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Sermon: Good Grief

nehemiah

“Good Grief”
Nehemiah 1:1-11

1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.

3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”

4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. 5 Then I said:

“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.

8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’

10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

I was cupbearer to the king.

 

I. Introduction

The events chronicled in the book of Nehemiah took place during a period of time known as the Babylonian exile, and about 140 years after the Persian king Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem and deported huge numbers of Israel’s population to other Persian provinces. Just before Nehemiah’s story begins, we find that some previously exiled families had begun to return to Judah, and that Ezra had led the people to begin rebuilding the Temple there. The Israelites met with all sorts of opposition to their building plans, and eventually two Persian dignitaries named Rehum and Shimshai sent a letter to king Artaxerxes, warning him that Jerusalem had always been a troublesome city, and that they should not be allowed to complete the Temple, because it would lead them to rebellion. Artaxerxes was already dealing with a revolt from one of his former commanders, so he agreed with Rehum and Shimshai and ordered them to stop the rebuilding efforts in Jerusalem by force.

When we catch up with Nehemiah just a short time later, we find that he is living in Susa, which is once of the ruling cities where the kings of Persia went to live during the winter. He is an Israelite, who is serving in a privileged position in the king’s household as the royal cupbearer. If you remember, Daniel served in similar way when he and his friends were taken from Israel by force. Because of his position, we know he was close to the king and was a trusted servant.

Though the Babylonians had deported a large part of the population from Judah, the people did not primarily live as slaves, like they had in Egypt. Evidence suggests that they lived normal lives as part of Babylonian society. They participated in the economy, they married foreign spouses, and they raised their families in their new homes away from home. So it is no surprise that Nehemiah was able to talk freely with Hanani and his fellow travelers on their arrival from Judah.

Now, you might be asking yourself why I am giving you this short history lesson? The answer is this: sometimes it is easy to overlook something significant in the Bible, when we aren’t aware of its context. Without understanding what was going on with Ezra, who was living at the same time as Nehemiah, and the failed efforts to rebuild the Temple, Nehemiah’s strong reaction to Hanani’s news about the state of Jerusalem and the fact that its walls were still in tatters and its gates still burned doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean, why would Nehemiah be so distraught over this news, when the city had been destroyed 140 years ago by a previous king, long before he was even born?

When we realize that Nehemiah was probably expecting to hear good news about Ezra’s efforts to rebuild the Temple, which would have led to other restoration efforts in Jerusalem, his anguish begins to make more sense. You see, a report that those who had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild it were in trouble, and the city itself was still in tatters was a clear indication to Nehemiah that the Temple project had been a failure and that his people would continue in their struggle to return to the right worship of God. In other words, their exile in Babylon would continue.

Nehemiah’s response to this news shows that he was utterly heartbroken, and he was moved deeply to grieve for Israel. Even though the exile had occurred long before his birth, and though he had always lived in a foreign land, his ties to his people and his faithfulness to God were so strong that he couldn’t help but share in the grief of God’s people at their ongoing troubles. Even though he was not personally involved with the rebuilding project, Nehemiah experienced personal loss at its interruption.

Have you ever shared someone else’s grief in this way? Have you ever identified so deeply with the heartache of others that it became your heartache as well?

 

II. Shared Grief

Like most people, I have experienced moments in this life that have led me to grieve deeply. Some of these events have been very personal, but others have been moments of sorrow shared with family and friends. Many of you will remember that in our first month here Sarah and I briefly returned to Kentucky in the wake of a tragedy involving a family close to us from our church there. This young couple had been married only a few years and had finished the process of adopting their infant son only weeks before she received the diagnosis that her cancer was back. He was serving as the youth pastor of our church, and we prayed daily as a community for her healing. As the months went along, though, the treatments ceased to work, and her cancer grew.

Shortly after we moved to Brazil, and less than a year from her diagnosis, God welcomed our friend into paradise. On the morning I shared our request for prayer for her family and broke down on this stage, my grief was raw and real. But truth be told, the grieving process had started long before the end was in sight. You see, we don’t only experience grief at a loss, we also experience sorrow when we witness others we love in distress.

This is especially true when someone in our church family is experiencing grief. Our community has witness several great losses and tragedies in the past few months, and I know that some of us here are still struggling with shared sorrow in the light of these events. I suspect that this is not the first time you have experienced such sadness, and I am sure it will not be the last. God doesn’t promise us the absence of trouble in this life, but he does promise that he will give us his peace in the midst of our troubles. And the Bible also assures us that we do not suffer alone. In 1 Corinthians 12:16 Paul says, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” When we belong to the body of Christ, we commit ourselves to sharing in the joys, the defeats, the praises, and yes, even the grief of our fellow Christians.

I suspect this is why the news of Jerusalem’s troubles hit Nehemiah so hard. He wasn’t grieving for himself only, but for a whole nation of God’s people, who were desperate for rescue from exile, for a sense of purpose in a world that had turned against them, and for the restoration of the center of their identity as a people – the Temple and its holy city.

When Nehemiah received news about Jerusalem’s desolation, the Bible says that he sat down and wept, and for days he fasted and prayed. Have you ever been so upset by something that you couldn’t eat, and all you could do was weep and cry out to God over and over to make things better? If so, then you know that Nehemiah’s actions were the response of a man who has been crushed by terrible news. He had been so personally affected by what he heard, that he could no longer function normally.

 

III. What is Good about Grief?

Grief is the expression of a broken heart, whether it is personal or shared with others. It is the deeply felt acknowledgment that something has gone very, very wrong. But the Bible promises us in Romans 8:38 “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In other words, God is always working on our behalf, even in the midst of great trials. God is a God who can turn our sorrow into laughter, and change our distress into peace. If this is true, as I believe it must be, then it begs a question that I would like us to briefly consider this morning. How does God make something good out of our grief? Or to put it more simply, when is grief good?

First, I believe God is able to use our grief for something good when it drives us toward him in faith. When we are in the midst of trials in this life, it is so easy to turn inward, to close ourselves off from everyone and everything around us, and to blame God for our situation. But that road only leads to darkness and greater despair. God calls us instead to keep out eyes focused on him, when we are at our worst, and to seek his help in our greatest moments of need. God has been slowly teaching me this lesson, and last year, when things seemed to be going downhill for our friends in Kentucky, God spoke hope and comfort to my soul. As I wrestled with my sorrow, God gave me a glimpse of his goodness and the faith to write the following words.

“As I continue to think about and pray for our friends, I am reminded of Psalm 121. This psalm is far from a lament, because apart from the desperation of overwhelming circumstances it sees the hope of God. And it sees this hope as something more than a future promise. In the midst of tremendous need, this psalm proclaims that hope has already broken in to the present reality; that light is actively piercing the darkness and life is overcoming death.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.

“It is sometimes difficult to balance hope with our present reality. It is hard to see a silver lining when the sky is filled with thunderclouds. So what do we do, when we stand on the outside of suffering, looking in with helpless despair? The temptation is to give up, to settle for apathy. For many of us, the default mode is to offer trite words of comfort, because we don’t know what else to do. But what if we take seriously what the Psalmist says? What if we live fully into the promises of God that he has our best interests at heart?

“What if our cries of lament were to become a chorus of praise? Not praise of life’s terrible circumstances, but praise of the One who created us, who loves us, who sustains us, and who sent his Son so that we might become his children. What would that look like? What sort of hope would that offer to those without hope?

“I am praying daily that God will heal our friend. I believe he can do so. And in my despair, I am choosing to give praise to God, because this situation does not change who he is, nor who we are in his eyes. I know that he loves our friend and that she belongs to Jesus. I know that he sees her hurting. I know that he cares and is walking with her in the midst of her suffering, holding the darkness at bay, because he is the only one who can.”

Those words arose out of a deep conviction that God is in control, that God is good, and that God loves his children. And I believe that God is able to take our grief and turn it into joy when we turn to him in faith, surrendering all we are to Jesus and trusting him to carry our burdens. Jesus alone can turn the sorrow of this life into happiness, and we know this is true because in John 16:33 he said to his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Second, I believe God is able to use our grief for something good when we learn to grieve over the things that grieve the heart of God. Once we have accepted God’s gift of grace through faith in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit in our lives God begins to transform us from the inside out until we learn to love as Jesus loves us. And when we love as Jesus loves, we begin to grieve the things that grieve him. We begin to view the world through his eyes, and we find that God invites us to extend his grace into those dark places that still remain in the world.

I believe there are three things, in particular, that grieve the heart of God. The first is people who are living far away from him. The Bible tells us in John 3:16-17 “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.” God is not content that people should live separated from him, and the whole scope of salvation history is the story of God seeking out his lost children to return them safely home.

The second thing that I believe grieves the heart of God is disunity in his church. 1 Peter 2 says that the church is the special possession of God, rejected by humans but precious to him. When our unity becomes shaken by disagreements or selfish desires or a loss of common vision, we threaten to separate the body of Christ, purchased by his blood. It is for this reason that Paul continually calls for unity in the church, as he did in Philippians 2 when he said, “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

The third thing that I believe grieves the heart of God is sin among the faithful. The church is the bride of Christ, and we are called to remain pure and blameless until his return in glory (1 Thess. 5:23). Once we have received God’s gift of grace through faith in Jesus, he justifies us, washing us clean of our guilt, and we are born again in the Spirit, giving us freedom from sin’s power in our lives. So when we continue to live as though sin reigns in our lives we grieve the heart of God. Paul explained this well in Romans 6.

“We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”

When we learn turn to God in our despair and when we begin to grieve over the things that grieve the heart of God, he is able to take our sorrow and produce something good out of it. He is able to move us to act in redemptive ways to bring lost people back into relationship with God, to seek unity in the body of Christ, and to pursue lives of holiness that please God. In other words, he is able to generate in us a faith that works by love (Galatians 5:6).

 

III. How Should We Respond in Our Grief?

Nehemiah was broken, distraught, even out of control in his grief. But, though he was experiencing tremendous distress, he didn’t allow himself to remain there for long, but instead turned to God for his relief. In doing so, he offers us an example of how we should respond in both our personal and our shared grief, and of what faith working by love looks like. Here is how Nehemiah responded to his grief:

First, he allowed himself to mourn. Verse 4 says that he sat down and wept, and then mourned and fasted for several days. He didn’t try to pretend that nothing had happened, and he didn’t try to avoid his heartache. Instead, he acknowledged it and allowed himself time to grieve.

After he took some time to admit his sorrow, Nehemiah praised God for who God is and what God does for those who call upon his name. In verse 5 he began to pray, and the first thing he did was acknowledge that God is a great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of love with those who love and obey him. By doing this, Nehemiah acknowledged that he couldn’t see the whole picture of what God was doing, and that he understood God was in control and acting in the best interests of those who love him.

This recognition of God’s goodness and greatness immediately drove Nehemiah to confess his sin in verses 6-7. He recognized that human tragedy was not part of God’s good design for creation, but was introduced into the world because of Adam’s sin. Just as he shared in Israel’s grief, he also shared in Israel’s sin, so his confession was not just for his own sin, but for Israel’s sin as well. Through confession and recognition of his own guilt, Nehemiah avoided the trap of blaming God for Israel’s troubles.

And finally, Nehemiah asked God to empower him to act in verse 11. He asked God for his blessing to do something about his grief by putting his faith to work. And, as we will see in the coming weeks, God answered his prayer.

 

IV. Application

Some of you have come here this morning bearing the weight of a personal or shared grief. Maybe you lost a loved one recently and the pain of that loss is still fresh in your heart. Or maybe you have friends or family members who are hurting and can’t seem to find the hope to move on, and you are sharing in their grief. Maybe you have experienced some sort of upheaval in your life and you are struggling to find meaning or purpose in your everyday. My guess is that some of you are holding onto grief from events long past that continues to produce sorrow and regret in your present.

You can have freedom from all of these things today, if you’ll trust in Jesus to carry your burdens for you. Only he can turn your sorrows into joy. Only he can make something good out of your grief. But you have to release it to him, before he will be able to do anything with it.

In order to do that, some of you need to allow yourself the time and space to mourn. Maybe you have experienced tremendous heartache, and you are overflowing with grief, but you haven’t given yourself permission to mourn yet. Maybe you think it shows weakness, or you don’t think you should give in to your sadness, or maybe you just don’t want to feel the pain and you’ve constructed walls to protect yourself. Jesus experienced every part of what it means to be human. He knows what you are going through, and he will carry you through the tough times, but you have to give yourself a chance to grieve, if you ever hope to let Jesus help you heal.

Some of you have been letting grief take control in your life for too long already, and what you need to do is look to God and acknowledge that he is awesome and powerful and good. You need to trust him to help you deal with your sorrow.

Some of you need to confess your sin. Let’s be brutally honest here. Some of you are experiencing grief right now because you are continuing to let sin reign in your life. It’s time to cast off the old self and start living the new life that God has given you through Jesus. And if you haven’t ever experienced the beginning of that new life, maybe its time for you to receive Jesus into your life as your Lord and Savior, and stop trying to make it on your own. You can do that today if you will confess your sin to God and ask Jesus to come into your life.

As we close today, we have the opportunity to walk out of this place with the weight of our grief lifted off our shoulders and placed squarely on the cross. Don’t let this opportunity pass. You can cast your burdens on Jesus, and he will be faithful to carry them and you into a future filled with hope. Why don’t you make today the day when you ask Jesus to give you the grace to act in faith?

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you today that you are a great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who trust in you by your grace. We thank you that you sent your Son Jesus to die on the cross, so that we might be freed from the burden of sin and shame. And we thank you that you are willing and able to turn our grief into something good, when we turn to you in faith.

Would you take away our sorrow today, and replace it with joy. And would you teach us to grieve over the things that grieve your heart, so that we might be moved to act in ways that bear witness to your love and grace at work in the world. We ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Book Review: I am a Church Member, by Thom S. Rainer

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Thom S. Rainer, I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference (B&H Books, 2013)

In this short book (79 pages) Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian resources and author of the more recent Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive
(B&H Books, 2014), tackles the the attitudes and responsibilities of church members.

Rainer brings years of research and consultations with struggling churches to the table to diagnose the problem with a modern Western view of membership in a church. He argues that we have carried a country club attitude with us from the secular world and applied it to the church, with detrimental results.

According to Rainer, a country club membership primarily conveys rights and privileges to the member. Once dues are paid, the member has rights to use the facilities, to dictate tastes and desires, and to be served by country club staff. In contrast to this, a Biblical view of church membership includes joyful responsibilities and opportunities for the member, rather than rights and privileges.

As a remedy to this country club way of thinking about membership, Rainer suggests the reader consider and commit to six pledges of church membership. Each pledge is represented by a corresponding chapter title, and each chapter includes study questions to guide group discussions.

  1. I Will Be a Unifying Church Member
  2. I Will Not Let the Church Be About My Preferences and Desires
  3. I Will Pray for My Church Leaders
  4. I Will Lead My Family to Be Healthy Church Members
  5. I Will Be a Functioning Member
  6. I Will Treasure Church Membership as a Gift

Rainer utilizes a pastoral style and personal examples to illustrate common scenarios in the church and how a shift in expectations from country club to Biblical membership not only remedies problems, but also strengthens the church.

On a personal note, the lay leader at my church handed me this book last night at a meeting. I went home and immediately starting reading it, finishing it in two short sessions. I couldn’t put it down. This book is an excellent starting point for church leaders and lay members alike to evaluate their own hearts and expectations surrounding church membership. The six pledges are thought provoking, convicting, and encouraging at the same time.

I highly recommend this book for pastors, church leadership, and lay persons alike, who believe the local church is God’s primary means of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and who wish to strengthen all those who, by faith,  seek to live as vibrant members of the church.

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Sermon: Now What?

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“What Now?”
1 Thessalonians 5:5-24

5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

 

I. Introduction

Several weeks ago we began a series of conversations about the foundations of our Christian faith – those things we know from the Bible that form the core of our understanding of where we come from, what God has done for us, and who we are now called to be in Jesus Christ.

The first week we learned that we all share a common origin and a universal problem. We discovered that, although Adam and Eve were created to enjoy perfect fellowship with God, they chose to disobey his command and ate of the forbidden fruit. Because of their disobedience, sin entered the world and each of us has inherited a sin nature that makes us prone to choose earthly things over our heavenly Father. We learned that every single person has sinned against God, and we are all deserving of God’s wrath. But we also learned that God is love, and because he loves us he extended grace to Adam and Eve at the moment of their fall to sustain them and draw them back to him. He extends that same prevenient grace to each of us from the moment we are born. This grace convicts us of our sin, helps us to see good and evil for what they are, and points us toward God.

The second week, we looked closely at God’s definitive answer to our problem of sin and guilt. Romans 5:6 says, “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” We learned that Christ’s sacrifice is the only sufficient payment for our sin, and that we share in the benefits of the cross when we receive God’s free gift of grace through faith in Jesus. When we profess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, God looks at Christ’s righteousness and forgets our unrighteousness; he sees Jesus’ faithfulness and forgives our unfaithfulness. God completely cleanses our souls, he frees us from the guilt of our sin and the fear of death, and he offers us assurance through the witness of the Holy Spirit that we are his children.

Next we talked about what Jesus meant when he spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth, and we learned that when we become justified by grace, through faith in Jesus, our spiritual lives start over and we begin to live in a new reality. First, we are born out of a life enslaved to sin into a life of freedom from the power and presence of sin in our lives. We no longer have to give in to our sinful desires, but can instead live in the power of the Spirit. Second, we are born from above as citizens of God’s kingdom. And like citizenship in our country, our citizenship in God’s kingdom gives us certain rights: the rights of assurance, hope, and peace with God. And finally, when we are born again, we are born into a new family as daughters and sons of the King. We become heirs of God and coheirs with Christ of all God’s promises.

So that’s it right? Mission accomplished. We were sinners, but now we have been saved by faith. We have been found blameless through justification and we have been given new life in the new birth. So we are good right? We are saved. We might as well all go home this morning and just live our lives and wait until Jesus comes back.

Now, that should sound crazy to you; it certainly sounds crazy to hear myself say it, because we know intuitively that this isn’t true. We know that God has more in store for us that simply professing Jesus as Lord then sitting back in security and watching the world burn. We know this, because the Bible places demands on our lives from cover to cover, and we know we have been commissioned to go out into the world, baptizing people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And even the worldliest people who enter the church as believers understand that in order to follow Jesus we are going to have to leave some pieces of our old life behind, don’t we. So it would be crazy to say that we are done, once we accept Jesus into our lives. And yet, so many of us do just that. We might not say it with our mouths, but we all know that actions often speak louder than words. So, while we might profess with our mouths that we are following Jesus where he leads us, many times we are just paying lip service to our commitment to Christ.

It is not enough for us to understand where we come from and what God has done for us. If we are to truly become the people that God intends for us to be – fully redeemed persons – we must also understand and embrace who it is that God has called us to be now in Christ. In other words, what now?

 

II. Children of the light

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul wrote to a church that seemed to have it all together. He and his companions had visited Thessalonica to preach the gospel, and their words had fallen on ready ears and hearts. The Thessalonians had embraced the good news of Jesus so fully, even amid persecution, that they had become a model to other believers (v. 7).

In chapter 2 Paul reminded the church about the example he had set for them. I verses 10-11 he said, “You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” Then Paul went on to confirm with joy how the Thessalonians had embraced their teaching as God’s truth and had become imitators of others who are in Jesus Christ.

We know from some of Paul’s letters to other churches that problems sometimes arose after he left a place where he had ministered. In fact, many of his letters were sent to offer correction and exhortation to remember the message he had brought. But apparently, things were still going so well in Thessalonica, that when Paul sent Timothy to check on them he returned with a glowing report, and Paul’s response was to tell them how he was encouraged by their faith, even while he was being persecuted (3:7-8).

It would seem that since the Thessalonian church had things pretty much together nothing more needed to be said or done. But Paul didn’t see this healthy church as a mission accomplished; he saw it as a fertile field for the sowing of the Spirit. And so he encouraged the church to remember who they are called now to be in Christ, and he urged them to remain alert and self-disciplined, so that they might be kept blameless – mind, soul, and body – until the coming of Jesus (5:23).

Kept blameless. Those are some interesting and important words for us to consider this morning. We know that we have been declared blameless, justified by the blood of Christ the moment we received him by grace, through faith. So what does it mean to be kept blameless? It means simply this: that we do not return to the ways of those who are still guilty of sin and deserving of God’s wrath. It means living into the new birth that we have received from above, and acting as though we are children in the Father’s household. It means remembering that we are children of the light, as Paul said in verse 5, and living in such a way that we demonstrate with our lives that we belong to the day (v. 8). This was Paul’s greatest hope and desire for the church, and it should remain ours as well.

The Bible has a word that encapsulates what it means to be children of the light. That word is sanctified. Now we don’t use this term much in contemporary society, but we in the church know it by another name as well: holiness. You will recall that when God gave the law to Israel, he began with these words: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Lev. 19:2)” And throughout the old and new testaments we are continually reminded that God expects and demands holiness from his people. But what does that really mean?

Maybe it will help us to define our terms. Here is a definition that will help us understand what Paul meant when he said in verse 23, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.” When something is sanctified (made holy), it is consecrated, set apart, purified, and made morally acceptable. Let’s hear that again. When something is sanctified, it is consecrated, set apart, purified, and made morally acceptable.

So, when Paul declared his desire to the Thessalonian church that they become sanctified throughout, he was calling them to live as people who had been consecrated by God, set apart as his special possession, purified from their sinfulness, and made morally acceptable to him. And this reality was to be exhibited in every aspect of their lives – mind, soul, and body.

 

III. How do we become sanctified?

The New Testament has a lot to say about how God’s people become holy and set apart. I would like for us to briefly consider three things the Bible says are necessary for us to continue living as those who are being sanctified.

  1. The first thing necessary for us to be sanctified is faith in Jesus Christ. In Acts 26 Paul testified before Agrippa about his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. In verses 17 and 18, he recalled the charge that he was given by Christ. “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

In the same way that we are justified by grace through faith, so too are we sanctified by grace through faith. This is the free gift of God to all those who believe in Jesus and profess him as Lord. There is nothing you or I can do to earn our salvation, not one bit of it, either in this life or the next. It is only by grace that we have the hope of being found blameless before a holy God, and it is only by grace that we can be not only declared righteous, but actually made so. Jesus Christ alone is our hope for salvation, both in this life and the next. And because he was faithful to the end, we can trust what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:8, that God will also keep us firm to the end, so that we will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. Second, the Bible tells us that we become sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul expressed his joy for the faithfulness of the church, saying, “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” And In Romans 15:16 he reaffirmed that he had been sent to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, so that they “might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

From these passages and others we know that wherever God’s grace abounds we find the work of Father, Son, and Spirit in complete union with one another. We are reconciled to the Father by grace, through faith in the Son, and by the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. And through the power of the Spirit working in us, we are sanctified in Christ and kept blameless before the Father. We cannot please God through our own efforts, but when we live our lives in the power of the Spirit, he is able to use us in ways that are pleasing to the Father.

  1. Thirdly, the Bible tells us that we are sanctified by the word of God. In John 17:17 Jesus asks the Father to keep safe those who have responded to him in faith saying, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.”

If part of what it means to become sanctified is to be found morally acceptable, then it is necessary for us to actually do things that are acceptable to God. The good news is that we know what these things are, because God has spoken them to us through his word. What I said before is true: we cannot do anything to earn our salvation and we can do nothing to please God on our own. But when we confess Jesus as Lord and live in the power of the Holy Spirit, he is able to help us pursue things that are pleasing to God.

But here is where we have to be careful. Sanctification is not merely adherence to a set of rules; it is a complete transformation of our hearts and minds. Paul represents his desire for this change of heart in his charge to the Thessalonians by encouraging them to love one another, to give thanks to God in all situations, and to seek good and avoid evil. Notice that he didn’t repeat the Ten Commandments to them or give them a lengthy list of things they couldn’t do. Instead, he encouraged them to seek that change of mind, soul, and body that can only come through the work of the Spirit and which makes it possible for them to keep God’s commandments in the first place. As that internal change takes place, Paul knows that true faith will be demonstrated by obeying God’s word, because following the commands of God makes us holy and pleasing to him.

 

IV. Application: What does this mean for us today?

It was Jesus’ desire that his followers should be sanctified by God, and Paul echoed this in his letters to the church. If this is so, why do we so often find ourselves stuck wondering what comes next after we have received Christ as our Lord and Savior? I think it is because we have forgotten what God’s purpose has been all along. Since the moment Adam and Eve fell into sin, God’s one aim for his creation has been to restore humanity to the perfect relationship we once had with him. God’s plan of redemption is more than just a get-out-of-jail-free card; his plan is for us to become fully remade humans, reflecting his image to the world. Salvation is both a future and a present reality for those who trust in Jesus as Lord.

Our salvation in this present life can never fully be realized if we continue to resist the work of sanctification in our lives. God’s ultimate desire for us is not that we would learn to follow a set of rules, but that our hearts would be fully transformed. But this transformation takes place within the context of God’s commands, given to us in scripture and applied to us by the Holy Spirit. What does this mean for us, practically speaking? It means that only God can sanctify us, and he does so as we follow Jesus in the way of faithful obedience to God’s commands.

So, how can we know whether or not we are pursuing the holiness that God desires from us? How can we know whether or not we are moving forward in our sanctification? There are a few tests that we can apply to ourselves right now that will help us to see where we are following God and where we are putting up barriers that impede our progress. As yourself these questions:

  1. Do you see evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in your life? When you examine your actions and attitudes, do you see evidence that you are filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?
  2. Are you actively doing the things Jesus did? Are you following all of the commands of God in scripture? Are you avoiding evil and seeking out good, are you loving the people Jesus would love, and are you sacrificing the things Jesus would sacrifice?
  3. Are you still struggling with sin in your life? Are you still engaging in patterns of behavior that would identify you as a child of darkness, instead of a child of light? If you aren’t sure, ask yourself if you would be comfortable sharing all of your habits and behaviors openly with your family? Now, that thing that just popped into your head – that might be sin for you, because it is the nature of sin to remain hidden.
  4. Finally, what sorts of things are you consuming on a regular basis? I think many of us sort of run on autopilot when it comes to the things we consume, like entertainment. But we are called to be set apart, to be different than the world around us. This means carefully choosing which things will hold influence over our hearts and minds.

This is a difficult question for me to ask and for many of us to hear, because it gets into very personal spaces. But I have to ask: are you consuming entertainment that runs contrary to the purity God calls us to seek? Are you watching television shows or movies filled with excessive violence, nudity, foul language, and other immorality? Some of the most popular shows on television right now have become pornographic in their content. In fact, this coming weekend the movie Shades of Gray will be released, and theaters will be filled with men and women, many of whom profess to be Christians, as they fill their minds with visions of sexual abuse and immorality. Have you thought about how the media you consume affects your spiritual growth? I recently stopped watching a show I had enjoyed off an on for a few years because it simply became too violent, and I realized that it was affecting the way I viewed the world around me. We are called to be discerning about such things, to flee from evil and to embrace good. We are called to seek the renewing of our minds and the purity of our bodies as a pleasing sacrifice to God.

All of these things place us at odds with the world. When we allow God to sanctify us, to make us set apart and morally acceptable, it means we look different than the world around us that doesn’t know Jesus. So, If you aren’t meeting any resistance from the world about the way you live, that might be an indication that you are living as a citizen of the world, rather than a citizen of God’s kingdom.

Paul’s charge to the Thessalonian church still stands for us today. In Christ, we are called to live as children of the light, to put away those things that held us in bondage to darkness and to seek out those things that lead to holiness. By God’s grace alone, we can do this, but only if we receive his grace in faith.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, we thank you for your love and grace. We thank you for your Son Jesus, who you sent to earth to die on a cross in our place, so that we might become your daughters and sons. Help us today to live lives worthy of Christ’s sacrifice. Helps us to rely on the Spirit to transform our inner being, help us to obey your commands in scripture, and form us into children of the light, so that all the world can see your good work and give praise to you alone. Amen!

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Sermon: Reborn

foundations-blue

 

“Reborn”
John 3:1-6

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 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.”

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

4 “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!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

 

I. Introduction

Two weeks ago, we began investigating the foundations of our Christian faith in hopes of better understanding where we come from, what God has done for us, and who we are now called to be in Christ. We started by looking at where we come from, and we learned that God created Adam and Eve in his own image to enjoy fellowship with him. Because he loved them, he gave them free will – the ability to freely decide whether or not they would return God’s love.

We learned that Adam disobeyed God’s command to abstain from the fruit in the middle of the garden, and so chose to follow his own desires, rather than God’s desires for him. And, as a result of Adam’s sin, each of us here today has inherited a sin nature, which means we have a tendency to choose sin and worship temporary things instead of our eternal God.

But we also learned from Scripture that God is love. And because he loves us, he stepped in at the moment of Adam and Eve’s fall to stop their downward spiral and to care for them in their fallen state. God’s prevenient grace goes before us and points us toward God, enabling us to recognize good and evil for what they are, and granting us the ability to respond favorably to God’s call to follow him. We are each responsible for our sin, because God has given us the ability, by his grace, to rely on him in faith. But, when we choose sin over God, as the Bible says we all do, we become guilty of disobedience and deserving of God’s wrath. This is where we come from.

Last week, we talked about what God has done for us. We learned that being guilty of sin is just like being guilty of a crime in a court of law. We have damaged our relationship with God through our disobedience, and our guilt requires a response from God, because he is just and righteous. God has decreed that a blood sacrifice is the only means by which we can atone for sin and turn away God’s just punishment. And out of his love for us God has provided Jesus as the once and for all sacrifice for sin. When we receive God’s gift of grace, through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God removes our guilt and we become blameless. We share in Christ’s sin offering, we are justified by his blood, and we are declared righteous by God.

We heard that the result of justification is forgiveness for our disobedience, freedom from the power of sin in our lives, and the gift of assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we belong to God. And finally, we reaffirmed the Bible’s teaching that justification is only available by grace, through faith. The Bible says that when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. This is the gift of God to all those who put their trust in Jesus.

Today, we are going to continue talking about what God has done for us, as we discuss what it means to be born again.

 

II. Nicodemus

Now, we use phrases like “born again” to describe Christians all the time don’t we. But have you ever stopped to really think about that phrase? I have to be honest, it just sounds weird to me. And I’m pretty sure it sounds extra strange to people outside the church. But here is some good news for us to consider: this has always sounded strange to people, even religious ones, so at least we aren’t alone in our confusion. In fact, the first time this phrase appears is in the passage from John that we just read, and the very first person who heard it was just as puzzled as we might be about its meaning. John tells us that the first one to hear about this was a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is introduced as an important Jewish figure. He was a Pharisee, which means that he was one of the religious elite. If you remember, a few weeks ago we talked about the Apostle Paul’s conversion, and we learned that he, too, was a Pharisee. Now, not all Pharisees were as zealous as Paul and they certainly didn’t all persecute Christians, but they were all concerned with keeping the letter of the law, so they were very strict. John also says that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and a teacher of Israel (v. 10), which means that he was familiar with the doctrinal issues of his time.

Up to this point, Jesus had already been making some waves. John the Baptist had been talking about him, and how he saw the Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. He had begun to call together a group of disciples, who were traveling through the countryside with him. When it was nearing time for the Passover Feast Jesus traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples, but when he saw the money changers ripping people of in the Temple courts, he turned over their tables and chased them out for dishonoring God with their greed and showing disrespect for God’s house. Jesus had also been making some strange claims, like the time he told some people who challenged him that, if they destroyed the temple, he would rebuild it in three days.

On top of all this, Jesus had been going around performing miracles. These started with a wedding feast where the bridal party ran out of wine, which would have been viewed as shameful. At his mother’s request, Jesus turned water into wine and protected them from disgrace. This was his first public miracle, and we find out after that, in John 2:23, that Jesus had been performing other miraculous signs all over Jerusalem, which led many people to believe in his name.

So, when Nicodemus heard about Jesus’ miracles and teachings he was understandably interested to find out more. He approached Jesus at night, which might indicate that he was concerned with other people seeing him associate with this new teacher. But he wasn’t harsh in his approach. In fact, his greeting was courteous, and he acknowledged that no one could do the things Jesus was doing, unless God was with him.

Jesus, who was able to read and understand the hearts of people, knew why Nicodemus was really there. He wasn’t there to exchange pleasantries; he was curious about what Jesus was teaching. So Jesus, who was able to read people so well, got right to the point and revealed to him the truth about the one question he knew was most important to Nicodemus. How can we enter God’s kingdom? This is the question to which he had devoted his entire life. It was his single pursuit, and the reason for his religious zeal. He was trying to enter the kingdom by his strict adherence to the Law of Moses. So, Jesus must have thrown him for a loop, when he said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” What in the world could this mean?

 

III. Born Again (from Above)

Nicodemus’ response seems pretty ridiculous on the surface doesn’t it? I mean, this was an educated man, but it sounded like he was asking how a person could re-enter their mother’s womb and be physically born again. I think we have to give poor Nicodemus a bit more credit here, and assume he understood that Jesus was talking about a spiritual reality, rather than a physical one. The word John used to convey the Jesus’ idea that a person must be “born again” was ανωθεν, which is better translated as “from above”. In other words, what Jesus meant was that a person has to be reborn as a citizen of heaven, rather than a citizen of the earth. So, when Nicodemus asked how a man could be reborn when he is old, he was trying to understand if it was possible for a person whose habits and ways of thinking had been fixed by age to truly change to the point that they are worthy of one born into heaven. I mean, it isn’t as if we can start over like a newborn baby and learn everything from scratch.

Jesus’ answer was to elaborate a little, by telling Nicodemus that what is required for a person to enter God’s kingdom is not a new way of thinking or a new pattern of behavior. What is required for entry into the kingdom is a transformation so complete, that it is like being born all over again. And this can only happen when we are born of water and the Spirit.

But what did Jesus mean by this? Was he simply saying that a person must first be born as a human, a process that involves watery fluid? Or was he talking about something else? Jesus was attempting to clarify his teaching to Nichodemus, and John would presumably want his audience to also understand his meaning. So, when Jesus talked about being born of water he was most likely pointing to baptism, which both Nicodemus and the reader would understand, since John the Baptist’s ministry immediately preceded Jesus’ ministry.

We need to proceed cautiously here, though, because some interpretations of this particular text have taken Jesus’ words to mean that baptism is required for salvation. Baptism is a work that God does in us as a means of grace, and it is also a symbol of our death to sin and life in Christ. But it does not have the power to save us from sin. Let me be clear this morning that there is no ritual that can rescue us from sin to eternal life. Only Jesus can do that. So, we have to go a bit deeper than the surface to understand Jesus’ meaning. When he referred to being born by water, he was talking about the repentance that baptism symbolizes. And when he talked about being born of the Spirit, he is talking about the Holy Spirit that is received by faith.

In other words, Jesus was repeating the same message that he had preached over and over, as you may recall from the other gospels, and the same message John the Baptist preached before him: “repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Nicodemus approached Jesus wanting to know what the key was to entering the kingdom of God. Jesus’ answer to him was “repentance and faith”, which lead to new birth and new life in him.

 

IV. What Happens in the New Birth?

Let’s very briefly look at three things that happen, when we are born again through repentance and faith in Jesus.

  1. First, we are born out of a life of sin into a life of freedom. As you recall, each of us has been born with a sin nature because of Adam. This means that we have a tendency to choose sin over God. When we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus, our sin guilt is removed, and we gain freedom from sin’s power and presence in our lives. The Holy Spirit gives birth to a new spirit in us, one that is purified and made holy. This is the beginning of our sanctification.

As our hearts are reoriented toward God by grace, it becomes possible for us to choose what is good, and reject what is evil. And we gain a new foothold on life; instead of being defined by our sin, our identity now rests in Christ. We no longer live with a birth heritage tied to sin, but one that is tied to the life of God. This means that we truly are a new creation. Sin has no more sway over us. We are free to be God’s chosen people, to worship him openly, and to serve him as witnesses in the world.

  1. Second, we are born from above as citizens of God’s kingdom. Now citizenship always comes with some rights. Our citizenship in the United States of America gives us the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Likewise, our citizenship in the kingdom of God gives us the rights of assurance, hope, and peace.

You may remember from last week that 1 John 5:10-12 promises: “Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony [of the Holy Spirit]. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Belief in Jesus is all that is required for us to be remade in Christ. Since we know that being in Christ has nothing to do with our efforts, we also know that our failures won’t suddenly cause us to fall out of Christ when we stumble. The knowledge that we are secure in God’s grace, even when we falter, should bring us assurance that we belong to God and that his promises are true for us.

As citizens of God’s kingdom we also share in the hope that God’s kingdom brings to the world; the hope of eternal life with God that begins right now, and future resurrection in the new creation. God’s kingdom also brings the hope that all the things that have been turned upside down by sin are being put right again. And though the kingdom has not yet fully arrived, we can have confidence that God will complete the good work that he has started.

We also have peace with our God and king. We no longer live as enemies of the state, but as full-fledged members of God’s kingdom. We have been found innocent of our crimes against God, and can enjoy the peace of knowing that we rest in the sovereign will of our Creator.

  1. Third, and finally, when we are born again, we are born into a new family as daughters and sons of the King. Romans 8:14-17 says,

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

As heirs of God, we share in all the blessings of Christ’s glory. This means that we receive the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). It means we can have confidence that in all things God works for our good, as those who love him (Romans 8:28). And it means that we can trust that God will continue to work in us, conforming us daily into the image of Jesus.

 

V. Application

Nicodemus came to Jesus seeking answers about what a person can do to enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus’ answer to him is the same answer he gives to each of us today. There is nothing we can do that will gain us entry – only the grace of God can do that. When we repent of our sins and when we confess our belief in Jesus, by God’s grace, we become justified before God and we are reborn in the Spirit – we are born out of a life of sin into a life of freedom, we are born from above by the Spirit as citizens of the kingdom, and we are born into the family of God and new life in Christ.

We have an opportunity today and every day to live into these promises of God. This morning, I invite you to reflect upon the work of God in your life. Have you ever taken hold of the benefits of your rebirth in Christ? Are you still struggling with sin in your life, or have you accepted the freedom of life in the Spirit and turned away from sin? Have you taken full advantage of your citizenship in the kingdom of God? Do you have the assurance, hope, and peace that come from knowing you are a subject of the King? Do you live with the knowledge that you are a beloved child of God, adopted by grace in to the family of God? Have you received God’s inheritance and learned to rely on the Spirit in your weakness? Have you learned to depend on God to work on your behalf? And do you trust the Spirit to transform you into the image of Christ?

All of these things are available to you today, when you trust in Jesus alone for your salvation and live into the new birth you have received through him.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give you thanks today that we can indeed call you our Father. We thank you that you love us so much that you sent your Son Jesus to die on a cross for our sin, so that we might share in his inheritance as your daughters and sons. We thank you that you have given us the key to the kingdom of God, and that entry into your kingdom doesn’t rely on our efforts, but on your grace and mercy. Help us today to live as citizens of your kingdom. Help us to receive your gift of rebirth; to begin living as those for whom the old has passed away. Help us to put on the new life that can only be found in Jesus, and begin living lives fully submitted to the Holy Spirit. We ask all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: Blameless

foundations-blue

 

“Blameless”
Romans 5:1-11

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

I. Introduction

Last week we began a sermon series that will take a look at the foundations of our Christian faith; those truths, which are central to our understanding of where we come from, what God has done for us, and who we are now called to be in Christ. We began by looking at where we come from, and we learned last week that we all share a common beginning and a universal problem. We discovered that God created Adam and Eve in his own image, to enjoy fellowship with God and to care for his creation. We discussed how the nature of love requires choice; it cannot be coerced or it is not truly love. So, because he loved Adam and Eve, God created them with free will, giving them to ability chose whether or not to return his love. The choice given to them was represented by a single command – do not eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden.

The source of humanity’s universal problem came from Adam’s choice to reject the promises of God and disobey God’s command. By eating the fruit, Adam sinned, and the image of God in him was damaged. Because of his disobedience every human has inherited a sin nature, which means that we have a tendency to choose sin and put other temporary things in the place of our eternal God. Our relationships with God have been damaged by sinful choices, and we have no ability to choose God, or to please him, on our own. We are considered utterly depraved, because there is no part of our lives that has not been touched by sin.

But we also learned from Scripture that God is love. And because he loves us, he stepped in at the moment of Adam and Eve’s fall to stop their downward spiral and to care for them in their fallen state. God’s prevenient grace – the grace that goes before us and points us toward God – partially restored God’s image in Adam and Eve and subsequent humanity, so that we can all recognize good and evil for what they are, and so that we have the ability to respond favorably to God’s call to follow him. We are each responsible for our sin, because God has given us the ability, by his grace, to rely on him in faith. But, when we choose sin over God, as the Bible says we all do, we become guilty of disobedience and deserving of God’s wrath.

So, we learned that we are all sinners, who have fallen short of God’s standards of holiness. We have each rebelled against his law of love and have been found guilty of sin. Because the stain of sin covers each of us, we can do nothing to repair our relationship with God. Nothing we do, no matter how good it might seem, can ever return us to that state of righteousness that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall. And while God’s prevenient grace points us toward God, but we still have the problem of guilt to deal with. You see, prevenient grace was just the beginning of God’s answer to the problem of sin. His full plans were not just to keep us from spiraling out of control, but also to restore us to a right relationship with him. But this can only be done when the guilt of sin has been removed. This is where God’s justifying grace comes into play.

 

II. Justification by Grace through Faith

Anytime we encounter “therefore” in the Bible, it should immediately make us curious what was said in the verses prior to what we are reading. “Therefore” completes a thought. In this case, we have to look all the way back to chapter 3, verse 21 to find out what Paul is talking about and how our justification is God’s answer to the problems of sin and guilt. He says,

“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

We commonly use the word “guilty” to describe our feelings, when we have done something that we are ashamed of. When we use this word, it carries the inherent understanding that someone has done something wrong, or at least that they have acted in a way, which will upset someone else. A guilty conscience means a person recognizes that, in some way, they have violated a rule or damaged relationship. This tracks well with our understanding of legal guilt too, doesn’t it? When a person is found guilty by a court of law, it means that sufficient evidence exists to show that a law has been broken, which requires restitution. In either case, the guilty party remains guilty until one of two things happens: they either receive forgiveness from the wounded party, or they receive punishment for their actions.

The guilt of sin is no different. We are guilty because we have violated God’s law of love. This is evidenced when we break his commandments. And we have damaged our relationship with God through our disobedience. Our guilt requires a response from God, because he is just and righteous. God has decreed that a blood sacrifice is the only means by which we can atone for sin and turn away God’s just punishment. And out of his love for us God has provided Jesus as the once and for all sacrifice for sin.

When we receive God’s gift of grace, through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God removes our guilt and we become blameless. We share in Christ’s sin offering, we are justified by his blood, and we are declared righteous by God. A pastor I respect says it this way: God power washes our souls, until they are white as snow and we are no longer stained by our sin. Though we deserve punishment for our disobedience, God instead offers us forgiveness – no strings attached. This is good news!

 

III. What Happens When We Are Justified?

In the moment we receive God’s justifying grace through faith, three things happen.

  1. First, we receive God’s forgiveness for our sins. John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” And Romans 5:1 says, “since we have been justified, we have peace with God.” The forgiveness offered through faith in Christ is total, complete. There is no sin for which Christ did not atone. And because we have been found blameless in him, we have also been reconciled to God. This means that our relationship with him has been restored. We are no longer viewed as enemies of God, but are instead called his children.
  2. Second, Paul goes on to tell us that our justification brings freedom from the power of sin in our lives. In Romans 6:1 Paul asks, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”

When we are justified, we receive the Holy Spirit, who empowers us to live as God’s holy people. We cannot do good works on our own, and all our efforts to do so fall short. But the Spirit gives us the strength to seek after Jesus and avoid those things that try to distract us from him. When we fix our eyes on Christ, we have the power to say no to sin, because you simply cannot follow Jesus and sin at the same time.

  1. Third, when we are justified we receive the gift of assurance that our sins are forgiven and that we belong to God. 1 John 5:10-12 says this:

“Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony [of the Holy Spirit]. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

When we believe in Jesus, we are remade to be in Christ by the grace of God. And when we are found to be in Christ, the Bible says that we have eternal life. There is no other requirement, but belief. We don’t have to change first, in fact we can’t. God is the one who changes us, and he does so after we receive his grace in faith. Since we know that being in Christ has nothing to do with our efforts, we also know that our failures won’t suddenly cause us to fall out of Christ when we stumble. The knowledge that we are secure in God’s grace, even when we falter, should bring us assurance that we belong to God and that his promises are true for us. This is the essence of what it means to have the peace of Christ in our hearts.

Forgiveness. Freedom. Assurance. All these are available to us the moment we are justified by grace, through faith in Jesus.

 

IV. Receiving God’s Justifying Grace

So, how do we receive God’s justifying grace? There is only one way – through faith. Justification doesn’t just happen to us; we don’t catch it like we do a cold by sitting too close to other justified people in a pew. It requires a conscious decision on our part to receive God’s pardoning grace; to repent of our sins and follow Jesus, to trust that he has the power to forgive us and that he is willing to do so right now. And because inviting Jesus to become king in our life is a conscious decision, we should remember that it has happened in our lives.

So let me ask you this: do you remember when you first confessed your sins before God and received Christ as your Lord and Savior?

I do. It was 1982 at the Federated Church in East Springfield Pennsylvania, and I was five years old.

[Here I shared my full testimony of when I received God’s gift of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ]

I will never forget that day. Now, I am not suggesting that every Christian has to remember the day they confessed Christ, but you should remember that it happened. There should be some sense that you wrestled with your sin and gave it over to God, trusting Jesus to wash you clean, and asking him into your life.

Some of you right now are still thinking about my age at the time I gave my life to Jesus, and you are wondering how a five year-old can possibly make a decision to do anything of importance. Let me tell you that God is no respecter of age. He is continually calling to us to follow him in faith, from the moment of our birth until our last breath. I was fortunate to be raised in a family and church that regularly demonstrated the love of Jesus to me, and so I recognized the presence of God when he moved on my heart.

Some of you grew up in similar surroundings. Some of you didn’t. We don’t known when the moment will come that a person’s soul is ready to be opened to the good news of Jesus. This is one reason why it matters so much how we approach the raising and training of our kids both at home and in church.

Not everyone’s experience will be the same, either. Some of you, like me, were led to faith by a sinner’s prayer, or maybe some version of the “four laws”. But some of you may have first confessed Christ as Lord at your confirmation or in the quiet of your bedroom. However it happened, your faith required an action on your part. You had to willingly receive God’s grace and forgiveness and confess him as Lord of your life.

But let me caution you today that there is no magic prayer that can save you, and just because you said a prayer one or twelve times at an altar as a terrified kid, while a preacher was screaming at you that you were destined for hell, it doesn’t mean you belong to Jesus. Fear isn’t enough to get you there; in fact we know from the Bible that God is a God who drives out fear. The sad truth is that there is a whole generation of people out there who weren’t saved by Jesus; they simply got the hell scared out of them by some preacher.

Now please hear what I am saying. I’m not saying that hell isn’t real; it is. And I’m not saying that it isn’t necessary for us to hear that the wages of our sin is death; they are! What I am saying is that fear of punishment and death is not enough to make us children of the King. To any desire we might have to flee from the wrath to come, we must also add faith. And this is only available to us by God’s grace.

Faith is the sure trust and confidence that God can and has forgiven you for your sins and offered you new life in Christ.

When we confess our sins to God and ask Jesus to become Lord of our lives, he cleanses our souls. He remembers our sins no more. Now this doesn’t mean that we are perfect from that moment on. In fact, we are going to talk about how God makes us holy in a couple of weeks, and how we can sometimes disrupt that process with our ongoing sin. But from the moment we accept Christ as Lord we are justified before God. The guilt of our sins is removed, and we become blameless before him.

I can’t stress this enough: the only thing that is required for us to become justified, forgiven people is belief in the death and resurrections of Jesus Christ and confession that he is Lord.

 

V. Application

Some of you might not remember a time when you ever said yes to Jesus. You may have been in church your whole life, but haven’t had an encounter with him that transformed your life, and you have never received the forgiveness he offers. He is ready and willing to offer that forgiveness to you today through the blood of Jesus. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. It only matters who Jesus is and what he has done for you. There is forgiveness for all at the foot of the cross.

Or maybe you have given your life to Christ already, but you are still struggling with sin. Being justified by Christ doesn’t mean that we are instantly perfect. It means we are forgiven for our imperfections and set free from bondage to sin. If you are struggling with sin in your life, you can confess that to Christ right now and ask him to give you the strength to resist temptation and pursue Jesus.

Some of you are stuck at the truth that you can have assurance of salvation this morning. You believe that Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead, and you have confessed him as Lord of your life, but you wonder every night, when you lay your head on your pillow whether or not you are saved. You go through life trying to do what you know is right. Maybe you read your Bible and pray regularly, you attend church, you try to love people, and you do your best to avoid sin. But when you stumble in life, as we are all prone to do from time to time, you start to wonder what will happen to you if you should die before you have a chance to confess a sin to God. Confession is a good thing when we know we have sinned, but do you find yourself racking your brain at night in an effort to remember every way you might have fallen short of God’s desires for you, so that you can confess them before you go to sleep? Do you find yourself with a sense of uneasiness or even fear, when you think about eternity? Are you unsettled in your Christian walk, lacking the peace of Christ in your daily life, and do you ever wonder where you will go when you die? Does this hit home for anybody?

I know a lot about this one personally, because I was stuck here for most of my life. I confessed Christ at an early age, and I tried to live for a long time like I thought I was supposed to, but it wasn’t long before I stumbled. And each time I stumbled I felt defeated and fearful that I was no longer saved. But the problem was not with the effectiveness of God’s grace to cover over my sins; the problem was with me. You see, I was still holding onto the guilt that God had already forgiven. I was living under the cloud of sins that God had forgotten. I was paralyzed with the fear that God was angry with me, and that every time I took a wrong step I had renewed his wrath. But the Bible promises us that, when we are justified by faith in Jesus, we are immediately found to be in Christ. And we can have assurance that we belong to God. We don’t have to live in fear and shame, because in Christ we are a new creation. The old has gone. And we are remade in him.

Whatever you are struggling with this morning, the path to freedom begins with grace. If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead God will justify you by his grace, and you will be forgiven and saved to eternal life with God. This is God’s gift to you, if you will receive it.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you did not leave us to spiral downward in our sinfulness, but that you have extended your grace to us and called us back to you. We thank you that you sent your Son, Jesus, as a perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins, and that, through faith, we can share in the benefits of his offering for us. Father, if there is someone here this morning who has yet to take that first step of faith to trust in you alone for salvation, would you touch their heart even now? Would you lead them to trust in Jesus and invite him to become Lord of their life? We thank you that your promises to us are true, and that we can trust you to fulfill all that you have promised us in Christ. For it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen!

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Mourning with Those Who Mourn

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“Love must be sincere…Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:9, 15)

This week has been a difficult one for me in ministry, and it came to a head this morning as I received news of another young life tragically ended by a vehicle accident. It has been a week filled with such news: a fatal wreck involving a local firefighter, a young mother of three (one in school with our kids) who suddenly passed away from a medical condition, the loss of a friend’s loved one to gun violence, a new diagnosis of cancer, and so many others. The prayer concerns raised at church on Sunday were many, and they have continued to pour in this week through emails, phone calls, and text messages.

There have been some joys, though, in the midst of these storms. I have also received good reports of restored health, faith strengthened, and grace received. Thanks be to God!

As a pastor – one who is called to walk with with people in the valleys and mountain tops of daily life, sharing God’s grace and guidance with them – the ups and downs can be, at times, emotionally overwhelming.  I love the people under my care, and I earnestly desire and pray for God’s best for them. When they rejoice, I rejoice with them; when they are burdened, I share in their burdens.

But no matter how much we love one another, we cannot carry our own or another’s burdens for long by ourselves. When we try to go solo, we invite destruction upon us. I have met pastors who responded to overwhelming need by emotionally shutting down, cut off from their congregations and unable to identify with them in their grief. I have met others who are emotional wrecks, who add unnecessary fuel to the fires already present in people’s lives. And I know that a fair share have decided that this calling wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and have left their work in the ministry of the gospel to seek out greener pastures.

I don’t believe that any of us are called to carry these burdens on our own. In fact, I don’t believe we are called to carry burdens at all. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

And in Hebrews 4:15, Paul reminds us, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

In other words, Jesus not only knows and understands our weakness – he experienced it himself -, but he has invited us to rely on him for our strength. Both of these passages have to do specifically with sin, which is our greatest human weakness. If we can trust him to carry us in our greatest need, then we can also trust him with our lesser weakness and need.

I have found that I am no good to anyone when I try to fly solo in ministry. This is equally true for all Christians, even when we haven’t been tasked with the care of a congregation, for we are all called in Christ to contend together with one another as as a single body of believers. If we are to be of any use at all to God and others, we have to cast our own burdens and the burdens we bear for other people onto Jesus in faith, and invite him to satisfy the need.

If we are to act with sincere love, as Paul invites in Romans 12, then it cannot be our broken, sub-par version of love – it must be God’s love at work in us. If we are to truly rejoice with others, it must be because of the joy of God’s Spirit living in us. And if we are to mourn honestly when others mourn, it must be as those who rest in the peace of Jesus Christ and trust in him for our strength.

I am thankful for every opportunity I receive to both rejoice and mourn with others, because I have confidence that I serve a God who hears our prayers, who responds to us in love, and who has magnificent plans for our future – if we will only trust him.

Here is my encouragement to you. Love one another today, by the grace of God, and trust in Jesus for your strength, so that your love might be sincere.

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Sermon: Just One Bite

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“Just One Bite”
Genesis 3:1-13

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

 

I. Introduction

One of the first things I discovered, when I was approached about becoming the pastor of Union UMC, is that this congregation is filled with people who are gifted builders. Within a few minutes of receiving the initial call from our District Superintendent, I was on Google looking at pictures of the church, shelter, and parsonage. I was amazed at the beautiful craftsmanship that I saw, and I was reminded just how little talent I have for construction. I have next to no knowledge about how to build a house or any other sizeable structure. My experience with construction has been limited to piecing together IKEA furniture, erecting a small shed in our back yard, and putting together a swing set from a kit. And Sarah can attest to the fact that my struggles with those small projects led to a lot of muttering, the occasional temper tantrum, and a regular need for bandages. This is not false modesty. I am pretty sure that anything significant I try to build on my own will quickly fall to pieces. My talents simply lie elsewhere. But even with my terribly limited knowledge and abilities, there is one thing I do know for certain: you cannot build a structure that will last unless you first give it a solid foundation. Am I right?

This is not only true of buildings; it is also true of our faith. If we want our faith to stand the trials of life and the test of time, we must be sure that it is built upon a strong foundation. So, over the next few weeks, we are going to be talking about some of the foundations of the Christians faith. My hope is that, when we are through, we will have a better understanding of where we come from, what God has done for us, and who we are called to be in Christ. Let’s begin this morning by looking at where we come from.

 

II. Why Was Eating the Fruit Such a Big Deal?

I’m sure most of us are familiar with this story we just read from Genesis 3. Even if you weren’t raised in the church, you have probably heard about Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. But let’s review the scenario, anyway. God made humanity as the pinnacle of creation, and as with all God created, he looked upon his work and saw that it was good. God then placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as caretakers of all that God had made. In Genesis 2:16-17 God told Adam that he was free to eat from any tree in the garden, except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If he ate from that tree, God said he would surely die. So, Adam and Eve were given the freedom and responsibility to care for creation. They could do things as they saw fit, as long as they obeyed God’s single command.

Now, when I read this part of the story, it always raises a question for me, and I bet it has for you too. Have you ever wondered why God put the tree there in the first place? I mean, if God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat from that one tree, why put it there to begin with? Why create it at all? It’s not as though God needed the tree for anything. He is God and he already has perfect knowledge. So what possible purpose could he have had for putting something desirable in view, and then telling Adam not to touch it? Does that strike you as odd, or manipulative, or maybe even a bit cruel?

I don’t know about you, but I am pretty weak willed sometimes. I am fairly certain that if someone were to bring a fancy, new techno-gadget into my office, leave it there where I could see it, and then tell me not to touch it, it wouldn’t be five minutes before I wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. I would probably become consumed with ideas about what it could do, and I would struggle against the desire to immediately pick it up and start playing with it. In fact, I think that would be a pretty common response from most people. We see that sort of struggle all the time at work. I worked in IT for a number of years, and I have witnessed what happens when you tell people they can’t do something like use Facebook or other popular websites at work, or that they have restricted access to a particular software system. Some folks will immediately begin looking for ways to circumvent those restrictions. People will go to incredible lengths to gain access to something they really don’t care all that much about, just because they have been told that they can’t. I’ll bet some of you have been guilty of that at one time or another. Am I right? I know I have.

So, I have to wonder if Adam and Eve had a similar reaction to the tree. Was God just trying to teach humanity self-control? Was he playing a sick joke on them, or was something deeper going on? There have been some people who looked at this scenario, and their only conclusion was that God must be the author of evil, as though he forced Adam and Eve into a situation they couldn’t hope to escape unscathed. But we know from the witness of the Bible and our own experience that this can’t be true. We know that God is a God who desires to have a relationship with us. We know that God is a God who seeks to save the lost, to heal the wounded, and to restore the downtrodden. We know that God is a God who makes promises to his people, and that he is faithful to keep those promises. God – is – good. He is so good, in fact, that the Bible describes him profoundly in this way in 1 John 4:8: God is love.

And, I believe the motivation behind God’s command to Adam and Eve was simply that: love. You see love cannot be coerced. In order for love to exist, there must the possibility of choice. God loves us. He created us in his own image, so that we might enjoy fellowship with him. And this single negative command – do not eat the fruit – was given to Adam and Eve, so that they might freely choose whether or not to follow God and trust in him; whether or not to return God’s love. God was willing to risk all the possibilities of sin, in order to give humanity the freedom to love as he loves. And knowing that they would ultimately choose to reject him, God had already prepared a way of reconciliation through Christ.

I don’t believe that Adam and Eve’s decision was inevitable. I believe that, had they kept their eyes on God and followed his voice, we would live in a very different world today. But they chose to listen to the serpent’s voice instead of God’s voice. They chose to believe a lie, instead of God’s truth. And though they were warned about the consequences for disobedience, Adam and Eve chose to reach out and take what was not theirs to grasp, and they ate of the forbidden fruit.

Then the Bible says in verse 7 that their eyes were opened. They received that which they coveted – knowledge of good and evil – and realized at that point that their knowledge was experiential. They knew what evil was, because they had just committed it, and it brought them disgrace. They hid from God. And now, the voice that had given them so much security was frightening to them.

I don’t know about you, but I have been in the same situation as Adam and Eve more times than I can count. When I was young and did something I knew I wasn’t supposed to, I would hide from my parents, even if they didn’t yet know about what I had done. And even as an adult, when I have acted in ways that run contrary to who I am called to be in Christ, I instinctively want to cover it up, or keep it from those who are closest to me. There is an inherent shamefulness that follows sin. It causes us to retreat from those who love us most; it encourages us to become secretive, to hide what we have done, or to shift the blame, rather than taking ownership of our actions.

This is exactly what Adam and Eve did, when God confronted them with their rebellious actions. When God asked Adam if he had eaten the forbidden fruit, he immediately blamed his wife, Eve, saying, “The woman you put here with me gave me some and I ate it.” And when God asked Eve what she had done, her response was to blame the serpent for deceiving her. Sin always seeks to blame someone else. It seeks to sacrifice others in order to satisfy selfish desires. It is the opposite of holy love, which seeks to sacrifice self for the sake of others. It is the contradiction of God’s nature.

Just as God promised, the consequence for Adam and Eve’s sin was death, both physical and spiritual. Physical death came when they were cast out of the garden, away from the Tree of Life. And spiritual death came through their willful disobedience to God, which fractured their relationship with him. And part of the curse of sin is that it spreads. Because Adam and Eve chose to turn away from God’s voice, their children inherited a sin nature – a tendency to choose fleeting things over our eternal God. We call this sin nature “original sin,” because it originated with our first parents.

This event is commonly referred to as the fall of mankind. It is the moment when sin entered into the world, bringing death and darkness with it. And it lays the first foundation of the Christian faith. Without the fall, there would be no need for reconciliation with God. Without sin, we would have no need for a savior. But what is original sin? How does it affect us today, and what are its consequences?

 

III. What is Original Sin?

The doctrine of original sin basically says that we are all born into the world with sinful natures, because of Adam’s sin. Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his own image. When Adam sinned and rejected God’s rule over his life, the result was that he lost his life-sustaining connection with God. The image of God in us was damaged. Humanity became subject to infirmity and death, our capacity for understanding and wisdom was corrupted, and we became morally depraved, unwilling or unable to choose what is right. Because people no longer have the knowledge and wisdom of God and because their moral character has been destroyed, they continually choose to follow after voices that compete with God. This results in an ongoing separation from God, with no hope of reconciliation on our own. Ephesians 2 says that all people who are not in Christ are disobedient because they follow the ways of the world and, by nature, they are deserving of wrath.

The sin nature leads us to desire things that we know are contrary to God’s desires for us and makes us prone to choose sin over God. Have you ever had an experience where you felt yourself losing control, but just before you did you gained a moment of clarity, where you recognized what was happening? Did you feel powerless to stop what you were doing? I have to confess that this has happened to me. There have been times when I have lost my temper, when I was beginning to fly into a rage and when I had a brief moment of clarity when I saw where I was headed, but felt completely powerless to change my direction. Even though I knew I was headed down a dark road, I just couldn’t seem to turn myself around. Has that ever happened to you? That is the sin nature, and those who live apart from the saving love of Jesus in their lives are powerless against it.

Left to our own devices, humanity would have spiraled out of control almost immediately. We would have become little more than beasts, the image of God completely destroyed in us. But God stepped in to halt our out-of-control plunge into darkness. Even as he punished Adam and Eve for their disobedience by casting them out of the garden and subjecting them to decay and death, he continued to sustain them by his grace.

 

IV. God’s Response to Original Sin

Perhaps the simplest definition of grace is God’s sovereign and loving power at work in the world. Even in the moment of their sin, God’s sovereign and loving power was at work in the lives of Adam and Eve. Though they had rejected him, God did not allow the complete destruction of his image in humanity. In fact, his first act was to make them clothes to hide their shame, and though he sent them away from the garden, he extended their lives and made it possible for them to survive and multiply through hard work and the pain of childbirth.

God’s grace is still at work all around us through providence. He created all things by his grace, and everything that exists requires his grace to continue. This is what we mean when we say that God sustains all things in himself. Without his sovereign and loving power at work in the world, everything we know would simply cease to exist.

But God doesn’t just sustain us in some general or impersonal way. He has also acted in very specific ways on our behalf, and in response to our sin. We will be talking about several different aspects of God’s grace over the coming weeks. For today, I want to mention one aspect of God’s grace that he poured out on humanity the moment Adam fell. We call this facet of God’s sovereign and loving power prevenient, or common, grace.

Prevenient grace is that grace that goes before us, enabling us to respond to God, even in our sin, and guiding us toward the light of Jesus Christ. You might call it conscience, though it is more than that. Prevenient grace opens our eyes, so that we can see good and evil. It restores some of the image of God in us, so that we have freedom to choose right from wrong. Without it, we could not be held morally responsible for our sins, because we would have no ability to choose otherwise. Prevenient grace does not make us good or capable of pleasing God, and it doesn’t remove our guilt for sins we commit, but it allows us to respond to God in faith. It operates in the midst of our darkness, giving us a light to follow toward God. It convicts us of our sin, and shows us where we have fallen short of God’s glory. Because of the separation that sin has caused, it is impossible for us to reach toward God on our own. Prevenient grace is God’s way of reaching down for us, and gathering us back to himself. It is his sovereign and loving power at work in our lives, steering us gently toward repentance and faith.

 

V. Application

Like Adam and Eve, we are each given the choice of which voice we will listen and respond to. God loves us, and he desires a relationship with us. But he will never force us to choose him. He surrounds us daily with his loving kindness, and even before we know him, he reaches out to us with his prevenient grace, inviting us to follow him, convicting us of our sins, and enabling us to respond to him in faith. But always the choice is left to us. Will we follow his voice, or will we listen to voices that tell us God isn’t enough.

As we close this morning, I want you to consider what voices you might be listening to that are competing with God’s voice? Are you saying yes to things that you know run contrary to God’s desires for your life? God’s prevenient grace makes it possible for you to silence those other voices. It makes it possible for you to choose what is good and reject what is evil. It makes it possible for you to step out of whatever darkness you are experiencing and into the light of freedom in Christ. You don’t have to submit to your sinful nature anymore, because God has made a way for us to become new creatures in Christ.

If we respond to Jesus in faith, by the power of God’s prevenient grace, acknowledging that we are sinful from birth, that we are guilty of rebelling against God, asking him to cleanse us from our sin, and confessing Jesus as Lord, he will be faithful to save us from our sins and to restore us to the people he created us to be. What choice will you make today?

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we come before you now acknowledging that, though we were born in sin, we have been offered new life in Christ. We thank you that, even before Adam rebelled against your love, you had already made a way for us to return to you. Would you reveal to us this morning those places where our sin natures still reign over us? Would you shine your light on the dark patches of our souls? And would you guide us out of darkness into the light of Jesus Christ, who alone can save us. Heavenly Father, would you cleanse our hearts, even now, and free us for joyful obedience to your law of love? We ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

https://vimeo.com/116514966

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Book Review: Expositional Preaching, by David R. Helm (9Marks)

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David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Crossway Books, 2014)

It is the goal of this short book (128 pages) to both define and facilitate the process of creating expositional sermons. The author does not use the term “expositional preaching” to promote any particular style of sermon delivery, but rather as a descriptor of a sermon’s developmental approach and content.

According to the author, “Expositional preaching is empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text.” This mindset encourages the reader to remember that the preacher is God’s tool, to be used for his divinely intended purpose. Accordingly, the task of sermon preparation should be approached with humility, bathed with prayer, and filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The preacher’s ideas and goals must become submissive to the Spirit’s ideas and goals, and this submission must begin long before the first word is spoken from a lectern or pulpit. Helm argues convincingly, that the preacher must begin in the study and work toward contextualization in order to avoid the “blind adherence” to contextualization that has invaded much contemporary preaching.

Helm offers, as antidote, a tried and true method of sermon preparation that will be familiar to both young and old preachers. His method consists of four main steps, though he acknowledges multiple paths to completing these steps.

  1. Exegesis – discerning the historical and literary context of the passage and identifying grammatical / linguistic cues to the meaning and context of the text for its original audience.
  2. Theological Reflection – reflecting upon both Biblical and systematic theological themes and perspectives, in an effort to discern where the passage fits within the broader scope of the whole Bible and salvation history, and in which ways it connects to the good news of Jesus Christ.
  3. Contextualization – understanding and articulating the biblical author’s aim for the original audience (what he wants them to do, or how he wants them to think differently).
  4. Application – seeking a change of heart in the listener as a response to the Word proclaimed. This requires the preacher to understand his or her context and what things currently captivate the hearts of the listeners. The author says “the goal of sermon application is completely repentant hearts,” and acknowledges that only God can bring about this goal.

Throughout the book, the author emphasizes that the task of preparing and delivering a sermon is one to be undertaken with the utmost seriousness and care. He underscores the need for regular prayer before, during, and after the sermon is preached and the need for Spirit guidance and empowerment at every step of the way.

The content of this book is well organized and informative. It utilizes personal examples of success and failure to illustrate the need for and effectiveness of this approach to sermon preparation. The style is easy to read and is written for both clergy and laity.

The author is writing from a Reformed theological perspective, but manages to avoid any undo theological slant in his writing. This is something I appreciate as one who writes from a Wesleyan theological perspective. However, there are some aspects of his writing that might be unappealing to readers from other traditions. His exclusive use of masculine pronouns for describing the work of preachers is telling and a bit off-putting. And his quotes and recommended reading exclusively represent authors from his own theological tradition. It would have been useful to consider a wider audience for this book and point to some of the many faithful expositors of God’s Word, who come from other traditions.

I was aware of these things throughout the book, but none of these detracted from my ability to engage fully with the main goal of the text – to encourage and equip those called to proclaim God’s word in becoming faithful expositors of the Bible.

This book is appropriate as a primer for young preachers, who are new to the task of sermon preparation, and also as a call to action for those who have been preaching for many years. It concludes with an appendix listing a series of helpful questions that preachers should ask themselves as they prepare their sermons.

On a personal note, I want to mention how much this short book affected me as a pastor. The last chapter in particular reminded me of both the responsibility and blessing bestowed upon those who are called by God to proclaim his Word.

As I read the final pages, I found myself welling up with the desire to give myself more fully to the task of preaching well, and to do this by first falling on my knees and asking God to give his Spirit to guide me – to give me wisdom and discernment, to help me love his people more fully, and to give me courage to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ with integrity and power for the sake of the world.

I highly recommend this book to all those who have been called by God to a ministry of proclamation, and to all those who desire to understand better how and why the word of God must be proclaimed afresh in every generation, until Jesus Christ comes again in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

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Sermon: Eyes Wide Open

eyes-wide-open

“Eyes Wide Open”
Acts 9:1-22

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

 

I. Introduction

We are first introduced to the man who would become the Apostle Paul at the end of Acts, chapter 7. After giving a powerful testimony to the good news of Jesus Christ, Stephen, a servant in the early church, was stoned to death for blasphemy. The text says that while this was going on some witnesses to the stoning laid their coats at Saul’s feet (7:78), and he approved of Stephen’s death (8:1). Following this, in Acts 8, we are told that a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, with Saul leading the charge. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women and throwing them into prison (8:2-3). By the time we get to the reading from chapter 9, we find that Saul’s crusade against believers has spread outside of Jerusalem, and he has now sought approval from the high priest to travel to other cities and arrest any Christians he can find to bring them back to Jerusalem. And having gained the approval of the priest, he was traveling to Damascus to begin rooting out the believers who lived there.

Later, we find out from Paul himself that he was a strict adherent to the Law of Moses. In Philippians, he tells the church that he was blameless under the Law. He was a Pharisee, one of the religious elite. He believed he was being faithful to God by persecuting the church, and he assumed all of the talk about Jesus of Nazareth, which described him as being equal with God, was blasphemy. By arresting Christians, who at this time were mostly Jewish believers, he thought he was honoring God and protecting Israel.

Saul had become so focused on defending against any perceived infraction of the Law, that he had forgotten that the heart of the Law is holiness and love, not merely adherence to a set of rules. He had closed his mind to the possibility that God might be fulfilling the Law through Christ, and his zealous adherence to his religion had led him to commit heinous acts against God’s people.

But all of this changed in a moment on the road to Damascus, when Saul came face-to-face with Jesus.

 

II. Coming Face-to-face with Jesus

Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was made for all humanity, and God’s free grace enables all people to respond to him in faith. Since Christ’s atonement and grace are universal, sooner or later each of us, like Paul, must come face-to-face with the truth of the risen Christ. While our experiences might not be as dramatic as Paul’s was, nobody walks away from an encounter with Jesus unchanged. When we are presented with the truth of the gospel, several things immediately happen.

First, we are confronted with our own wickedness. Romans 3:23 says that all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Because of Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, we have each inherited a sin nature. We are inclined to choose things other than God and his best for us. But we are not guilty because of Adam’s sin; we are guilty because we each choose to disobey God. In Paul’s case his sin manifest as persecution of the church – something Jesus says is the same as persecuting him. For you and I, sin and wickedness might manifest in any number of ways that are self-seeking. When we meet Jesus face-to-face, we cannot help but be confronted with the ways that we have fallen short of God’s standards of holiness and love.

The second thing that happens is that God gives us a glimpse of his glory. We are able to see him for who he is, holy and good, and what he has done for us in Christ. And this revelation can have varied effects. In Paul’s case, catching a glimpse of God’s glory in Christ led to his temporary physical blindness. Through this, Jesus was able to fully capture Paul’s attention and force him to open his ears to the message he was about to receive.

More often, witnessing God’s glory through Christ serves to illuminate everything else in our lives, so that we are able to see them in a new light. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” In the same way, when we meet Jesus face-to-face, we become witnesses to his glory – not because we see a bright light the way Paul did – but because we see everything else more clearly in its glow.

Third, when we meet Jesus face-to-face, he often interrupts our plans, so that he can reveal his plans for us. Paul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there and haul them into jail. Jesus interrupted his plans and gave him a new mission as evangelist to the Gentiles. Once we have been confronted with our own sinfulness and have seen things in a new light, God comforts and encourages us by showing us his plan for our lives. God’s plan for all of us is the same, though we may approach it very differently, depending on our vocation and family situation.

Jeremiah 29:11 says, ‘“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord.’ God’s plan is for each of us to seek him with all of our hearts. When we do that, he has promised that we will find him, and he will give us hope for the future. All of the plans we have made for ourselves become secondary, compared to the incredible blessing of God’s plan for us.

Finally, when we have an encounter with Jesus, we are always left with a choice to make. And remember that, when we do nothing, we are still making a choice. In Paul’s case, the choice was cut and dry: stop persecuting Christians, be baptized, and become God’s missionary to the Gentiles, or continue to reject and persecute Jesus and his church.

Our choice is no different, really. When we meet with Jesus face-to-face, he gives us the choice to repent in the knowledge of our sinfulness, believe that he alone has provided a way for us to become reconciled to God, become baptized by the Holy Spirit for the transformation of our lives, and do everything in our power to tell the world about the good news of Jesus Christ. We can do that – or not. There is no middle way. Either we accept Christ, or we reject him.

 

III. Living with Spiritual Blindness

So how is it we so often find ourselves trying to accept part of the good news of Jesus, while rejecting the rest? God temporarily blinded Paul in order to get his attention and show him the truth of Jesus Christ. But many of us choose to live with a spiritual blindness, even after we have met Jesus and believed the truth about who he is and what he has done for us. This ongoing spiritual blindness can hinder us from fully submitting to Christ as Lord, and it can interfere with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making us the holy people God demands for us to be. When we continue to embrace spiritual blindness in the face of gospel truth, we become unable to properly discern the will of God, and we more easily slip back into the destructive habits of our past.

Sometimes, the things that keep us from seeing clearly are so ingrained in our lives that we don’t even recognize them on our own. As with Paul, we might not see clearly until our lives have been interrupted in a profound way, and even then we might not see the truth for what it is until Jesus removes the scales from our eyes. But there are signs that we can look for in our lives that indicate when we are choosing to put on spiritual blinders. Where these are present, we have not fully submitted ourselves to Christ in faith. We have not fully accepted him as Savior and Lord. Here are six indicators that we might be living with spiritual blindness.

  1. When we are engaged in unrepentant or habitual sin. In Leviticus 19:2 God gave a command to “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” We already know that we have fallen short of God’s standard of holiness and have sinned against him. Christ has removed our guilt for our sin through the cross, but the command remains that we are to be holy as God is holy. It is not enough to say as some do that God looks at Christ’s righteousness and overlooks our unrighteousness, because this violates God’s justice.

Since we can’t meet God’s standard on our own, we have to rely on the Spirit to transform our hearts and minds until we actually become the holy people God desires us to be. But when we continue to engage in sinful behaviors, we are warring against the Spirit for control of our lives. This is true of sins that we willingly commit without remorse and also of those we regret, but continue to commit habitually, because they have become a pattern in our lives. The good news of the gospel is that, in Christ, we have received not only a pardon for sin, but power to overcome its influence in our lives when we submit ourselves fully to him.

  1. The second sign that we are living with spiritual blindness is when we find ourselves captive to fear. 2 Timothy 1:7 says, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Through Christ, we have been given strength to face each day and the power to overcome fear in our lives. We have been promised that we will face many troubles in this life, but that God will be with us in the midst of those troubles. We can cast our cares upon him, and he will carry our burdens. And he has promised us a bright future with him in eternity. When our lives are consumed with worry, it shows that we have not fully placed our trust in God, who drives out fear. We are living as though blind to the spiritual reality that we have been set free from fear through Christ.
  2. A third sign of spiritual blindness is when we continue to live in the past as slaves to the things that we have done or that have been done to us. We cannot undo the past. We have all sinned, and most of us have experienced the direct effects of someone else’s sin toward us. The darkness that builds around these things can be all consuming. But we have been promised that, when we place our trust in Christ alone, God doesn’t remember our sins anymore. Hebrews 8:12 says God will forgive our wickedness and remember our sins no more. If God has forgotten our past, why do we so often hold onto it as a source of our identity?

We are more than the product of our experiences, and while some of your experiences may be filled with darkness and despair, God has promised us freedom and peace when we walk in his light. Maybe you have some things from your past that you regret. It’s time to let those go and remember them no more. Maybe someone has harmed you in ways you can’t even put to words. Through Christ and his Spirit dwelling in you, you can have peace and offer forgiveness. You are more than the product of your experiences, and when we continue to live as slaves to our past, instead of living for the hope of God’s promised future, we put on spiritual blinders that hamper our growth.

  1. A fourth sign of spiritual blindness is when we seek isolation from other Christians. Now, isolation is not the same as solitude, which is a good and helpful practice for making ourselves available to hear God’s voice. Christians who have put on spiritual blinders tend to isolate themselves in one of two ways. The first is by keeping themselves guarded, staying closed off emotionally to others and giving trust only grudgingly. The second is by avoiding fellowship and worship with the body of Christ. When we close ourselves off to the possibility of living lives openly with one another, or when we avoid joining together with the body of Christ for fellowship and worship we become vulnerable. We become like animals separated from the herd, weakened and exposed.

Often people seek isolation when they are concerned about how others will view something in their lives or when they feel convicted by something God has revealed about them. But this is the time when we most need one another’s support and prayer. Spiritual blindness leads us to believe that we are safer on our own, but God has called us together to become one body in Christ, and we should not separate what he has joined together.

  1. The fifth sign of spiritual blindness is when we become easily angered or harbor resentment. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to feel powerless. When I feel like I don’t have control over my life or the situations going on around me, that can lead to fear if I’m not careful, and fear soon leads to anger or resentment. There is such a things as righteous anger, when we become angry about the things that anger God, like injustice, sin, and hate. But when we find that we are easily angered or that we hold onto resentment for past hurts, this is a sign that we have become blind to the spiritual reality that God has offered us peace through Christ, and has called us to become peacemakers.
  2. The sixth sign that we have allowed spiritual blindness to take hold in our lives is when we begin to engage in self-righteous thoughts and behaviors (like Paul was). When we begin pointing out the flaws in others, while failing to recognize our own weakness and need for God’s redemptive power in our lives, we have put on blinders to the spiritual reality that no one is perfect but Christ, and that all people are in need of his redemptive grace.

Luke 6:42 says, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” When we focus on the shortcomings of others and fail to recognize our own weaknesses, we open the door to sins of pride and selfishness, we begin to judge where only God should judge, and we cease to love people fully as God loves them.

 

IV. Opening Our Eyes

Fortunately, every encounter with Jesus leads to an opportunity to have our eyes opened by God. Even when we have permitted spiritual blindness to creep into our lives, God is faithful to open our eyes, when we just turn to him in faith. He shows us where we come from, what he has done for us, and who we are now called to be as his people.

Christ shows us the truth of our sin, and invites us to confess them to God. Confession is agreement with God about where we come from and what we have done. It acknowledges that we have come up short of the mark. He also shows us the truth of our value to him, as those created in his image. God reminds us that he loves us, and that he wants us to be reconciled to him as his adopted children in Christ. He shows us the truth of the gospel; that our sin required a perfect sacrifice, and that Jesus came to fulfill that requirement. He reminds us that we were once slaves to sin and death, but now Christ’s death has set us free. And he assures us that new life is available through faith in Jesus; that this is a free gift of God’s grace to all those who believe.

When we come face-to-face with Jesus, God also opens our eyes to show us the truth that the world has been covered in darkness, but now his kingdom is breaking in. And he reminds us that we have been invited to participate in proclaiming this kingdom on earth. He opens our eyes to the truth that our lives must become fully transformed by his Spirit, until we become truly holy, as God is holy, and we learn to love as he loves. And he shows us that this is possible when we allow the Spirit to take full control over our lives.

 

V. Application

Once God has opened our eyes to the truth of Jesus Christ, whether for the first time or after we have let spiritual blindness creep back in, he leaves us with a choice. This is the same choice he gave Saul in Damascus. We can reject what Jesus shows us and continue to live for ourselves, or we can accept what he shows us, and begin to live each moment from this point forward for Christ and Christ alone.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not left us alone to follow our own path in life, but that you have made new plans for us to seek after you and to prosper. Forgive us for those times when we have put on spiritual blinders that keep us from experiencing the richness of your blessings. Would you open our eyes to show us, even now, where we have allowed sin, fear, captivity to our pasts, isolation, anger, resentment, and self-righteousness to enter into our lives, and would you free us from these now for joyful service in your kingdom here on earth? We ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Sermon: All Things New

all-things-new

“All Things New”
Revelation 21:1-11

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

9 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.

 

I. Introduction

The book of Revelation can be a somewhat confusing piece of the Bible to read for modern Christians, because it uses apocalyptic imagery to describe the contrasting relationship of the first-century Church to Greco-Roman civilization, and to express the deeper spiritual realities faced by those who are called to live faithfully in a pagan society. Though there are elements of prophetic speech throughout the letter, we should remember that prophecy in the Bible is not intended to be read primarily as predictions of specific events to come in our future, but rather as exhortations calling God’s covenant people back to faithful worship and witness. Like all Biblical prophecy, the author has been given insight into future events that will shape the community of faith, many of which came to pass shortly after the letter was written, but the main message for the church is this: faithfulness will be rewarded, while apostasy will lead to destruction.

One of the reasons for John’s letter to the seven churches seems to be that there was a perceived discrepancy among believers between the understanding that the kingdom of God had broken into the world, that God was sovereign, and that Christ would return soon, and the reality they faced every day that evil still existed in the world and was largely controlling their culture, leading to the persecution of Christians. The churches were struggling with living in the space between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and its full arrival. Revelation was a message of hope to these churches; encouraging them to persevere and confirming that God’s promised future will still be realized. Though even greater persecutions were on the horizon, those who remain steadfast in their faith would eventually see the wicked punished and the righteous brought to eternal victory in Christ.

If we consider our own place in history, I think we will find that John’s letter still applies to us in many of the same ways today. We are still living in a culture that is dominated by the presence of evil, and appear to be thriving. Christians around the world are still increasingly being persecuted for their faith, in many cases leading to their deaths. And we still struggle often with living faithfully in the space between Jesus’ resurrection and his promised return.

Have you ever wondered why we have had to wait so long for Jesus to come back? The early church expected him to return almost immediately, and scripture indicates that he could come at any moment. Have you ever found yourself asking, like David in the Psalms, why the wicked prosper, when God’s people suffer so greatly? Have you ever wondered whether or not Christianity was really worth it?

If you have considered any of these things, then Revelation can speak words of hope to you, too. It can offer you the same comfort and peace that it did to the early church, mixed with a healthy dose of encouragement to persevere and warnings to not fall away from faith. It is also a wake-up call to all those who have already developed spiritual amnesia, forgetting who they are called to be in Christ, and who have begun to compromise their faith by becoming like the world around them. Revelation calls those who have wandered to repent and become faithful witnesses to the risen Christ as Lord, or face judgment with all the unfaithful.

At the end of the letter, John gives us a glimpse of the final aim of our salvation. In the new creation the faithful will experience the salvation blessing of intimate communion with God, but the unfaithful will be excluded from this blessing (21:1-8). In the new creation, the faithful church will drink from the never-ending water of life, which flows from the throne of God (22:1). There will be no more curses upon humanity or the earth (22:3), and God’s throne will be in the city, with his people. They will see the face of God and not be afraid, because they will belong fully to him, and they will reign with him, as servants of the King, for all eternity (22:4-5).

This is a beautiful reminder of God’s faithfulness to his Church. But just before the end, Revelation also answers an important question about this promised future and those who will enjoy it. The question is this: What does the faithful church look like? In our reading this morning from chapter 21, John describes his vision of the faithful church as a beautiful city of gold, prepared like a bride for her husband on her wedding day.

 

II. The Bride of the Lamb

A bride on her wedding day is cherished and loved. She is worthy of the groom’s dedication, because he finds no faults in her. She is beautiful in his eyes, and he honors her for her purity and the love she returns to him.

The church is the bride of Christ. Though our sins are many, he has forgiven us and knitted us together into one body. When we approach the throne of grace in worship, we come before him as an unblemished bride, not because we are sinless, but because his blood has covered over all our sins. The church is worthy, because Jesus is worthy. The bride is beautiful, because Jesus died to make her so.

Because Christ has made the bride pure and blameless, she is able to reflect God’s glory to the world (v. 11). God’s glory is manifest in the church as holiness and love. The church cannot continue in the ways of the world and be found acceptable and pleasing to God; rather, we are called to live holy lives, where we actually avoid sin and pursue what is good and pleasing to God. And we are called to love the world as God loves, which means engaging in works of mercy and the ministry of reconciliation. God makes all of this possible through the Holy Spirit, and Revelation 21 says the new Jerusalem – the faithful church – will radiate with this glory like a very precious jewel.

We shouldn’t ignore this last part of verse 11. John isn’t merely making a comparison between God’s glory and gemstones; he is confirming that the bride of Christ is as valuable to God as a precious stone. He will not cast her aside or give her away; rather he will cherish her and keep her close. The church is of unsurpassed value to God, and each of us has been purchased at a great cost. He will be faithful to preserve the church that he has made acceptable and pleasing to himself.

 

III. God Makes all Things New

So, John describes the church as a bride – holy, pure, and blameless – reflecting God’s glory and precious to him. But when I look at my own life, I know that I have often failed to meet those standards. And the Bible tells us that we are all sinners, deserving of God’s wrath. So, how are we, as the church, supposed to live up to these demands?

Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that we can’t. Neither you, nor I can ever achieve the standards of perfection demanded by God on our own. But all of this is made possible by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, because God is in the business of renewing his creation.

Verse 5 says this: “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” One way of making something new is to start from nothing. The Bible tells us in Genesis 1 that God created all things ex nihilo, out of nothing. There was nothing before creation but God, and all things came into being through his will. A second way to make something new is to wipe out what already exists and start over. In this case, the new thing being created is always compared to that which came before. The Bible tells us that we have a new covenant with God in Christ. It is not a reinstatement of the old covenant, which has been fulfilled by Jesus, but the new will always be understood in the light of the old. A third way of making something new is to start with what exists, and re-make it into something that is new and improved. This is the essence of “renewal”. It does not obliterate what already exists, but takes what is present and reforms it into something better.

According to the dictionary, to renew something means to resume, to reaffirm, to revive, to renovate, to extend, and to replenish that thing. Revelation 21:5 says that God, who created all things, is now renewing all of the things he created. He is not wiping out his good creation and starting from scratch, like he did with the flood, nor is he starting again from nothing, choosing to abandon what he has previously made; rather, he is renewing that which he made by his own blood.

Through Christ, creation will ultimately resume the state of perfection that was enjoyed before the taint of evil and sin entered in. By renewing all things, God has reaffirmed that his creation was good to begin with; it was not a mistake. He has already begun to revive the relationship that humanity enjoyed with God before the fall. He has promised to renovate our mortal bodies at the resurrection of the dead, giving us new bodies that will not decay, and to extend our lives, so that we might enjoy him eternally. And, through Christ, God has replenished our souls.

 

IV. What Does God Make New?

Verse 5 goes on to say that God’s word is trustworthy and true. We know that he is, even today, actively renewing his creation, and that he will not stop until his work is complete. This morning, I would like for us to briefly examine four ways that God’s renewing work is active in the lives of those who profess Jesus as Lord, even while we wait for Christ to return in final victory.

  1. First, through faith in Christ, God renews our relationships with God (2 Cor. 5:17). In Genesis, we learn that Adam and Eve enjoyed an intimate relationship with God in the beginning. He walked with them in the garden in the cool of the evening and had fellowship with them. He entrusted them with care over all creation, and even made them in his own image. When Adam sinned by disobeying God and eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that intimate relationship was fractured. The image of God in humanity was damaged, and through Adam all people have now inherited a sin nature, a tendency to choose sin over God.

But this is the good news of the gospel: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And because of his sacrifice, we are invited into a renewed relationship with God. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

When we repent and invite Christ to become Lord over our lives, through faith, God doesn’t remember our sins or hold them against us. We become reconciled to God, and he invites us back into a renewed relationship with him as his adopted sons and daughters.

  1. Second, when we place our trust in Jesus, God renews his image in us (John 3:1-21). As we just heard, one of the results of Adam’s sin was damage to the image of God given to him at creation. Humanity was created to be like God, reflecting his moral character and love. Because of sin, our love has been twisted and turned inward. We love ourselves over others and God, and our selfish motives lead us into further sin. If it was not for God’s prevenient grace working in our lives, we would be unable to respond to him at all, but because of his grace, which is given freely to all, we can respond to God in faith and receive his forgiveness and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

In John, chapter 3 Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. 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.”

When we place our faith in Christ, he promises that the Spirit will come to dwell in us. We become new creatures, spiritually reborn. And by the Spirit’s power and guidance we are able to reclaim the moral image of God in our lives. He transforms us, making us holy as God is holy, and capable of loving as God loves.

  1. Third, God renews the minds of those who trust in him (Romans 12:1-2). In Romans 12:1-2 Paul says, “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.”

A quick glance at the titles of recent news articles will tell you that we live in a culture that is obsessed with trying to “blow our minds” with the latest political intrigue, scientific breakthrough, celebrity gossip, or crazy video. Our minds have been fully hijacked by the constant streams of information that we receive daily, to the point where many of us have lost the ability to think critically about anything for long. This is especially true when it comes to serious reflection about our faith. Fewer Christians today view their faith as intellectually engaging, and the result is superficiality. We often hear of people walking away from the church, because they don’t find answers to life’s tough questions here. They can’t reconcile the God of holy-love with the presence of evil in the world, and the church has not given them the tools for gaining godly wisdom and a kingdom perspective.

When we give ourselves fully to God, through faith in Jesus, we invite him to remake and renew our way of thinking. We become seekers of wisdom and truth, and we ask God to give us his point of view about things. We stop thinking as the world thinks, and we begin to interpret the world through God’s eyes. Through this, we gain peace, perspective, and the ability to discern God’s will for our lives.

  1. Fourth, and finally, through the Holy Spirit’s presence with us, God daily renews our actions (Eph. 4:22-24; 5:1-2). In Ephesians 4 and 5, Paul pleads with the church to live in such a way that we do not grieve the Holy Spirit, but that demonstrates we have been called out of darkness into the light of Christ. He says, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness . . . Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

When we allow God to take control of our lives, through faith, he renews our actions so that they reflect his glory to the world. Through the Spirit, he works to actually make us holy. He helps us to avoid sin and do what is right. He helps us to witness faithfully to the good new of Jesus as the risen Lord, and he helps us to love people sacrificially as he loves them.

 

V. Application

God’s gift of renewing grace is available to all those who place their trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Through Jesus, we have been invited into a renewed relationship with God, new life in the Spirit, a transformed way of thinking about things from God’s perspective, and renewed actions that reflect God’s sanctifying work in us.

As we enter into the New Year, we are reminded that all things have a beginning. How many of you have ever made a New Year’s Resolution? OK, now how many of you have ever kept a resolution that you have made?

I have only ever kept one New Year’s Resolution for more than a few months, and experience suggests I’m not alone in that. The problem with these kinds of commitments is that they rely solely on our willpower for success, and we each have a limited supply. When the going gets tough, it wears us down until our resolve becomes tattered, and we slip back into old habits.

What if the resolutions we make didn’t require us to maintain a steady will? Wouldn’t it be great if we could commit ourselves to doing something new, but then leave the burden of accomplishing that feat to someone else?

I’m sure you see where I am going with this. We have an opportunity to do just that when it comes to our journey of faith. We have an opportunity to make a new resolution that doesn’t depend upon us for its successful completion. You see, each day, when we wake up, we have the opportunity to seek God afresh and invite him to continue the good work he has begun in us. We can resolve each day to become God’s holy people, who guard ourselves from sin and who love others as God loves. And we can do this knowing that God will do the hard work for us. We don’t have to go it alone, in fact we can’t. We will never be successful, as long as we try to do these things on our own.

Instead, will you join with me this year in asking God to continue the good work of renewing our lives and our church? Will you rely on him to make you a new creation, to do away with the old self and put on the new? Will you invite the Holy Spirit to take up residence in your life and transform you into the image of Jesus? If are ready to invite God to make all things new with you this coming year, then I invite you to join with me now as we pray the prayer of invitation and complete surrender that Jesus taught to his disciples.

Let us pray.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.