into that part, some of it is pretty amazing.
It begins, “In the sixth month”. That’s the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not the sixth month of the year, because it’s tying the two stories together. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, an angel also came to one of her relatives, a young girl named Mary. Gabriel connects these two women together by informing Mary that God is already at work and has worked miracles to prepare for Jesus to come. Mary’s worry is to wonder how this is going to come about since she’s not married, nor has she ever been with a man before, and the angels response is, “The Holy Spirit will take care of that part. Do you know your old, barren, relative Elizabeth? She’s pregnant too. Nothing’s impossible with God!”
Mary and Elizabeth would have a very special relationship. The much older woman would be a great support to the nervous, young Mary whose life had been completely shaken up by God’s gift. In fact, Mary almost immediately goes running to Elizabeth for support.
Look at verse 39:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
We have no indication that Elizabeth knew Mary was coming, and it was unlikely in that culture that Mary’s pregnancy news had travelled that far so quickly, so it must have been so encouraging to hear these words of prophecy about her obedience, God’s plan, and the truth of who her baby would be coming from someone she knew and trusted.
The mother of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of Jesus, and the mother of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, coming together to care for, support, and wonder at God’s work together. It’s a beautiful picture – one I don’t see very often in many Christmas stories.
And what is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s encouragement? One of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture: one that we call “The Magnificat”. She says,
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World
That’s a beautiful song of faith from a young woman in a very difficult situation. There’s so much happening in this story, but I want to point at just one thing I think we can learn from today. I want to notice that God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Up Our World.
The coming of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, was the best news in the world, but it wasn’t news that made everyone’s life comfortable. Jesus coming into the world sent shockwaves everywhere and caused a lot of problems for a lot of people – but it was still God’s perfect plan and was the way He would work out our salvation.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, that meant they were engaged but not living together, and both of them would have to wait a year and remain pure while they got their house in order for the marriage. Jesus’ birth messed all that up. Now Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, Joseph almost divorced her, and there was no doubt – even though it doesn’t say it in the story – that the family faced fallout from that for a long time. We know from second century writings that the Pharisees wrote in the Talmud that Jesus was the son of adultery. Another anti-Christian writer of the second century said Mary cheated on Joseph with a Roman soldier. Some people even take some of names the Pharisees called Jesus during their arguments as indication that there was a rumour that Jesus was an illegitimate child (John 8:41; Matthew 13:55)
Not only Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down, but everyone around Jesus. Remember that after the Wise Men went to King Herod his response was to murder all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old (Matthew 2:16) causing Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to flee and live in a foreign land for a few years.
The faithful words of Elizabeth and Mary stir our hearts, but we must remember the context. The coming of the Lord, the long awaited Saviour, is good news, but it brought much trouble to those who God blessed to be part of the story. Mary declares that God will feed the weak, save the powerless, bless the nation – but it doesn’t happen immediately. Mary declares that she is blessed, and certainly was, blessed beyond all other women, but at times that blessing brought a lot of trouble.
And when baby Jesus was only 40 days old, and comes to the temple to be dedicated, what does Mary hear from Simeon? “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34–35). The greatest blessing in the world comes with a sword to the heart.
Hebrews 11 says faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I’m amazed at young Mary’s strength and even more amazed at her faith. She is troubled by what she hears from the Angel but doesn’t argue or demand a sign. She accepts God’s plan immediately – with her only hesitation being a quite natural wondering about how it’s going to work. She relents to God’s plan because she is sure she can trust Him. She doesn’t understand, but believes is convinced God knows what He’s doing.
Over and over, from the moment Jesus’ came into her life, everything got more complicated and more frightening. There’s the nervousness of being pregnant. Joseph almost divorces her. Then she walks three days to Elizabeth’s house and when she gets back it’s not long until she’s big and almost nine months pregnant, and then there’s the census requiring her and Joseph to travel a 10 day journey to Bethlehem! Then there’s nowhere to stay and she ends up giving birth in a stable and laying her baby in a feeding trough, maybe with people helping, maybe not. Then there’s some weird shepherds visiting and a month later Simeon’s bad news. Then, when Jesus is only 2 years old, they have to flee the country for a few years on fear of death, staying away until the heat dies down.
Sometimes God’s plan for our life is as complicated and troubling as it is amazing. Mary’s faith was in something she hoped for – the Salvation of the world through her Son Jesus, but it took years and years, from the manger to the cross to the resurrection, for her to start to understand God’s real plan – and then some troubled years as a persecuted Christian after that – and sure, maybe she had moments of doubt (Mark 3:21) (though so did John the Baptist!) – but overwhelmingly we have the story of a woman who trusted God, trusted Jesus, kept the faith, and knew that no matter the trouble, believed God knew what He was doing.
For us today, this application is pretty clear and important. God’s plan of salvation is amazing and life changing. Having Jesus in our lives is an incredible blessing, but His coming also stirs everything up. There’s nothing like the knowledge and hope that comes from being a Christian – to know we are saved from sin and death, forgiven of everything we’ve ever done wrong, adopted into God’s family, and secure in Him forever, is amazing and it is right for us to worship and be excited about that – but it doesn’t mean that our life is necessarily going to get easier and more comfortable. In fact, the more we follow Jesus, the more we act in faith, the more our life is going to look like His – and He had a lot of trouble, right?
But that’s why we turn to scripture and prayer (I’m sure Mary did a lot of praying!) and other believers (like Mary did), because it is how we are reminded that God is faithful. For every trouble that came to Mary, God had a way to save her. When she was young, alone, and under great stress from Gabriel’s news, God provided Elizabeth. When Mary was about to get divorced, Joseph had a dream. When the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, God warned them to leave. When it was time to come home, God brought them. Mary was never in the wrong place because she and Joseph were always following God’s leading. Sure it was tough, but God always saw them through.
That’s the simple message today. First, don’t get bored with the Christmas story and miss out on what the Bible actually says, because in doing so you will miss out on the best parts that help our faith in Jesus to grow. And second, remember that whenever we follow Jesus, exercise our faith, step out and do what God has asked us to do, it’s going to bring trials and troubles and shake up our world, but that’s normal and God has it under control. Our job is to trust Jesus each step of the way, lean on each other, and keep going, accepting whatever method He provides to help us.
Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament and shines like a beacon in a dark place. And those who first heard it really needed a beacon because even though things weren’t at their darkest, it still wasn’t a great time in the life of Israel.
Malachi was a prophet that lived about 400 years before Jesus and 100 years after the Babylonian exile. He came on the scene in the years after Nehemiah and Ezra had already rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and reinstituted the sacrificial system, but things were still pretty bleak. Though things were going ok for the generation that had come back to their homeland of Judah things were far from perfect. The prophets that had encouraged them to rebuild their temple had given promises of blessing, renewal, expansion, prosperity, peace, that would come when God’s glorious presence would once again come to the temple.
But when they looked around at their life they were disillusioned – it wasn’t anything like that. Sure, they were no longer being oppressed in a foreign land, but the glory days of expansion under King David and the peace and prosperity under King Solomon were long distant memories. Now they were the least important territory in Persia under Artaxerxes, were barely getting by, suffering from droughts and crop failure, and were constantly fighting with their neighbours.
It wasn’t just the living conditions and lack of plenty that bothered them, there was also a spiritual drought. Sure, the temple was rebuilt, but it was much smaller and spiritually inferior to the great Temple of Solomon. God had shown up to help Esther save the nation and Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem, but they thought that once the final stone was laid at the temple that the miracles would automatically rain down on them, but it seemed that God’s presence had all but left their nation. Even the Holy of Holies seemed deserted.
Of course, the problem wasn’t that God was gone, but that their hearts were far from him. Their worship was lethargic and empty of love or passion. They constantly complained about God’s lack of love and how he was unjustly punishing them. They even withheld their tithes because they were worried they wouldn’t have enough. It can be summarized in Malachi 3:13-15, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
Disappointed with God
Have you ever felt this way? What’s the point of following God? Where’s the gain in following all God’s rules, doing things His way, which is almost always harder, and then things just getting worse? God is the “Lord of hosts”, the “God of gods”, the “God of angel armies”, but where is He? The arrogant, self-willed, atheistic, non-believers all seem like they are doing better than us. And people who are outright committing evil, mocking God to His face, are getting away with it! What’s the point in believing in God when He never does anything to make our lives any better?
That was the attitude of the Israelites during the time of Malachi, and it’s the attitude of many today. They were tired of waiting, tired of suffering, tired of not having enough, tired of seeing evil get away with it, tired of calling themselves the people of God and then losing every other battle to those which they used to conquer easily. God wasn’t blessing anything they were doing, so they blamed God for all their problems.
But Malachi doesn’t allow for that. Malachi comes to God’s defense. He reminds them that God is more than happy to bless them, but refuses to bless their sin. He reminds them that God was the one that chose Israel and has stayed committed to them, showing them great love even when they had completely turned their backs on Him, and then restored them back to their land. And what was their response? To worship and praise and obey and give thanks and take care of each other? No… it was to grumble, complain and dishonour God by bringing worthless, impure offerings – to withhold their worship, love, and obedience – to commit sexual sins, divorce each other, and marry unbelievers – to dishonour and live unjustly towards one another – and to live as hypocrites who say one thing and do another.
He tells them that they aren’t receiving God’s blessing right now because their hearts and lives are a mess… which is a story we’ve all heard so many times, right? Almost to the point we’re tired of it. I know I can start to feel that way.
God, where’s the good news!? Why is everything so hard? Marriage is hard, and parenting is hard, and getting older is hard, and being young is hard, and being sick is hard, and staying healthy is hard, and our spiritual life is hard, and there are so many temptations, and there is so much pain and uncertainty – and that’s just the tip our own little iceberg. This world is a whole other thing. I don’t understand what the government are doing, corporations seem to be getting more powerful and sometimes more evil, people seem to be getting either more gullible or more selfish. Nature itself seems to be going crazy as people panic about climate change, natural disasters, and species extinction. And then we have crazy scientists who are doing all sorts of terrible things like creating human embryos and then destroying them, messing with human genetics, cutting off heads and putting them on other people’s bodies – it’s like a sci-fi movie out there right now!
Our spirits cry out to God, we hit our knees, we cry out to God and nothing seems to happen. We read our bibles, say our prayers, go to church, and nothing gets any better. Sure, maybe we’re distracted for an hour or two, but invariably it all comes crashing back on us. Or worse, we come into church hoping for an uplifting message with some answers and just hear once again how our problems are somehow all our fault – and we go home feeling even more miserable. Seems to be the same story over and over, right?
Then it’s easy to slip into the mindset that Malachi was writing about: What’s the point of all this religious stuff? What’s the point of believing in God if things are just going to be miserable anyway? Where is God when all this insanity is going on? We hear stories about amazing things happening in India, China, and Florida – but what about Beckwith, or Ottawa? And like Israel, we get disillusioned and disappointed with God and start to back off our faith.
Instead of tithing as we should, we keep a little more back each week because we are worried about the budget. We think, “God hasn’t given us enough money, so how can we afford to tithe?”
We start to skip church events, skip Sundays, drop out of ministries – after all, there’s lots of work to be done and attending church hasn’t really produced anything other than guilt and broken promises about “finding joy in suffering”.
We start to indulge a little more in the things that bring us temporary joy – porn, drinking, drugs, food, violence, entertainment – and it gives us that little rush we weren’t getting when we were trying to connect with God. Sure, it produces some shame… but if we keep at it we know that the shame will eventually be quieter.
We pull away from our Christian friends, stop going to small groups, stop calling our accountability partner, stop listening to Christian music, because it all just reminds us about how everyone else in the world is either just as miserable or better off– and I don’t want to hear from either one of those people.
So we head to the doctor in hopes of a medical solution, and they are more than happy to give us something that numbs our feelings and forces us into unconsciousness at night.
Sure, we still call ourselves Christians, but we stop reading the Bible because it just produces more guilt and we rarely pray, except to complain to God about how unfair life is, how He’s not doing His job, how if He’d just fix things then we’d come back to doing what we’re supposed to. But the prayer bounces off the roof, nothing changes, and we start to contemplate not only why we started to believe in the first place, but whether God even exists at all.
It would be far easier if He didn’t, we think. If God didn’t exist, then nothing matters. There are no consequences, no Hell, just oblivion. That, by definition is hopelessness, and that’s not only where a lot of people are today, but where Israel was headed during the time of Malachi. By the time we reach the birth of Christ, except for a few people, hopelessness had almost totally engulfed the nation.
Where to Find Hope
What is the cure for hopelessness? The simple answer is hope. “Hope that does not disappoint”, as Romans 5:5 puts it. What message does Malachi give to these people whose faith was falling apart and who were losing hope? Look at the very end of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament. Open up to Malachi 3:16. After all the complaining and faithless and disobedient had had their say against God, another group immerges:
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.”
Pause there a second. In this nation that had all but fallen away from God, there was one group that was still faithful, one group who had not bowed their knee to another god, one that had continued to remain obedient despite all the troubles they had seen. How?
Look what they did. They “spoke with one another”. I’m sure most of you have gone camping and had a camp fire. These days they make you buy your wood from the store at the campground, and it’s really expensive, so you really need to enjoy every little piece. You start with a nice fire, but as the night wears on, the wood burns down, the logs get smaller, until there is only one little charred block, with a tiny flame, surrounded by orange embers. So what do you do? You stoke the fire, right? When the flames are dying down, and you’re all out of wood, what do you need to do to make sure it doesn’t go out? You bring the embers together, you keep the flame alive by bringing the warmth together. In order to kill a fire, you spread it out, right? To keep it going, you pull it together.
In the same way, when the fire of faith is burning low, believers should be drawing together to keep the flames of faith alive. And what did they do? They spoke with one another. What did they speak about?
Hebrews 10:23-25 shows believers who were in a very similar situation. Oppressive government, dangerous times, losing hope, and it says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
They confessed their hope to one another: “What brings you hope this week? How have you seen God this week? What do you remember of God’s covenant to us? How has He been faithful to you this week?”
What else did they speak about? They stirred one another up to love and good works. “How have you been doing this week? How can we help you? How can we help others? Have you been caught in sin? How are you doing with forgiveness?”
What else did they speak about? They encouraged one another. “I know you feel miserable right now, but you’re doing great. I know you feel lonely but I’m here. I know you feel your prayers aren’t answered, but I assure you God is listening and doing more than you know. I know you feel stuck, but I see such wonderful potential in you. God is doing something amazing with you and I can see it. Don’t give up!
Another group in Ephesus was going through a similar situation, living in evil days, and the Apostle Paul says this in Ephesians 5:15-21, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…” Which all makes sense right? Sinning by drinking or doing drugs isn’t really going to help, right? But look what he says next, because it’s really important. Essentially, he says what Malachi and Hebrews says:
Verse 19, “…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
How do you keep your hope up when things are getting hopeless? When the fires are going out in your heart? Satan will tell you to get alone. Turn away from God, away from friends, away from prayer, away from church, away from your spouse and children, to get alone – so you are an easier target. What does God say? Not just “Speak to each other.” But “sing to each other!”
He says, if you are down and feeling hopeless and want to feel more hopeful and closer to God, get together and sing to each other! Sing your praise, sing your thanks, sing about God, sing about Jesus… but not just to feel better, but out of submission and reverence for Jesus. When we sing songs of faith together our hearts knit together, and then fall before Jesus.
How do you fire up dying coals? Blow on them! So how do you encourage yourself when you feel your faith is dying? Draw together with other believers and speak and sing!
Elijah is John the Baptist
Let’s close by reading the end of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament, starting in 3:16 again,
“Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. ‘They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”
I can almost hear the words of the faithful in response to this, “Yes God! We will keep meeting together, keep remind one another, keep speaking your name and singing your songs. We believe you will completely save us one day. But when, God? When will you come and deal with the evil once and for all? When will you come and raise up your people like the sun? When will healing come? When will you tread down the wicked and cause us to leap for joy?
And God tells them the sign to wait for in 3:5 that will kick off this glorious time,
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Who was this one that would come right before the “great and awesome day of the Lord”? Who would come to prepare the land so it wouldn’t be “utterly destroyed”? According to the Bible and the words of Jesus it was John the Baptist, who would come and proclaim Jesus’ coming as Son of God and Saviour of the world. (Matthew 11:7-14; Luke 1:17).
Choose to Meet
Next week we enter into the Advent season, the season of waiting and preparing ourselves for Christmas. I know that for some of you this is a wonderful time that you are looking forward to, and that there is much to be cheerful and thankful for. And I know that for some of you, you’ve got so much going on in your life and in your souls that even the idea of celebrating Christmas seems like more of a chore than a blessing.
My encouragement to both of you is to keep doing the things that will point you and others to hope in Jesus. If you are having a good season right now, then that’s great, come to the church events, host people in your homes, make excuses for people to get together and invite those from outside your usual circles so more people can encourage one another. And if you are going through a struggling season right now, then I encourage you to clear your schedule and be willing to accept these forthcoming invitations so you can be with your fellow believers more and more. Honestly decide in your heart that you will make your church family and various Christian events a priority, to meet with Christian friends, and to find ways to sing and talk with each other – as medicine for your soul! If you are sliding into hopelessness, that’s the recipe for hope – and there’s no more perfect time of year to make excuses to get together to speak and sing with one another than Christmas time, right?
 Acosta, D. R. (2016). Lord of Hosts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press. & ESV Study Bible Malachi Introduction.
The Gospel Truth
Today I want to talk about the “Gospel”. That word has been hijacked a bit by our culture so I want, at the outset, to clarify what that word even means. The term “The Gospel Truth” has actually become an idiom in our culture – meaning a group of words that have a meaning you can’t get from the words themselves. Like “it’s raining cats and dogs” (which means there’s a lot of rain coming down), or “beating round the bush” (which means to avoid talking about something), the words “the gospel truth” have now become idiomatic for something that is supposed to be unquestionably true.
A quick Google search for showed people using the phrase in concert reviews (“she loves singing, that’s the gospel truth”. scientific studies (“don’t take this study as the gospel truth”), marriage advice (“here’s some advice, but don’t take it as the gospel truth), and of course, attacks against mainstream media (“CNN, NBC, ABC all present their claims as the gospel truth”). It seems to either a way to double down on how truthful you are, or to squirm out of having people totally buy what you are saying.
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word EVANGELION, which is where we get our word “evangelism” or “evangelist”. An “evangelist” is someone that tells the “good news”. The world simply means “good news”. When Mark begins telling the story of Jesus, he starts with the word EVANGELION: This is the good news. At the time the word meant any kind of good news. 2000 years ago if someone knocked and said “Have you heard the good news?”, you wouldn’t immediately think they were religious, but simply thought it could be a good sale down at the camel emporium or they just found some money in their sock drawer. [Did ancient Greeks have sock drawers?] Today, however, the word “Gospel” or “good news” is synonymous with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, when knocks on your door or stops you in the street and says “have you heard the good news?” almost everyone immediately knows this person is going to say something about Jesus!
My least favourite example of culture appropriating the word “gospel” is from the old Disney movie “Hercules” which opens by presenting the Greek myths with gospel-style, church music, using the hook on the chorus “and that’s the gospel truth”. It’s annoying to me that they would use what sounds like upbeat church music to present myths. It puts the Bible at the same historical accuracy level as Homer’s Odyssey. Which simply isn’t true.
Not a Myth
Christians don’t follow myths. What we believe is not based on philosophy or stories that make us feel good. Instead, we believe the true gospel, the real gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, really happened. Jesus life, death, and resurrection were the plan of salvation, the gospel, that God had written since the beginning of time. We stake our lives and our eternities on it.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 the Apostle Paul writes to the church about the importance of remembering that the resurrection of Jesus really happened. He says:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He’s telling the Christians that no matter what happens in this world, the reason we can have hope is because of the historical reality that Jesus really was raised from the dead. He reminds them that this is what was taught to them, this is what they believed, and when the world around them starts to shake, this is what they need to “hold fast to” – not because it is a nice story, but because it’s true. God’s plan, “according to the scriptures”, was that Jesus would die on a Roman cross. He really was buried and He really did rise three days later. And how could they be sure? Ask Cephas and the apostles, who were still around. If you don’t believe them ask one of the other five hundred witnesses who are still around.
Some people had come to the church and said, “That’s impossible! People don’t come back from the dead!” To which Christians reply, “No duh. That’s why it’s so special! That’s why we have a great big celebration about it every year! Because it’s a miracle.”
But some of the people in the Corinthian church had forgotten the good news were starting to lose faith – and this was only 30 years after the resurrection! As they lost their faith in the resurrection they started to lose hope, which meant the foundation of their lives started to wobble, which caused them to flail about looking for something to make the world make sense, and they were starting to wander into sin, hopelessness, fear, worldliness, sadness, greed, and anything else that would distract them or some level of control – and their pastor, Paul, blows the whistle and calls everyone back to the centre so they can do a big reset.
I’m an Edmonton Oiler fan and I’m very glad to see my team back in the playoffs this year. It’s been a long time. But I still remember 2006 when they made the trade for a big defenseman named Chris Pronger who took the team to the playoffs. He was a huge guy with lots of experience on a team that no one thought would be able to win. I remember watching as the Oilers would get behind, start chasing the puck, start freaking out, and then 6 foot 6 inch, 220 pound Chris Pronger would get the puck, look around at the rest of the guys and reset the whole team. It happened time and again. The young, inexperienced guys, would be buzzing around, and Pronger would basically stop the game and give everyone a chance to get back to where they needed to be.
That’s what Paul did to the church. He stopped their buzzing and reset the whole church. “Guys, remember the truth! Remember what you heard! Remember what you believe and why you believe it! Put down the idols, sin, greed, fear, and foolishness and remember that God is real, Jesus has risen, the Holy Spirit is active, and you are His!”
He goes on to say in verse 12 that if Jesus has not be raised from the dead, if the resurrection isn’t true, then there is no point in being a Christian – life has no hope. He says: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
That’s what we are proclaiming today. My message and the message of this church is the same. “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” and therefore we have hope. Adam sinned and brought death to the world – but Jesus’s death made it so that we could be alive again.
I opened the Good Friday service with a prayer that I want to read part of again because I found it so powerful. It said, “It was on the cross that grace removed our burdens and heaped them onto Jesus, where he was made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for our sake…. Christ was all anguish that we might be all joy, rejected so we could be accepted, cast off so we could be brought in, trodden down as an enemy so we could be welcomed as friends, surrendered to hell’s worst so we could attain heaven’s best, wounded that we could be healed, thirsty so we would be able to drink, tormented so we could find comfort, made shame so we might inherit glory, entered darkness that we might have eternal light. Jesus Christ, our Saviour, wept so that our tears might be wiped away, groaned in agony so we could have an endless song to sing, endured all pain so that we could have unfading health, bore a crown of thorns so we could have imperishable crowns of glory, life, and righteousness. He bowed his head so that ours could be lifted to heaven, he experienced reproach so we could be accepted, closed his eyes in death so we could gaze on the unclouded brightness of God. He died so we could live forever.”
The world seems upside down right now, but, Christians around the world proclaim today: remember the gospel! In a world awash with bad news, and a life full of frustration, remember the good news.
We all need some good news these days, don’t we? But for some reason, the media doesn’t really like reporting “good news”. Can you imagine turning on the TV to your favourite news program and hearing only good news for 30 minutes straight? I can’t even fathom what that would be like.
How about instead of saying “1 in 6 people lie on their tax form”, they could say, “Did you know that 83% of people are very honest and do a great job on their taxes every year!” Instead of hearing about how the legal system is failing, the police have problems, and the bad guys are getting out of jail on a technicality, we heard stories like “The police saved countless lives this month by giving out tickets to people who drive too fast, took care of special needs people by giving out tickets, arrested lots and lots of bad guys, saved many families from harm, and visited a whole bunch of schools to help children have a better life.” Instead of hearing about the crooked bankers, wouldn’t it be nice to hear that like 99.9% of the people at the bank aren’t crooked and are just trying to do a good job. That’d be a nice change, wouldn’t it?
I would love to turn on the TV and see some positive stories: “This just in… 20 kittens were born today – here’s some pictures. Baskin Robins has a deal on waffle cones – here’s a coupon. And now for the weather: Hey, the sun us up, it’s nice outside, there are flowers blooming in the park, and everyone should go outside and play. Now for the sports: Almost every athlete in every sport practiced really hard, played exactly by the rules, worked well with their team mates, made lots and lots of money, donated some of it to charity, and the vast majority are still very happily married. Oh, and half the teams won their games! And now for entertainment news from Hollywood: there are actually a bunch of fun movies to take your kids too … and some of them are in 3D.”
Yes, I know that life sucks sometimes and everyone wants us to freak out all the time. ISIS is killing people, Christians are being blown up while they sit in their churches, Syria is gassing civilian woman and children, the US just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in their arsenal on Afghanistan. Add to that the incredibly difficult things that we are all facing in our day-to-day lives – addiction, abuse, illness, pain, loss, depression, anxiety, sadness… and it’s easy to start to feel hopeless.
As the world presses in and our foundations start to shake, we also start to flail about looking for something to grab onto to steady ourselves. Even committed Christians find themselves wondering what God is doing, where Jesus is, why we are going through this, and we start to grasp for immediate answers and instant comfort. Our fight or flight instincts kick in and we want to rail against those around us, or do anything for a moment’s peace – even if we know it will harm us.
But we need more, don’t we? We need more than just a quick fix or a boost of good news from the world around us – we need something ultimate, some piece of good news that we can build our whole lives on. Something that, when all is lost, the world is dark, the demons are swirling, we feel desperately hungry, angry, lonely, tired and sad, that holds us fast. Some people call this a metanarrative – an overarching story that gives meaning to everything. And that metanarrative, that overarching meaning, that good news is found in the resurrection of Jesus.
What the Good News Means
Some of you know that my family has been through a rough time lately. And I know from talking to you that many of you are also facing some very difficult situations personally, emotionally, financially, relationally. And so I want to share with you, from a bit of a personal side, what the Good News means to us – what it means to me – especially during dark times.
On Easter Sunday we wake up early, put on our itchy pants and fancy dresses, come to church and celebrate, sing about, and talk about the resurrection of Jesus. And we sometimes phrase it as “God did this for the world. God loves everybody.” But today I want to close with what the good news means to me… and hopefully you can resonate with it.
I could do this in 10 words: “The gospel of Jesus Christ means everything to me.” Or I could preach endlessly, for hours and hours, about the ways Jesus has changed my life, what the scripture says, what I have studied in my theology books, and what He has done for me in my darkest times.
No doubt you are wondering which one I picked. You’re hoping for the 10 word conclusion, and hoping against the endless one, right? Well, I’m hoping to lean more towards the former than the latter, if that means anything.
So, when the world is at it’s darkest and I need good news, I am reminded of the resurrection of Jesus and all that it means for me and those who believe. Let me share a little of what gives me hope during those hard times.
First, the resurrection of Jesus means that absolute truth and absolute morality exist. What a horrible insecurity it is to believe that there is no such thing as truth that nothing can be certain, everything is pliable, and that everyone’s opinion, conjecture and feelings are equally valid. That somehow even if something is a lie, it can be the “truth to someone”. That’s an unsettled, foundationless existence.
I have comfort in the knowledge that there are some non-negotiables in this world – that not everything is up for grabs. Some things are categorically bad, and others are absolutely good. Yes, there arere some grey areas I don’t understand, but its good news that God has given us black and white. Jesus died to save me from the wrath of God against sin which leads to eternal death, and because of Him I can be free and clean. It’s as black and white as that. There is right and wrong, good and evil, saved and unsaved, and those things are set by God – not man, not me, not anyone but God alone.
I Am Loved
Second, the death and resurrection of Jesus tells me that I am overwhelmingly, undeservingly, and unconditionally loved by the One who created me. When life is at its worst. When I feel like I’m on the edge of madness, people let me down, and I am utterly confused, I look to the cross and know that God loves me, to the tomb and know that Jesus is alive and with me. It is He who gives me comfort, teaches me, holds me together, and willingly grants a peace that passes understanding. When I can’t count on anyone, I can count on Him. When no one will listen, I can talk to Him and He understands. And when I am alone, I can listen to Him because He really does speak. When I am alone He’s always there. He will never leave me, nor forsake me.
If I had to continuously wonder if I had done enough to earn God’s love, I would be forever paranoid and afraid of Him. If God only loves me because of the good things I do, say, think then I am in real trouble, because, in truth, I know that am a wretched, selfish, sinful man.
But He doesn’t. God so loved the world, and so loved me, that He sent His one and only Son to earth, to live as a human being, and to take the punishment that you and I deserve. He did this because He loves us with an everlasting love.
I Have a Purpose
Another piece of good news that Jesus reminds me of is that we are specially created to have a purpose and a destination. I am not a being who is simply tossed upon the winds of time and space, only to exist for a moment and then disappear into nonexistence. The bible teaches me that God knew us before we were born, put us together in a very specific way, with special gifts and talents and a unique temperament. He chose our parents, where we would grow up, and designed us in such a way that we have a reason to live.
In a world where we are taught we are the summation of a random occurrence of molecules and that we are governed more by chemistry and electrical impulse than an eternal soul… were we are only as valuable as long as we are producing and being good consumers, but where life has no ultimate meaning, there is no assurance of a bright future, and only oblivion to look forward to in eternity… it is good news to know that the opposite is true.
God Has Power
The resurrection also reminds me that no matter how bad life gets messed things up, God is big enough to fix it. Jesus showed that, if He desires, He has the power to solve every problem and turn every bad thing into something good. From making the blind see and the lame walk to turning water into wine just so someone wouldn’t be embarrassed, He showed He isn’t just about big problems but He is also concerned with everyday problems too. He fed 5000 people with one kid’s lunch to show that we never have to worry about provision when He’s in charge. When all of the disciples were terrified that their boat would capsize in the storm, Jesus stood up and literally rebuked the wind and waves and the storm just stopped. And He can, and has, done the same thing for the storms in my heart, my mind, and in my life as well. And the resurrection proves that even death has no power over Him! When things look bleak, it is good news to remember that God not only loves us, but has great power.
I Am Free
And of course, the best news, to me and anyone else who believes, is that we are free from the consequences of our sins. This is the core of evangelism – that because of Jesus we are free. Jesus knows what I’ve done. And Satan, who’s other name is the Accuser, has every right to stand on the other side of God’s courtroom and proclaim to the Judge of all mankind, that I am guilty and deserve death, hell and eternal punishment for breaking God’s divine law over and over. And I do – I deserve the punishment. And yet, there stands Jesus, who’s other name is the Advocate, telling God that every punishment I deserve, every sin I’ve committed, every wrong that I have done, has been atoned for… has been paid for, by Him on the cross.
You see, God couldn’t just let all my sin go. He can’t just forget about it. He is perfectly good and righteous, and upholds perfect justice. Every wrong must be given exactly the right punishment. No one will get away with anything. But for those who believe, that punishment was poured out on Jesus. I was a slave to sin, he bought me back. I was chained to the devil, on my way to the blackness of hell, and Jesus Christ proclaimed light, broke the chain, and brought me back. He exchanged His body for mine, His blood for mine. He went through Hell so I wouldn’t have to.
Christians don’t follow Jesus because we have to. We don’t do good because we are afraid of God. We do it because we want to show our love and thanks to Jesus and because I trust that God knows what He’s doing with my life WAY better than I do. When God tells me I’m doing wrong I try not to see it as Him taking something away but as a Father who is protecting me.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us of all of this! The story of humanity, from Adam to today, is only good news because Jesus is in the story! No matter where we are, what we have done, or who we think we are… God still loves us, Jesus died for us, forgiveness is available to us, and we can live forever in the knowledge that we are God’s people.
If you believe that this morning, I would ask you, and encourage you to remember that today is a day of celebration! And that no matter how bad the news is in your life… and no matter what your dark days, your bad thoughts, or the TV says… there is still good news.
No matter how tough you have it this morning… and I know that some of you are in a very dark place, and it is very hard to see any light… there is good news that if you are willing to turn your life over to Jesus, ask forgiveness for your sin, and open your heart to what He would like to do in you, He will give you hope. He’s never let me down and has taken such good care of me, that even when everything looked really messed up and beyond hope, He has done great things far beyond what I could have asked or even imagined.