Archive for the ‘sermons’ Category

How Do We Follow Him? (Rev. 2-3)

Posted: February 4, 2013 in sermons
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(delivered 2-3-13)

Well, yesterday was Groundhog Day – a silly ritual we have where about a million reporters gather around some poor little animal, shine enough spotlights on him to roast the poor thing, and then make predictions about the weather based on his behavior. Let me note, however, that the groundhog has an 80% accuracy rating – better than most weathermen! This year is the first time I can remember hearing that he didn’t see his shadow, which is supposed to signify an early spring. I try not to believe in superstitions…but it did hit 80 degrees while I was out training for the 5K race I’m running in next month…so maybe there’s something to it, after all. Another thing that date brings to mind is of course the movie, “Groundhog Day”, starring Bill Murray as a weather man covering this very event, and getting trapped in an endlessly repeating cycle of living February 2 over and over again. After hundreds, maybe thousands of repetitions, he finally learns how to overcome the dead-end nature of the life he has been living, escapes the loop, and emerges a far better person than before. I hope that you will leave here a better person for having this experience today, but I promise that I will not repeat it over and over thousands of times to get us there, OK? You have my word!

The last time I was privileged to speak before you, I shared my thoughts on the story found in John 21, of how Peter was redeemed by Jesus after denying Him before men three times, and re-instated into the service of the kingdom of God. I told you how I feel the commands that Jesus gives to Peter, in the form of parables about caring for sheep, comprise a pretty fair job description for a pastor, a word which has its roots in the name given to the person who cares for herds of animals, especially flocks of sheep; Jesus uses this word, which we see translated as “shepherd”, when describing Himself in John 10:14 –

“I am the good shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me.”

I ended that message with the statement that none of us are exempt from those duties; that each one of us who claims Jesus as our Lord and Savior is expected to bring new lambs into the fold, to guard and watch over one another in our day-to-day lives, and to help each other find the “good pastures” of nourishment in God’s Word, so that we may continue to prosper and grow in Him. Now, while all of that is still true (it better be, that was only two weeks ago!), I also said that the Lord calls some to be especially gifted in these areas: persons who become great teachers, or powerful evangelists, or trusted leaders within a particular body of believers. There is nothing wrong with that – we can all be more effective with someone out in front, leading the way. We see God use strong leaders throughout the bible story: whether it be Moses, bringing the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt; or Joshua, heading up the army of God in conquest of the Promised Land; Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles back to Jerusalem from Babylon, or Ezra, who followed and helped re-establish the covenant relationship between the Jewish people and their God. In the New Testament, the best examples might be Peter, whose stirring sermons after Pentecost brought literally thousands in to the newly forming church; and Paul, whose missionary work carried the Gospel of Jesus throughout the entire known world. These men had the Holy Spirit directing them, and were completely submitted to the will of the Lord, right?…or were they? In truth, didn’t they have some of the very same shortcomings as many of us do today? If you read the stories closely, you will in fact see some very human things going on…in Acts 11 we see Peter dealing with racism and prejudice from some of the Jewish Christians against the Gentile believers – disagreements over what kind of people would be allowed into the church, and how they would have to behave – ideas Peter had probably shared, until the Lord sent him a vision to change his mind. Later, in Acts 15, we see Paul and Barnabas having an argument over the staffing for a mission trip, which leads to them breaking up the team and going two separate ways! How many times have we seen similar things take place, sometimes even bringing the work to a stop? None of the troubles we have today are anything new are they? And neither are their sources…merely the human constants of pride, self-assurance, and self-righteousness.

We have a tendency to put these heroes of the bible up on pedestals, and pretend they could do no wrong, and so make them examples of the best we can ever be; but we do them – and ourselves – a great injustice in this; I touched briefly on this tendency as well, when I spoke about how we can get distracted by looking at these men and judging our efforts against theirs…we tell ourselves that we can’t possibly do the job as well as they can, so why don’t we just sit back and let them do it? This is a subtle trick of the enemy, and it’s pretty effective – he doesn’t have to spend nearly as much energy to destroy us, if he can get us to take ourselves off the battlefield, does he? And don’t ever forget: this world IS a battlefield; even though we know the fight is already won, sin and death have been defeated by the victory of Christ on the cross; we must remember that Satan cannot see into the future and realize he is already defeated. He may know the Word of God, but he does not believe it, so he fights with all the determination of one who still thinks he can win (or at the very least, cause as much damage as possible on the way down, I’ll give you that much)…and we are his best and clearest targets. He cannot strike against the One he really wants to destroy, can he? So he injures us to cause God to grieve for us – and sometimes, unintentionally, we help him do it; sometimes we ourselves cause God to grieve. How do I know this is true? Because the bible tells me so, as the old song goes. According to 2 Timothy 3:16-17,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (emphasis added)

All of this would not be necessary if we always did what we are supposed to do, now would it? But we don’t…sometimes we need some reproof, sometimes we need some correction, and the bible is here to do that very thing for us, praise God.

Today, I am thinking in particular about the book of Revelation, where Jesus appears to the Apostle John, late in his life, and gives him a glimpse ahead of things to come. In Chapters Two and Three, the Lord dictates a series of letters to the churches in Asia Minor – some of the very churches we see Paul planting and ministering to throughout the later part of the book of Acts. Let me give you a little context with that – Paul’s missionary journeys took place during the 50’s and 60’s, some 20-30 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry; John is commonly thought to have composed this narrative of his visions around 96 AD. This span of 30-40 years certainly would have been long enough for many of the indictments raised by Jesus in these letters to come into being: time, after all is the great enemy of all human endeavors; as William Butler Yeats says in  “The Second Coming”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

Many of us are simply afraid of the book of Revelation, because much of it is confusing and difficult to interpret, I admit that…but these two chapters are as straight-forward and clear as anything else in all of Scripture, and should be considered a “maintenance and repair manual” for churches. I feel we can simply read it for what it plainly says, and be better off for doing so; the author of the book would agree with me, according to 1:3 –

 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

I would like to skim through these seven letters and see what we can learn about  how we follow Jesus; some of the ways we can – and do – fall short of what He expects of His children, ways we bring grief to our Lord; and then perhaps we can glean a few ideas about what He wants us to do about it. There is some good and some bad in nearly all of these churches, and the same is true for all of us, as well. Now, this may not seem fair, but in the interest of time, I am going to focus on the “bad” stuff, and skip over the “good”; however, I encourage you to spend some time reading over these letters on your own.  Notice the pattern Jesus establishes with each of the churches: first, He acknowledges their strengths; then He may point out a particular weakness, and indicate the necessary correction; He spells out the consequences if they do not take the necessary action; and finally leaves them with a word of encouragement. I believe you will agree that we all fall short in at least some of these areas, and could use a little nudge in the right direction; by highlighting how Jesus responds to these situations, that’s what I hope to do. So, here we go.

We start off in chapter two, with Jesus speaking to the church at Ephesus; let’s look at verses 4-5 –

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

Verses 14-16, to the church at Pergamum –

“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.”

Verses 20-23, to the church at Thyatira –

“But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing My servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am He who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”

We move into Chapter 3, v. 1-3 and the church at Sardis –

“I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of My God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”

Verses 15-20, to the church at Laodicea (perhaps the most famous example)-

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of My mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with Me.”

Let me just mention that the other two churches – Smyrna and Philadelphia – get by without a specific reproach, but they aren’t exactly having it easy either. The church in Smyrna is enduring heavy persecution and slander; Jesus tells them He is aware of this, but relax…soon enough, things will get worse! Then He instructs them in 2:10 –

“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

The church at Philadelphia receives what some might call a left-handed compliment: Jesus tells them in 3:8 –

“I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept My word and have not denied My name.”

That’s five of the seven churches to whom Jesus says, “I have a problem with you!” Let’s summarize the failings first, then I will address them individually. These churches have:

  • Abandoned their “first love”; falling away from how they began
  • Honored idols
  • Engaged in sexual immorality
  • Been tolerant of false teaching
  • Refused to repent
  • A hollow reputation
  • A tepid, bland, complacent attitude
  • A high valuation of themselves

When you look over that list of faults that Jesus finds with His churches, (and we do remember that they are His churches, not ours, right? He has every right to call us out for our failings, and we have every obligation to sit and listen!) we see that many of these condemnations stem from the very same things we talked about last time, don’t we? Peter denied Christ before others from a desire to blend in with them, to appear like everyone else so he would not face persecution or pain. That is the essential complaint that Jesus has, when he points out those churches who are eating food offered to idols, or practicing immoral behavior – they are simply doing what everyone else around them is doing. A little more cultural background may be helpful here: these churches existed in pagan cities – places of international commerce, where every “god” from the known world would be represented. Worship of these pagan gods would very often become a matter of ostentatious show, where the larger the “sacrifice”, the more favor the worshiper could expect to curry. Thus, enormous offerings of rich foods, especially meat, would be made, and the priests in the temples, not being able to eat it all themselves, would see an opportunity for profit, and sell the excess to the public, with the funds going back into the temple (and their pockets, of course). By going into these pagan temples, and buying this “meat offered to idols”, the Christians were sinning in two ways: they were putting their money onto the altar of a foreign god, and they were giving implicit approval to the offerings themselves! Likewise, the issue of sexual immorality is twofold: not only does God prohibit any and all sexual activity outside the confines of  marriage, but the world seeks not only to excuse, but also to justify these immoral acts, by covering them in a veneer of  worship (as with the temple prostitutes, both male and female), or entertainment, or “natural desire”, or any number of other reasons. The problem is, we who would follow Jesus are called to a higher standard. Remember Paul’s words in Romans 12:1-2 –

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.

If we claim to be “Christians”,  yet say and do the same things as everyone else, what exactly is the difference that Christ has made in our lives? If we live together without being married, or allow our churches to sanctify (?!?) same-sex unions; or we watch a TV show like Dancing With the Stars, (which I really did enjoy, but have stopped watching) that tells us that entertainment requires women to be nearly nude; or buy tickets for movies with explicit sexual content and situations; or any number of other things that God’s Word tells us He is displeased with, but we find reasons to make them “OK”…who are we fooling? Who indeed? The world doesn’t believe us – we don’t behave any different, so our beliefs must not have any real impact on our lives; or worse, we’re a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites, condemning the very things we ourselves are doing. We certainly aren’t fooling Jesus, who says over and over in these letters, “I know your works,” We aren’t really even fooling ourselves, or else we wouldn’t be so miserable, wondering why our lives are in the condition they are, why we don’t feel close to God, why nobody wants to come to our churches…why would they, when they can’t see anything here that they can’t find a thousand other places, doing what they already do, where they already are? If there is no reason to change, there will be no change. (Click here to tweet that.)

Hand in hand with this, Jesus condemns the churches for allowing teachers and leaders who tolerate, or even encourage these behaviors. So many today would hide behind the excuse, “I’m only doing what I was taught, it’s not my fault.” Well, who hired the teacher? Who selected the preacher? Who called the pastor? It’s the church, the body of believers, the people, who have the responsibility for their leaders. You hold us accountable, and there is one clear standard you are to use for that – the Word of God. Look with me in Acts 17: Paul has been traveling and spreading the Gospel of Jesus. It was his custom to preach first at the synagogues, where men studied the Scriptures, and already knew of the One True God, and thus should have been more receptive to the Good News of Jesus. This was not always the case , but see verse 11 –

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (emphasis added)

The believers at Berea did not merely accept what they were told, they checked it against the Scriptures. If every gathering did that, the careers of many so-called men of God would come to a short and sudden stop, amen? So why doesn’t that happen? Well, how many of us want to hear that we are in the wrong, that we need to change? Isn’t that one of the things I listed earlier, a refusal to repent, to turn away from the direction we are going? We do what we do because we think it will get us what we want, to steal a quote from Dr. Phil McGraw (I don’t agree with everything he says, but this is pretty much on the mark, isn’t it?) And we choose leaders who will tell us what we want to hear, even if it isn’t the best thing for us, don’t we? Scriptures repeats this truth to us, 2 Timothy 4:3-4 –

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys football team, (hey, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, there’s got to be some football in here somewhere!) spoke to the opposite side of the coin –

“Leadership is getting someone to do what they don’t want to do, to achieve what they want to achieve.”

Almost anyone will tell you they want to achieve happiness; those who believe in heaven will say they want to get there some day; people who follow Jesus will tell you they want to meet Him face-to-face in the end. But are we willing to make the changes necessary, to do the things it takes to achieve these goals? Ask yourselves, brothers and sisters: What is it you want to achieve? Then select leaders who will really help you get there.

The last few items that Jesus holds against the churches also have a common thread, which I have addressed before – sometimes we stop looking at Jesus, and instead look at others to compare ourselves to them, or look into our mirrors, to admire our own beauty. Either one will only give us a distorted view of reality, leading us to believe what others say about us, and become proud of our reputation, thinking that WE have made something of ourselves, and therefore have the right to be proud. This pride can often cause us to coast along, riding the wave of past successes, past glory…and forgetting our first love. We become like Peter: Jesus asks us to agape love Him, to sacrifice everything for His sake; but the best we can do is phileo, to have some good feelings for a little while, but then fade back into what we were doing before. Jesus gives us the remedy to all of this, not just here in this text, but in the heart of the Gospel message – Repent, return to ME, He says; confess your sins and be healed; then, go and sin no more.

You may have noticed that I titled this message “How we follow Him”, and spent most of my time talking about leaders? Well, isn’t that one of the major decisions we make in life: deciding who we are going to follow? Of course, the Sunday-school answer is that we ALL follow Jesus, and this is the correct answer; but what is the mechanism for that? Most of us are not blazing a trail for ourselves in the world; that is a hard, thankless job, and perhaps there is much wisdom in finding gifted leaders to help us along the path. Jesus told His disciples – the men and women who followed Him –  to go and make more disciples; those who, in the words of Paul –

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

We, as disciples of Jesus, have this same two-edged sword in our hands: we must follow Christ as hard as and well as we can, so that others can follow after us in His footsteps; and we must be sure that those we place in positions of leadership are likewise following only Him, and not some other agenda. We must search the Scriptures daily, to see if the things that are taught are true; and we must pray to God daily, that He will continue to guide and direct us by His Holy Spirit into the ways that are pleasing to Him; to renew our minds, to consecrate our bodies, to offer our whole selves to Him, as our true and proper worship. I invite you to come to the altar, right now, and ask the Lord to examine your heart, to call you out for the things He has against you, to repent of your sins and be forgiven…come, He stands at the door and knocks – will you answer?

(Originally delivered 1-20-13)

Today this nation observes one of its most significant rituals – Inauguration Day, a time set aside for the administration of a solemn oath to the President-elect for his upcoming term of office. By law, the Inauguration takes place on January 20, so Barack Obama, honoring the precedents set by the six previous occasions this date has occurred on a Sunday, will participate in a private ceremony at the White House this morning, with the public event occurring tomorrow in front of the Capital Building. The oath which he will swear requires the President to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. This is not a mandate to serve any specific group of people, or a government, or even a nation; it is instead a calling to preserve a set of ideals: a way of thinking about what our leaders should and should not do to and for those under their authority.

In New Testament times, the religious leaders of that era, the Sanhedrin, were likewise not concerned with serving a people, or protecting a nation – in truth, as a puppet state under Roman occupation, they had very little say in these matters. Instead, they also felt called to preserve a set of ideals: the Torah – the Law of Moses – and the Talmud – a compilation of the remainder of the oral traditions of Judaism (Mishna) and centuries of accumulated commentary (Gemara). One sect, the Pharisees, considered themselves the “experts” on the Law and its many detailed interpretations, and jealously guarded their authority to tell the people what they could and could not do in their service to God.

Whenever Jesus interacted with the Jewish religious leaders, they always brought up the subject of “authority” – usually in the form of demands that Jesus explain or defend His actions, and demonstrate the source of His authority to do and say the things He did and said. When He responded to them (He didn’t always), He often cited the very Scriptures the Pharisees claimed such expertise over, particularly the writings of Moses, such as we see recorded in John 5:39-40, and then in verses 45-47:

 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life…But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

 Over and over, Jesus stated that His authority was from the Father, and His calling was to do the will of the Father, to make the Kingdom of heaven present on earth, as we see when Jesus teaches His disciples to pray in Matthew 6:10-

 “Your kingdom come,Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When Jesus had completed His work on earth, having shed His blood on the cross, been buried in the tomb, and risen again; and was about to return to the Father’s right hand, He passed that authority on to His disciples, and to us, the church of Jesus Christ, with an unmistakable mandate, a Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This appearance of the risen Christ occurs at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, but it is not the last time Jesus speaks to His followers in Galilee. Scripture shows us another meeting by the shore of the sea, this time at the end of John’s Gospel, Chapter 21:15-22, our anchor text for today. We heard it read earlier, let’s look at it together now:

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”  The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

 Today I want to examine in more detail the way Jesus poses His questions, the way Peter responds, and how Jesus in turn commands Him…because we read it today and see the same words used in each instance; but language and cultural differences obscure the fact that there are two different ideas being discussed, and three distinct mandates. And those distinctions are important…perhaps the MOST important things for us today, as we ask ourselves, “How do we love Him?”

We cannot look at this story without thinking of how Peter had previously denied Jesus three times…the parallel is so obvious that I can only believe it is intentional; that we are meant to compare this scene to the other. I am referring, of course, to the events occurring after Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let’s pick up the story in Luke 22:54-62 –

Then seizing [Jesus], they led Him away and took Him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with Him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know Him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown Me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Recall that, only a short while before this, Peter had made some very bold claims about the quality of his faithfulness, saying he would follow Jesus to his death if need be; the bitterness of his tears comes from the realization of his weakness. Indeed, at the beginning of John 21, despite having seen his Lord risen from the grave, Peter has returned to fishing, with several of the others accompanying him on the boat. Scripture is not explicit about Peter’s emotional state, but let me hazard a guess: I have been in the place of having made big promises that I could not live up to;  feeling unworthy because of it; deciding that maybe it would be better if I just went back to doing what I knew I was good at, and leaving the boldness to others…and I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only one. Today, on this side of history, we have the advantage of knowing how this story works out: Peter, along with the other disciples and followers of Jesus, receives the infilling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, becoming a powerful and persuasive preacher and leader of the church in Jerusalem, and later in the great churches of Antioch and Rome; in fact, the Roman Catholic tradition venerates Peter as the “First Pope”. But Peter doesn’t know that, does he? He certainly believes in Jesus, but I have to wonder how much he believes in himself right at this moment. I believe this is why Jesus speaks to him directly, to restore Peter from “fisherman” to “fisher of men”, to bring home to Peter the truth of forgiveness and redemption – the same truth that applies to each and every one of us here today: the truth that the grace of God overcomes all our weaknesses, and provides the means for us to carry on the work of the Kingdom here on earth.

I said a minute ago that language obscures some important distinctions in this passage, so let me now unpack that, by looking at the text in the original Greek. Let’s begin in v.15, and you’ll see what I mean – (I will address Jesus’ responses in a minute; for now let’s focus on the question and answer portion):

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.”

The word for “love” that Jesus uses – agapao – speaks of unconditional love; love with no regard to circumstance, worthiness, emotion, or behavior; love based on intention and commitment; a decision instead of a reaction. His comment “more than these” is a direct reference to Peter’s bragging in the upper room – since that is what it was – when Peter said that, no matter what anyone else did, HE would stand the test…and then he didn’t. Jesus wants Peter to confront his shame and failure, but at first Peter dodges the issue; the word he answers with – phileo – carries the idea of affection for someone, liking a person because you have something in common, or some situation that would build closeness: the “band of brothers” kind of love that develops between teammates; or coworkers; or soldiers; …or disciples of one master. This kind of love depends on the situation; once the bond is broken, the love can fade away. This is all Peter is willing to own up to, at this point….but Jesus know better than that. In v.16, Jesus repeats the question, but more directly –

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”

This second query follows the pattern of the first: Jesus says agapao, Peter answers phileo – Jesus is asking for total commitment, but Peter can only promise the passion of the moment. He knows that he has failed his Lord: when it came down to it, his fear for his personal safety was greater than his love for the One he followed – the promises of what was to come were overshadowed by the certainty of what he could see right in front of him. (In all fairness, Peter was not alone: all the disciples scattered; most of them were on the boat fishing with Peter at the beginning of Chapter 21; but I believe Peter is singled out because he did the loudest boasting, and thus had the greatest shame.) I can understand the nature if that fear: the Jewish authorities were working hand in hand with the Romans to preserve the “peace” in Jerusalem, as well as their own position; had they allowed the uprising of Jesus and His followers to continue,  Rome would have certainly brought down brutal retribution to squash any dissent – and replaced those in leadership with someone more effective, something that had occurred more than once within the experience of all those present. Peter believed that Jesus was who He said He was, the resurrection was His obvious testimony…but Peter also knew that death by the sword was ever-present, lurking in the background, waiting for any excuse to manifest itself. Being human comes with human fears, and dependence on human sensibilities for survival; and at this point, human ability was all Peter had to go on… Pentecost was still to come, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon the church.  Jesus knows this, too, but He wants Peter to see beyond that – to remember the trust developed in the years they have spent together, the bond they had formed while sleeping, eating, walking, talking, teaching, preaching, healing, 24/7/365… so He persists in His questioning – look at v.17:

The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep.”

This time, Jesus meets Peter halfway – phileo instead of agapao – saying that He knows this is the best Peter can do, but if he will commit that much, it is enough. This is important, because the pain Peter feels comes from his acknowledgment of his own unworthiness, his confession made in repentance. Jesus has finally brought Peter to the point of surrender, of submission, the place where each of us must come to before we can fully receive what Jesus has to offer us. As long as we are willing to make excuses for ourselves…to say, “It’s too hard to follow Jesus, and live for Him, and love Him like I should…I’m just a fisherman, I quit”…we will never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus looked right at Peter after he had denied Him three times, and Peter ran away in shame. This time, Jesus is looking right at Peter after he has confirmed his love for him three times – the only love he is capable of, but love nonetheless…and Peter does not run away; and because of that, Jesus responds with compassion and forgiveness…and a promise, a prophecy – let’s read v.18-19:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

That image of “stretching out your hands” had a very specific connotation to the people in first century Palestine – it meant that person would be crucified, their hands tied or nailed to a cross to be executed. Remember Peter bragging that he would follow Jesus to death if it was required of him? Jesus had answered him that it would not happen as Peter imagined it, but that it would happen – here Jesus repeats that prophesy, and in fact Peter did die by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, as an older man, some thirty years after Jesus; church tradition states that he was tied to his cross, rather than nailed, and hung upside down by his own request, since he considered himself less worthy than Jesus, and wished his head to point down towards earth, rather than up towards heaven. Jesus last words in v.18, “Follow Me!” should be considered at a renewal of Peter’s calling as an apostle, a command to continue in what he had been doing all along – living out the fulfillment of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

Now, let me back up and collect the loose ends: the responses Jesus has each time Peter affirms his love. At first glance it might seem that each is a simple repetition, but this is not the case – none of us here today are farmers or shepherds, so we are simply unfamiliar with the care of sheep, and we miss the nuances. I feel, however, that the subtle differences in these three statements actually comprise the job description for a pastor, so I want to quickly go over them. Let’s put all three statements together, and you will see what I mean:

v.15 – “Feed My lambs.” – means to nurture the newborns and get them started

v.16 – “Take care of My sheep.” – means to watch over and guide the flock

v.17 – “Feed My sheep.” – means to ensure the flock is well fed on good pasture

If we compare this to the Great Commission we looked at earlier, we see that each has a correspondence: “lambs” refers to new believers, those to whom we preach the Gospel and baptize into the community of faith; “caring for sheep” can be seen as the work of correction and rebuke that is required on an ongoing basis to make disciples; “feeding sheep” refers to the instruction in God’s Word that we who are more mature are called to do to for and among our brothers and sisters, that they may also grow in spiritual maturity and godliness…a process that all of us should be willing to be a part of, in submission to the Holy Spirit and the ongoing work of sanctification we are expected to participate in, as we await the return of our Lord, on that day when we are lifted up by Him and presented to the Father. I personally believe that we are all under these commands, but especially those of us called into leadership – the preachers, the teachers, the pastors – we have a special gifting that allows us to serve the Kingdom of God in a special way, and this interaction we see between Jesus and Peter is a blessing and a reminder that, even when our human natures cause us to stumble or fail, Jesus will hear our confessions, and receive us back to resume our ministry, to be His hand and feet here on earth. We may not be capable of agape love on our own; in fact I am certain we are not; but Jesus is, and by His Spirit residing in us, we can love Him as He loves us.

Let’s close with the final verses of this passage. I believe this serves us as a reminder that we are to say focused on what God is doing in OUR lives, and how we are only responsible for how WE answer the calling He places upon each of us. Often times, we are distracted, or even discouraged, by the way another brother or sister is being used by God – we look at them and say to ourselves, “Wow, what a great work he is doing! I can’t do anything like that, why should I even bother? The Lord doesn’t need me when He has workers like that!” Peter nearly falls for this same trick of the enemy, when he asks about what Jesus has in mind for “the beloved disciple”, who is probably John himself. Jesus tells Peter straight out, “Mind your own business!” He has His entire plan in mind, and He instructs each of us in our part of it…and frankly, managing that is about as much as any of us is capable of, isn’t it? We must not get confused about this, which can happen when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and start looking at others, or ourselves. His final words are neither a suggestion nor a statement..the verb is an imperative: “You MUST follow Me!”

The ideas I have shared from this passage have been on my heart and on my mind for about a year now – in fact, ever since our pastor announced that he was leaving, and moving his ministry elsewhere. That act made real to me something I knew intellectually, but not internally….that the ways we serve God will change as we mature in Christ…or, at least, they should, if we are doing it right! Thinking that things will never change is in fact a sinful quenching of the Spirit, such as we are warned against by the writer of  Hebrews in 5:12-14 –

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

All of us should be desiring to respond to our callings, to get up from our seats and move in His grace, to do the work He has set for us to do…so I invite you now, as we prepare to close our worship in singing today, to pray now for God to reveal how you can best serve His kingdom…to confess your fears and failures – He already knows them, after all, so He won’t think less of you for doing it – and allow Jesus to restore you to your rightful place as one of His ministers, one of His shepherds, one of those who tends His flocks. Will you stand? Will you pray with me? Will you love Jesus today?

Looking forward to the New Year, I present to you the text of the message I delivered this week. I hope and pray that you receive the same encouragement; and, rather than “happiness”, which is fleeting and quickly fades, you find blessings instead, which endure in spite of circumstances.

Well, well, well…we’ve come to the end of another year; and what a year 2012 has been, amen? We have seen the entire range of human experience in twelve months, from the sublime to the ridiculous: around the world we saw Olympic glory and royal weddings; we also saw regime changes, and the infamous “Arab Spring”, fueled and fostered in large part for the first time by the vastly interconnected world of social media. America has seen a President re-elected; one war brought to an end, and a timeline for ending another; while we spent untold billions of dollars landing a robot go-kart on Mars. We’ve seen uncertain economies cause unrest across Europe, Asia, and America alike, while dumbfounded citizens in more nations than I care to list wonder what exactly their elected leaders are doing about it. That is, those that are paying attention at all: Internet sites have set unbelievable records for the most traffic ever – the “Gangham Style” music video has passed one billion views on YouTube, while Facebook is viewed well over 550 billion times per month, more than the next 99 sites on the list combined. Those include Twitter at #15, Amazon at #24, and eBay at #26; even the weather comes in at #63. (Sadly, there is not a Christian website, or any other religion, for that matter, anywhere in the top 1000… and we wonder at the condition of the world today.)

Here closer to home, new babies have been born, while old friends and loved ones have gone on to glory; new brothers and sisters have joined us in serving the Lord, while others have been called to serve in other ways and other places. The end of the year is always a time to reflect, remember the good and the bad, and hope that the future will be better than the past. This hope takes many forms, and expresses itself in many ways – many of us will make or have made our list of resolutions for the New Year. I am no exception…those of you who read my blog already know; for those who don’t, I have decided that this is the time to finally walk away from the ball-and-chain I’ve been dragging behind me for thirty years… and give up cigarettes. (And if you thought I was talking about my wife Karen, shame on you!) I covet your prayers for success and God’s peace during the struggle.

Now, I’m not going into this half-hearted or blindly…I have done some research, and have learned that the people who succeed best are those who find a good substitute for the habits they want to break, something to take the place of what they are giving up – to take their minds off of it, and avoid the sense of being deprived of something. I have chosen to take up running as my substitute, and it’s not as crazy as it might sound…at my job, I work – long days of hard, physical labor that has kept me in fairly decent shape in spite of myself; I can still sprint up four floors of stairs and speak in complete sentences at the top! To help me achieve this resolution, I found a reasonable, safe, well-recommended training plan that can take you from the couch to a 5K race in ten weeks, and I’m starting tomorrow! My long term goal is to enter…and finish…the Chevron Houston Marathon in January 2014, one year from now, so please continue me in prayer for this, and from time to time, ask me how I’m doing! The accountability will be good for me, and I will be happy to do the same for you, to help you with keeping your resolutions, whatever they may be. (Shameless self-promotional note: Follow my other blog for updates on race preparations!)

This idea of giving up bad things and putting something better in their place is an echo of the words that God gave to Jeremiah, which we heard just a few minutes ago. (Jeremiah 31:27-34) The people had turned away from God, and broken His first covenant, the one He made when He brought them out of captivity, gave them the Ten Commandments, and declared Himself to be “the LORD your God”. The people had failed their end of the deal, though, and had fallen away; they had allowed their hearts to become filled with pride, with selfishness and greed, with lust and desire for the habits and practices of the other nations around them, and they were a mess. But God is faithful, even when His people are not, and so He made them a new promise, you could say He made a resolution – He would break their bad habits, and give them new ones in their place. Instead of the law written on stone tablets, He would write it on their hearts; instead of emptiness and despair, He would fill them with His Spirit. Instead of His righteous wrath in judgment, He would substitute forgiveness, and remember their sins no more. He did not expect them to repent in a vacuum… He would provide a means to accomplish all this by His own grace and love. That is the kind of resolution you can believe in: when God says He will do it, take that to the bank! And that assurance is what leads me to title today’s message, “Better Days Are Here”…because we know that what is future for us, God has already seen; we can take is as current fact, even while it’s in the process. God is not waiting for things to happen, He has already done it, the victory is already won, we are just watching the dust settle!

I have shown you the resolution that God has made, and we know that He keeps His word, praise be His name for that. We can know this because He has spoken through other prophets, and shown us that He has a plan that He is using to make it happen. Where do you think I got the inspiration to find a plan to help me keep my resolutions? I know who I am…I remember all the times I have tried to make changes on a whim, and I remember when it got hard, all the reasons excuses I made up for myself to get off the hook, and allow myself to fall back into the very habits I so desperately wanted to give up. No, to succeed I needed a plan, a way to ensure that I could persevere through the difficulty, and find victory on the other side. My anchor text for today is just one of those revelations, one example where the Lord explains how His plan will surely succeed, and what that will look like once it happens. He does this to encourage us, so that when we see it happening, we will be able to endure until the plan comes to its conclusion, and not lose hope before we get there. Today I want to examine how we can use this knowledge of God’s plan to help us realize our own resolutions…what steps can we take to be active participants with Him. Turn with me, if you will, to the book of Isaiah, in chapter 62. To provide some context: Isaiah’s prophesies cover both the period of Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the later exile of both Israel and Judah into Babylon. The last half of Isaiah is known as the “Book of Comfort”, where Isaiah looks beyond the current events and into the coming redemption of God’s people, the second time He brings them out of captivity, using the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and accomplish His purposes; Chapter 62 is subtitled “Zion’s Restoration and Glory”. Let’s read together, as God speaks through Isaiah – we will read the entire chapter, and then go back and look at it more slowly. I’m reading from the English Standard version, so if yours is different, you can follow along on the screen, so you don’t get lost…this translation doesn’t give the Hebrew, only the translated names, so it will seem very different if yours does…it doesn’t change the meaning, this is just easier to read.

(Isaiah 62, ESV)

May we be blessed by the hearing of the Word of God. So, let’s step through the text, and see what we can discern. In verse 1, Isaiah proclaims his commitment to the plan. Look at his words, “I will not keep silent…I will not be quiet.” The words of a true prophet were usually not well received in the Old Testament, were they? Jewish tradition tells us that Isaiah was killed by being sawn in half, because he would not stop proclaiming the Word of God. People generally don’t like to hear what is good for them, even if they are unhappy in their current situation; often because it means they must admit they are in the wrong and need to make a change if they wish to improve. We see both these themes echoed in the New Testament, when the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4 –

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

See Paul stressing the dedication that Timothy (or any other Christ-follower) must have; now for the resistance:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Isaiah is saying he will stick to the plan – to keep on doing what God has commanded him to do, to keep on proclaiming the truth of the coming Savior, and calling for the people to have faith that God will do all that He has promised. The people probably had a pretty hard time believing him, you must admit – after all, Israel had already been taken over by Assyria, and Judah was only spared that by making a “deal with the devil”…problem is, he eventually collects on the bargain, doesn’t he? Judah later fell to Babylon and suffered greatly, because they were in cahoots with Assyria over their brothers in the North; the “short cut to salvation” they sought after took them the long way around instead. They weren’t committed to the plan, and took off on their own direction, instead of staying the course; and in the end, that lack of commitment was the cause of much greater harm.

Now we are going to jump around in this passage a bit, and look at the next two parts of how we can use God’s truth to make our resolutions into reality – there is a need for community and consistency in the plan. Look with me at verses 6-7:

“On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.”

The prophet here demonstrates what we already know – we cannot do it alone. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians, at last not very good ones, I would say. Humans are created for community, because we are created in God’s image and likeness, and He exists in perfect community among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, after the creation is complete, God declares it all “very good”, until we get to 2:18, where He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Isaiah demonstrates his understanding of this when he announces that he has helpers…he calls them watchmen…who are there to assist him. And look at what they are charged to do – to pray to God day and night, without ceasing, taking no rest and giving God no rest. Now, that’s a bold thing, isn’t it, to give God no rest? Have you ever felt that you had prayed so much about something that were beginning to feel you were annoying God? Like a pestering child tugging at your belt, “Please, please, please,pleasepleasepleeeeeeease…” trying to wear you down until they get what they want? This passage tells us that God wants us to be persistent, He wants us to keep asking, He wants us to stay consistent in our petitions…that is, if we are praying for His plan, not ours; if we are praying for the fulfillment of His promises, not the satisfaction of our own desires. The begging child is not after you what you want for them, they only care for their own satisfaction. Then notice, Isaiah says You who put the Lord in remembrance”…that means all of us, not just the preachers and pastors and Sunday school teachers and TV evangelists. It is our job to keep God in the minds and hearts of the world, it is our job to proclaim His glory and righteous, it is our job to encourage others to believe He will do all that He has said. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Imagine how that works when multiplied by the number of men and women doing the praying! There’s a whole lot of availing, that’s available to us!

So, we have commitment to the plan, added to community in the plan, with consistency through the plan…what’s left? The best part of having a plan is what’s left – the wonderful consequences of the plan. The rest of this chapter is devoted to describing what will come about, the reward we shall receive once the plan is completed…which, remember, I said God has already seen the end, so He is the absolute best position to tell us what the outcome will be. Look with me at the end of the chapter, verses 11-12, which sums it all up and gives us hope to cling to –

“Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your Salvation comes; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” ‘ And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

Our Salvation has come, and His name is Jesus. Do you want to know how we fit into this? Let me tell you: WE are His reward, brothers and sisters…WE are His recompense, the work that He came to do; the reason God sent Him to the earth. WE are called the Holy People, set apart for God. WE have been redeemed by His blood, shed on the cross. WE have been sought out, WE have not been forsaken. THIS is the outcome of God’s plan, THIS is what God has resolved to do. So I ask you, brothers and sisters, as we stand and worship…how will you respond today? Do you have a resolution you need to make? Do you have a burden you need to be freed from? Have you been living apart from the Lord, and need to return to Him? Have you never made a decision to follow Him, and today you want to change that? If any of that fits you, come on down, let us pray for you and with you; let us stand beside you as we give God no rest, until all that He has planned comes true…come on down, and surrender all to the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to Jesus Christ…won’t you come?