Posts Tagged ‘jesus’

Throughout the Bible, there are incidents where foreign kings and officials interact with God’s people; whether it be Pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus of Persia, or Caesar himself, these men typically believe themselves to be in ultimate control of their own destiny. But they are included in the Scriptures to demonstrate that all people and all things are subject to the will of God, and are disposed according to His design. The Roman governor Felix, whom we see in the later chapters of the book of Acts, is another such individual.

In Acts 23 and 24, the Apostle Paul is being hounded and hunted by the Jewish officials in Jerusalem. Having declared a religious war on those who follow the Way of Jesus, they now must deal with the “defection” of one of their most formidable inquisitors, Saul of Tarsus; who has been transformed by an encounter with Christ into a new creation, the Apostle Paul. Paul has traveled far and wide across Asia Minor, spreading the good news of Jesus raised from the dead and promising forgiveness of sin and eternal life; things in opposition to contemporary Jewish teachings. The Jews wish Paul dead, nothing less, and attack him in public. This forces the involvement of the local Roman authorities, who step in to quell civil unrest. Upon learning of a plot to ambush and murder Paul, the commander orders him sent to appear before the provincial governor, Felix.

Felix is a consummate politician; he is familiar with the social structures of the province he rules over (he is in fact married to a Jewish woman), and knows that Paul’s conflicts with the high priest do not involve Roman criminal law; he therefore has no compelling reason to find fault. He does have, on the other hand, an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the religious authorities in Jerusalem (helpful in preserving peace, which is one of his most prominent duties to Rome), as well as the potential of receiving a payoff to deliver a suitable verdict on Paul’s behalf (helpful for living a comfortable lifestyle, one of his prominent duties to himself). Felix finds himself in an ambiguous place, uncertain of how to proceed, but aware of the dangers of choosing wrongly;  this becomes strikingly clear to him as Paul speaks about righteousness and the coming judgement – a time where every man will be held accountable for the choices he has made. Felix is not a bold man, he is a cautious  man, and has governed according to what was best for Felix, rather than seeking truth and justice in his administration; he is not thrilled to learn of a time when he will be required to answer for himself. In typical bureaucratic style, he therefore makes no decision whatsoever, and keeps Paul in custody for over two years, until he is finally replaced by another governor.

I am not thrilled to learn of a time coming where all my choices will require an accounting; I know I have acted selfishly, more than not; or given in to anger, fear, greed…any number of weaknesses. I do have something, though, that Felix apparently did not possess – I have hope; the hope that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; hope that forgiveness of sin is available to me through His atonement; hope that in Him, I will stand before God and be accounted as washed in the Blood of the Lamb, white as snow; and be welcomed into my Father’s rest. Thus, I can make decisions; I can take risks; I can declare what I believe to be true without concern for how others will receive me. Because He lives, I no longer have to be afraid!

In Genesis, the book of Beginnings, we see the continuing development of the covenant between God and Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; in each generation, the promises made by God to the father are repeated, renewed, and refined for the son, in the form of a blessing at the end of each father’s life. Traditionally, the father’s blessing would confer favor to the eldest son above any younger brothers – yet God remains sovereign in the affairs of humans, and will overrule our conventions for His purposes, despite what we think or do about it – let’s look at the record.

When Abraham tried to provide his own heir by lying with Hagar and fathering Ishmael, God superseded him by giving Issac to Sarah; Abraham recognized this by sending the older boy away and placing his blessing upon the younger. In his turn, Issac fathered twins, Esau and Jacob; Esau was the firstborn, but even in the womb the Lord had promised that Jacob would inherit the promise; this came to pass when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, and then it was sealed when Rebekah assisted Jacob in deceiving Issac, so that he received his father’s blessing – just as God intended.

When Jacob, now renamed Israel, came to the end of his life and prepared to pronounce his blessing upon his sons, the same pattern repeats itself, with one unique and significant exception – there are two sets of blessings delivered, foretelling the two nations which would arise later. In Gen 48, Jacob calls Joseph, his favorite son, to his side to make his dying request, that he not be buried in Egypt, but returned to the land of Canaan.  He then blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh (the elder) and Ephraim (the younger), even before blessing his own sons (see Gen 49, and notice that the three oldest are likewise passed over in favor of Judah, from whom our Savior Jesus is promised), crossing his arms to place his right hand upon the head of Ephraim when he does so. Joseph tried to switch the blessings, believing that his older son should receive the greater promise, but Jacob demurred, insisting that he knew what he was doing; this was obviously so, for in fact the descendants of Ephraim became the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while the sons of Judah ruled over the southern Kingdom, following the line of David. In all the acts of men, we must remember that God has see the end from the beginning, and His will shall always prevail – if you ever wonder what the “will of God” was in any historical event, just look at what happened…you will see exactly that which God intended.

In the book of Ruth, we meet two people listed in the genealogy of Jesus, as detailed in the first chapter of Matthew: Ruth and Boaz. Ruth is the daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose husband and sons had died while residing in Moab. This circumstance had forced Naomi to return home to her family in search of support, as the culture of the times held little hope for widows with no sons to care for them. Ruth had been married to one of Naomi’s sons, and in a rare display of loyalty, had left everything she had known and returned to Judah with Naomi.

Boaz was a relative of Naomi’s husband, and he was a wealthy landowner and respected member of the community. As a means of supporting herself and Naomi, Ruth asks for and receives permission to glean the fields belonging to Boaz, as provided by Jewish law. But Boaz, upon learning who this young woman is, and hearing her back story, makes extraordinary provisions for her well-being. When Ruth reports this to Naomi, she identifies Boaz as a relative, and “one of our redeemers.”  A redeemer was a person who had the right and obligation to re-purchase a parcel of land that had been sold away from a clan by its rightful owner. Naomi’s husband had indeed sold his land, and the deadline for repurchase, or redemption was drawing near. Naomi sends Ruth back to Boaz to request that he perform this duty on her behalf, which she does. Boaz tells her that he is blessed by her request, but there is another with a better claim, who must be appealed to first. He goes the next day to present this appeal.

When he learns of the opportunity to acquire the land, this other man is eager, but there is a catch: if he takes the land, he also must take the responsibility of caring for the deceased man’s women, including giving them an heir – passing all the privileges on, and sacrificing his own rights in the process. While the short term gain is inviting, he has no interest in getting a wife and losing his own fortune in the process. He defers the honor to Boaz, who promptly accepts, receiving both the land, which he really did not need or want, and Ruth, which was his entire desire; in a sense, he bought the land to gain the woman. They are married, and the child Ruth bears is Obed: father of Jesse, grandfather of Israel’s great King David.

In Matthew 13:44, Jesus relates a parable which mirrors this story:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

For Boaz, Ruth is the great treasure hidden in the field, and he gives up his inheritance – “all that he has” – to get her. So how does this apply to us? To Jesus, we are the treasure hidden in the field of the world. Our field was sold to Satan when Adam chose sin over obedience to God; but Jesus comes to repurchase the land, by paying the price for our sin with His blood; and in the process, we are redeemed. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and has no need of the earth, but as it says in Rev 5:9-10:

“Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer, paying the price to buy us back from sin and death; Boaz serves a type of Jesus, an example to aid in our understanding of the eternal plan of God to save His people. Blessed are we to be covered by the blood of the Lamb!

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?

It has been a very trying and taxing week in the life of a Nicky…death and discouragement have been all around, but praises to God that He is more than all the enemy could ever send against me.

Through the course of her chemo treatments (today was the last one, btw…hurrah!) Karen has made some wonderful friends; adversity is a fantastic incubator for closeness. One particular person, Danni, has really been through it – she had already undergone surgery to remove one lung, and a lemon-sized brain tumor, and met Karen while doing a course of chemo for “insurance”. Well, the chemo caused an episode of kidney failure, and while being treated for that, she suffered a stroke – which led to the discovery of a second brain tumor. At that point, Danni called BS on treatment, and said she could just ride out the rest of her life in peace and dignity. Her family consented, and the next step was moving her into hospice about a week ago. We have been visiting every other day, for as long as she has left, she will know we are here with her. Last night was hard…she kept telling her daughters “Today is the day, they are here for me.” We don’t know who she is seeing, because communication is very difficult for her, but she is convinced “they” are there, and so we wait with her…

Last Monday a dear friend from the church called me, sounding desperate, tired, and depressed – she has been fighting asthma and COPD from years of cigarettes, drugs, and life on the streets of New Orleans; the Lord rescued her from all that, and sent her to Houston in the aftermath of Katrina. She became a member of our church, and an invigorating reminder of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power – I have never in my life met anyone who more understood what it means to be redeemed. But last week, after several rounds of in-and-out at the ER, suffering pneumonia that just wouldn’t quite go away, she called me to pray with her – she said she was so tired, and hurting, and ready for God to heal her any way He wanted to, if she could only find some rest. So Friday morning, He did just that…Patricia went home to her reward, and now she is by His side: no more pain, no more sadness, received into His rest at last…

Yesterday morning, as I was making notes for the morning announcements at the worship service, I learned that the church secretary’s brother Wayne had also passed this week; he had been in the hospital for some time, and was not really expected to get better, but the loss hurts just as deeply, no matter what…

All this just kind of piled up on me, and I went and sat at the back of the church alone, to pray and collect myself to welcome the congregation, when the Lord brought back to mind a couple of passages of Scripture; some of them I had just received the other day from another blogger friend. I threw away my notes, and read these instead, and as I prayed I sensed the Holy Spirit settling over us, bringing the comfort only He can. I would like to share those verses with you…perhaps someone reading this is also in need of His touch –

When someone close to us dies, or is near death, it often helps us to remember the words of the Apostle Paul, who addresses the church at Corinth about these very concerns:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal…For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens… For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  (2 Cor 4:7-5:5, selected)

And then, while we may be comforted about our friends, we may still end up angry at God, or confused and wondering just what He is doing…if nothing happens outside of His will, what exactly is His will? These two passages explain precisely what His will is: Jesus, speaking to the crowd gathered at the seaside says,

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:38-40, emphasis added)

And then, again from Paul, this time in exhortation to the church at Thessalonica,

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:12-18, emphasis added)

God’s will is very clear – we are to serve one another, in love that is the likeness of Christ’s love for us; and to endure in that love, so we may be lifted up in the last day. Those who have gone on ahead to glory, those already lifted up, are no longer under obligation…we who remain in this world are indeed in debt to Him whose love has redeemed us…and it is that very love, which makes all the rest something we can endure.

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?

 

Reblogged from a good friend of mine on Blogger…not new information, but very well spoken.

What About Those Who Have Never Actually Heard the Gospel?

“How can this be?”

Posted: December 29, 2012 in Sunday school
Tags: , , ,

Nicodemus Comes to Jesus (3:1-9) – A clandestine meeting, where Jesus reveals a new (but not really new) paradigm to replace the existing Jewish ideas of election and justification: faith in the One sent from God, and the transformation that informs that faith, is the only way to heaven – it’s not “Who’s your daddy?”, but rather “Who is your Father?”

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs You are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at My saying, You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked

(v.1-4) – The Apostle introduces a new character, Nicodemus, who is called “a Pharisee…of the ruling council”. This sect of Judaism prided itself on study and knowledge of the Scriptures, and scrupulous adherence to the fine details of the Law, or at least their intricately detailed interpretations of it. Theses are the very people we saw questioning Jesus is the previous chapter about His authority; also note these are the same officials, asking the same questions, that we saw interrogating John the Baptist in Chapter One. For them, everything revolves around “authority”, because theirs has not been challenged in centuries; they are used to having their way, and intend to keep all dissension suppressed. However, this one man, Nicodemus, comes at night, seeking a private audience with Jesus. There are several small details in this introduction that bear a closer look.

In v.2, Nicodemus makes a startling admission with the words, “We know…”. Whether this “we” is but a small group within the Council, or reflects the general consensus is not clear; in either case the effect is the same: the public accusations of blasphemy that are later leveled against Jesus are not believed by all of those making them. John includes this statement as an indictment of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, as evidenced by their own words and actions – a theme Jesus repeats in nearly every subsequent encounter with them. This hypocrisy is highlighted by the fact that Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus at night, when he had a reasonable certainty that he could escape public scrutiny, and thereby protect his reputation, and by extension that of the Council as a whole. 

While Nicodemus may be using this approach to “butter up” Jesus, in v.3 we see that He is having none of it. He bluntly dismisses the Pharisees’ presumption of superior knowledge of God with His statement that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  (emphasis added)  He is informing Nicodemus that the concept of election used by the Jewish leaders is fundamentally flawed, and He does so by the distinctive phrase, “born again”. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, leading to his puzzled response in v.4. It is important to see that Jesus says, “born again”, not “re-born” – He is using this very particular wording on purpose. That phrase could be understood as “going through the natural birth process a second time”, but “re-born” is the idiom more commonly associated with that meaning. “Born again” would be more familiar – and in fact should be, to a Pharisee – as referring to “the process of being adopted into a Jewish family”; it is the exact term applied to Gentile converts to Judaism, after going through the ritual cleansing (read: baptism) that was required of proselytes seeking entry into “the family of Abraham”. These “new born children of Israel” were not returned to the womb, as Nicodemus protests, but treated as if they had been “born from heaven” or “born from above” – the very words Jesus uses.

(v.5-9) – Jesus is patient with Nicodemus (and perhaps any around them, listening in on the conversation – sometimes the words we say are most intended for those not directly addressed). He explains again His meaning, adding more depth and detail to assist Nicodemus as Jesus draws him from darkness into light. Commentators have given many and various interpretations of the phrase “born of water and of Spirit”, but I personally believe that what the original audience would have most naturally understood in that time and place is the most correct meaning. Jesus is clearly referring to the baptism of converts, AND the regeneration of the Holy Spirit which allows conversion to occur – just as John the Baptist preached that, while he was baptizing in water for repentance, he would be followed by Another who would baptize in the Spirit (1:19-28). Jesus’ use of the wind as a metaphor supports this, as the Greek word pneuma (wind) was also used to mean the Spirit. This would be a direct contradiction of traditional Jewish belief that the Spirit of God resided only in the Temple, and only occasionally would visit Himself upon a person.  Jesus is declaring a “new” status quo – the Spirit of God will truly inhabit the people of God personally. This is not really new, but only a fulfillment of Old testament prophecy; again, something a Pharisee should have been aware of and expecting. Nicodemus, however, does not seem to understand…something stands in the way of him apprehending this vital truth, and his plaintive cry in v.9, “How can this be?” only underscores the separation from God that this world, being in darkness, labors under. In the next lesson, we will see how Jesus responds to this distress – a response aimed not only at Nicodemus, but at all of us who would seek to understand.

I am presenting short versions of the Sunday school lessons I have taught at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

In the spirit of Christmas, I present to you the text of the message I was blessed to preach this week at my home church. I extend the same challenge to you as I did to them –  follow the link at the end, and join with us in spreading the love of God throughout the world.  I encourage you to respond in the comments with how God moves you to answer this challenge, as well.

Have a Merry Christmas, and I hope to see you again in the New Year, and in the glory to come.

Gifts are surely on the minds of many this time of year, aren’t they? Children have agonized through days and weeks in eager anticipation of diving into that pile of presents under the tree (even if some of them will spend more time playing with the boxes than what was in them!) We adults are not immune to a sense of expectation about what we are going to receive, but sometimes age and experience leave us a little…shall we say, wary… about the value of what we might be given? I know I have opened some presents that made me very concerned about the expression on my face, you know what I mean, don’t you? You tear off the wrapping paper, lift up the lid…and think, “What in the world is this, and what am I going to do with it?”

Now, tell me the truth – how many of you have received a gift that was so unsuited to you, that the only thing you could do was hide it in the closet, let some time pass, and then wrap it up again and pass it off to someone else? Hopefully you didn’t forget who gave it to you and try to give it back to them by mistake! This situation occurs so much that our culture has come up with a name for that solution – we call it “re-gifting”, and it has become mostly accepted, as a better alternative than throwing stuff away, or spending money that, face it, none of has that much of anymore. Personally, I see it as a drawing away from the unbridled consumerism that has overwhelmed our country in the last couple of decades, the idea that everything is disposable, and you can just toss out what you don’t want and buy something else that will make you happy. This is not really a new idea, is it? Just last week we were talking in Sunday school about the lessons we learned during the Great Depression, and learned again during the shortages and rationing that went along with World War II…“Use it up, wear it out, make it do…or do without!” was the word of the day, and it was sound, reasonable advice; advice that has found a resurgence in the “Green movements” and recycling efforts of today. My message is titled, “The Greatest Re-Gift Ever”, and that may seem like a strange idea when you tie it to Christmas, but I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a bit, and let me explain how I connect those dots, can you do that? I believe that when I’m done you will agree with the point I am making. Don’t misunderstand me – in this case, the gift is not something we don’t want, something without value; but maybe there is another way to understand the idea of re-gifting, and that is what I want to talk about this morning. So here we go.

First off, we need to discuss the nature of the gift…after all, you cannot re-gift until you receive something, right? So what is the gift we have recieved? We find the answer in the famous, beautiful words of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 9, verses 6-7…you know the text, from the King James Version –

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

This is the promise of God which the angel of the Lord was referring to in the passage our friend Mr. Van Pelt so beautifully read for us a few minutes ago. (I personally love that reading, the words have such an impact when heard in the voice of a child, don’t they?)  [Note: the Scripture reading for the day was  a video presentation of the scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” where Linus recites Luke 2:8-14]  Remember verse 11?

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

The angel tells the shepherds specifically that the Child, the Christ, the Anointed One, is being given to them, as representatives of all mankind. He did not come to the religious leaders of the times; He did not come to those who felt they were deserving or holy or righteous; He did not come to no one in particular; this gift was given to all of us, to be our Savior…because we needed a Savior, in the most desperate way. There are many many places in Scripture where this promise is repeated in one form or another; let’s look at just a few of them:

In Genesis 3:15, we see the very first instance. God is speaking to the serpent after the deception in the Garden, and He says,

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He will bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

In Deuteronomy 18:15, a passage I have referred to many times, Moses tells the people,

“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.”

In Zechariah 3:8-9, the Lord says,

“I am going to bring My servant, the Branch…and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”

I could go on, but I think we have a pretty good idea of what, or rather who we have been given…and His name is Jesus. So now, let’s take a look at the reason for the gift. We have already seen one reason: that verse in Zechariah tells us that God intended to “remove the sin of the land”, but Scripture further expands on that idea, and tells us why He wants to do that. The most famous bible verse in the world is a good place to start, plus some extra to complete the thought – let’s look at John 3:16-18 –

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

I don’t think I need to say much more than that, do I? It is because of the unfathomable, indescribable love of God for His creation that we receive this great gift…and for no other reason. However, the Apostle Paul, prompted by the Holy Spirit and  realizing that, being the prideful, self-centered creatures that we are, we need to be reminded, does so in Ephesians 2:4-5,8-9 –

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

We have talked before about what faith really means – not just believing something with your mind, but changing the way you live based on that information. Last week Brother Charles spoke beautifully about idea of trust, in Hebrew batach: a confidence that allows us to move, live and act on the basis of what we have learned about God’s goodness, even when we don’t understand all that is going on around us. So what is it exactly that we are supposed to be doing while we are batach-ing? I am going to let Jesus Himself tell us about that – no better place to turn for the truth that He who IS the truth, right? Let’s turn our focus to the Gospel of John, Chapter 5, my anchor passage for today. Jesus has just healed a man crippled for 38 years. The man draws the attention of the Jewish religious authorities, not for the miracle of the healing, but because he dared to violate their prohibitions against “working” on the Sabbath. They in turn question Jesus about His authority to sanction such an act, and it is His answer I want to study. Let’s read the passage together, verses 19-23:

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does. Yes, and He will show Him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom He is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent Him.”

There is a key idea I want you to see, where Jesus echoes the words of that angel who spoke to the shepherds. You may have missed it, because in the King James rendering of Luke 2, the translators were slightly inaccurate in verse 14. Look back at that with me, it reads:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That does not accurately represent God’s intent, however; let’s see that verse in the NASB, where it reads,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”

Do you see the difference, and how that makes more sense when you consider the state of the world today? Peace is surely not a universal condition, is it? When you read what the angel actually said, it becomes so much more clear why that is true. God only promises His peace on those with whom He is pleased. So, it seems to me, that we need to understand what it is that pleases God, so we may receive His peace, and for that answer let me turn back to John 5.  Jesus gives us the beginning of it here, when He describes His work on earth with the words,

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself; He can do only what He sees His Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He does.”

This is a perfect picture of submission to the will of God, even from the Son of God Himself. God predicted that His Messiah would behave this way – we see that in another of those promise verses I spoke about earlier, this one coming in 1 Samuel 2:35, where the Lord says,

“I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest, who will do according to what is in My heart and mind.”

Jesus is not making up things as He goes, or following His own agenda. He certainly had the power to do anything He wished; He could very well have come as the conquering King that the Jewish people were hoping and waiting  for, to drive out the Roman oppressors, and return them their kingdom on earth. (Many today are still waiting for this Messiah, and so reject Jesus because He did not fulfill these expectations.) Instead, Jesus is doing only that which Our Father has already done and revealed to the Son. So, the question becomes, How can we relate what Jesus is doing, to what we are supposed to be doing? We don’t have to guess, Scripture gives us the answwer explicitly. Turn with me to chapter 15 in John, verses 15-17, and read what the Lord says to His disciples, and by extension, to us:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in My name the Father will give you.”

The Lord has chosen us, appointed us, and sent us, to do those things which He has revealed to us, the very same things which the Father revealed to Him. God called Jesus “My faithful priest”, because He does according to God’s heart and mind; so if we wish to be known as faithful, we will also do according to His heart and mind, and we know exactly what that is, because we have our “marching orders”, don’t we? We know it as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20 –

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Brother Charles and I have both preached this passage to you in recent weeks, because we want you to understand your purpose here on earth and here in the body of believers. We do not come together just to soak in the goodness of God, or to encourage one another in a bubble. No, we come together to be equipped to GO OUT, and bear fruit, and do according to the will and heart of God; to proclaim the Gospel, to make disciples, to baptize and teach all that Jesus has commanded. We are given this great gift of a Savior only so that we can re-gift it to someone else, don’t you see? If, and only if, we do these things, will God be pleased with us, and only then will we be assured of receiving His peace. That is something I want very much, to receive His peace, and I am willing to bet that it’s something you want very badly to receive as well.

Today I would like to offer you one practical, real world way to do just that. There is an organization I belong to, called The Pocket Testament League. Their mission is to evangelize the world by spreading the good news of Jesus in the form of small, printed booklets containing the Gospel of John. They publish these in a variety of translations, languages, and attractive cover designs, and send them at no cost to anyone who requests them. They encourage a small financial donation of $20 for thirty copies, to cover the expense of printing and postage, but will gladly supply them for free, with the costs being underwritten by other donors who give above and beyond this nominal amount. Membership is also free, and members are asked to submit testimonies through their website to encourage others in their evangelistic efforts. The League has been in existence since 1893, distributing over 110 million copies of the Gospel; in 2012 alone they sent out 1.6 million copies, including reaching into China for the first time in their history. I regularly order Gospels to pass out during outreach opportunities, and I have a supply of them here with me today. The cover shows a present, wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with string, with a tag reading, “The Greatest Gift”. My challenge for you today is simple: This week, you will go out to lunch or dinner, or do some last-minute Christmas shopping; and you will meet some harried, stressed-out waitress, or sales clerk – someone who could definitely benefit from some of the peace of God in their lives. Take one of these Gospels with you today, and pray that God directs you to that person. Then, place a generous amount of cash inside to minister to their physical needs (I will leave the amount to your discretion…it may be five dollars, it may be $500, that’s between you and the Lord) , and perhaps write a brief note to explain that what’s in this book will minister to their greater, spiritual needs, and hand it to them. Tell them you are praying for them, because God loves them, and wants them to enjoy this great gift as well. Then come back here next week, and share your testimony of how God called you to be His faithful priest, and how you did what He first showed you that He was doing,  by sending “the Word became flesh” on that first Christmas. Will you do it? Will you do that which pleases God, and allow His peace into your life this week? I dare you!