Sermon: Mistaken Identity


“Mistaken Identity”
Luke 19:29-41

29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.


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I. Introduction

The day had finally arrived. After three years traveling with his disciples and teaching them about the kingdom of God, Jesus was about to enter into Jerusalem for the last time. From the moment he called the first disciples, he had been steadily revealing God’s plan to all those who would listen. He had been a voice in the wilderness crying out for God’s people to return to their Father’s house, through repentance and faith. He taught that the heart of the Law is love, first of God and then of one another. He taught that greatness comes by way of service. He confirmed that God desires mercy over sacrifice. He told people to do insane things like loving their enemies and withholding judgment. He challenged them with parables about the Kingdom of God, and confronted their culture by demonstrating how faith and action work hand in hand.

He had also performed many miracles in these last months. He had healed the lame, he had cured lepers, he had restored sight to the blind, he had fed thousands with nothing more than a handful of bread and fish, he had walked on water, he had calmed storms, he had cast out demons with a word, he had raised the dead back to life, and he had even forgiven sins. But one thing more remained for him to do, in order to fulfill his Father’s mission.


II. Jesus was mistaken for a different kind of king

But, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, he did so knowing that even his most faithful disciples, the twelve, didn’t fully understand what he had come here to do. Even though he had told them several times before what must come to pass, they were unable to comprehend what it would mean. He had told them before that the Son of Man must die and be raised again to life. He had told them that his kingdom was not of this world. But as they approached the city, he sent two ahead to find the colt that he would ride, and they remembered the prophecy of Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey.” I suspect that, in this moment, the disciples wondered if what Jesus told them was a mistake; that things wouldn’t work out as badly as he said they would. And, as if to confirm their suspicions, the people of the city welcomed him with cries of adoration. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Surely Jesus must be wrong, then. He was entering the city as a hero, not a criminal. Surely, he would restore Israel and rule Jerusalem. Surely things would turn out better than he expected. They couldn’t foresee how the week would end in Jesus’ death on a cross.

The problem, you see, is that the disciples had mistaken Jesus for the wrong sort of king, and they weren’t the only ones to do so. The Jewish people had developed high expectations for Messiah – who he would be, and what he would do. And, even though Jesus didn’t meet their expectations, they still believed he was the leader they were looking for. So when he entered the city to the fanfare of the crowds, it was because he was entering with a mistaken identity.

  1. Some people mistook Jesus for a great military leader from King David’s line. He was from David’s line, for sure, but he came as a shepherd, not a warrior. He came to seek lost sheep, not to fight battles.
  2. Some people mistook Jesus for a religious sage, who would rule with earthy wisdom, like Solomon. He did come with wisdom, it’s true, but it was the wisdom of the cross, which Paul tells us is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)”
  3. Some, like Judas, mistook Jesus for a rebel, who would use subterfuge to overthrow Caesar. But Jesus openly proclaimed the truth and grace of God’s coming kingdom, casting light on the dark places, not hiding in them.

It seems that each person had his or her own notion of who Jesus really was, and what his arrival at Jerusalem would bring. Even those who didn’t believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah mistook him for someone else. The Pharisees thought he was just a teacher with dangerous ideas, who was encouraging civil unrest by allowing the people to treat him like the King. Israel’s political situation was already bad enough, without this maniac strutting around acting like Caesar. They wanted to protect their way of life, and this Jesus was doing things that would bring trouble down on all of their heads. They wanted Jesus to stop the crowds from chanting his name, suggesting he should control his followers better.

But there was a common mistake made by all those who were with Jesus as he entered the city that day. Each of them, when they looked at Jesus, mistook him for an earthly king. But Jesus is not an earthly king; he is the King of Kings. His reign is cosmic in scope, and his kingdom will never end. He didn’t come to rule a nation, but to set all nations free. He didn’t come to gain more subjects, but to welcome more daughters and sons to his Father’s house. He didn’t come to win a battle against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. He didn’t come for his own glory, but for the glory of the Father in Heaven. So, when the Pharisees attempted to quell the crowd, Jesus pointed out that, when the king of the universe passes by all of creation knows it, even if some have chosen to remain blind to it.

Even today, we sometimes mistake Jesus for a different sort of king, don’t we? We see him as little more than a moral example to follow, and we believe that we can earn God’s approval by just doing the sorts of things Jesus did. We see him as gentle Jesus, offering endless love to sinners, but we forget that he is also a holy God, who demands righteousness and a total transformation of our hearts. I wonder how often we fail to remember that this Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator of all things?


III. We have mistaken ourselves for kings

Our bigger problem, though, is not that we don’t recognize Jesus for who he truly is. At some level I think we all know and understand that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Our real problem is that we fail to honor him as Lord in our lives. The people of Jerusalem wanted to honor Jesus as an earthly king and put him on an earthly throne. We don’t even want to go that far, anymore, let alone invite him to take up residence as king over our hearts and actions. In fact, too often, we simply dethrone Jesus entirely, because we have mistaken ourselves for kings and queens in his place. We have enthroned our own needs and desires above all else, and we have become a people, who often answer to no one, but our own inner voice.

Now, this may sound a bit melodramatic. I mean, most of us here are faithful followers of Jesus, right? We earnestly seek to become more like him, and we have confessed him as our Lord and Savior. We know from the Bible that we are all sinners, in need of a savior. And we know that Jesus died on the cross in our place as a penalty for our sin. We know that God has promised us 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. Doesn’t that make him our king and us his loyal subjects?

Friends, confession is only the first step in Jesus’ coronation as king. It is enough to save us from an eternity in Hell, but it is not sufficient to bring Heaven on earth. You see, like any monarch, Jesus is king whether we acknowledge him or not. Confession simply expresses that truth. But until his sits fully on the throne in our lives, and we begin to do the things he commands, he is not really our king, is he? If his word does not command our allegiance and our action, then he is not really our Lord. So often, many of us settle for a puppet ruler in our lives. We like the Jesus that we can control, who maybe asks us to change a bit, but not so much that it will hurt. We are OK with a ruler who wants us to give up some of our time and money to a good cause, but we draw the line when he asks us to surrender our lives. We are far too comfortable with the kingdoms we have constructed around ourselves that provide us with temporary peace, leisure, and financial security. We don’t want to give these up, because, frankly, they make for a nice place to live. But in Christ we are called to step out of the comfortable, but ultimately fleeting, kingdoms of this world and into God’s heavenly kingdom that will last. And the only way we can fully make that transition is to step off the throne ourselves, and invite Jesus to take up permanent residence as the one and only Lord in our lives.

What we need is the return of the king!


IV. The Return of the King

In the ancient world, whenever Caesar returned to a citadel, the people who lived there under his rule would rush to meet him outside the city gates. They would fall at his feet and begin shouting his praises and victories. “Hail, Caesar!” they would say. And then they would usher the king back into the city, where he would take up residence and assume authority over all the people. Does this sound familiar? That is exactly what the people of Jerusalem were doing with Jesus, because they thought he was there to replace Caesar. But, in order for the people to welcome their king, they first had to take the risk of opening the city gates. This was a risk, because it left them open to attack from the outside, and it meant giving up complete control of the city to their Lord. Every time the gates were thrown open to welcome a ruler there was a real possibility that the wrong kind of sovereign would enter to take the throne. You see, when the king who comes to the city is a wicked king, a pretender, the people always suffer under his rule. But, when the king who comes to the city is a good and wise king, the people always prosper under his care. Only under the authority of a genuine king can people experience true peace and fulfillment. Likewise, we will only experience peace and restoration when we return the one true King to his rightful place in our lives.

So, like a city in the ancient world, we need to be sure about the character of the king we are inviting to take residence on the throne in our lives. There was once a great preacher named S. M. Lockridge, who delivered a sermon with the aim of answering the question of who King Jesus really is, and I would like for us to hear a bit of that now.

*I showed a licensed version of this video. You can purchase a copy at ignitermedia.com.


V. Application

That’s my king, and he is worthy! Jesus is the only king I want to welcome into my life. He is the only one I trust enough to open up the gates of my heart. But, despite the fact that I have asked Jesus to be the King of my life, and seek to follow him faithfully, I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I still allow a pretender to sit on the King’s throne. In fact, I allowed it to happen this week. His name is Pride, but he masquerades as self-sufficiency. You see, I convinced myself this week that I could handle everything on my plate by myself, even though I knew the week would be shorter, because of spring break. I convinced myself that, even with folks I depend on being out of town for vacation, business, or family responsibilities, I would be just fine. I can cover for everyone, no problem. I’ve got this. And pride let me go on thinking that, even as I began to run out of time to complete the work at hand, even as I struggles to maintain the energy I needed, even as I began to cut corners in my devotional life. Self-sufficiency would have allowed me to run myself into the ground in an inglorious fashion, because Pride is a terrible ruler to place on the throne. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like this, where, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, you still believed you could handle everything alone, until you finally reached the point of collapse?

I was headed there this week. Those of you who follow my writing on the Internet read about it in an article I posted on my website, and from the number of views it received I can assume that I am not the only one who was struggling with the lie of self-reliance this week. But then I read the words of Jeremiah 3:15 yesterday, and God revealed the pretender I had allowed to sit on the throne. “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” And I realized that God doesn’t want more effort, more productivity, or more results from me. What he desires is for me to have more of Himself in me. He wants me to embrace HIS heart, HIS knowledge, and HIS understanding. Like Paul, his grace must be enough for me. I can’t do it alone; I was never made to rule over myself. I was created to trust in Jesus to rule wisely over me, and it is time to invite the rightful king back onto his throne.

Who or what is sitting on the king’s throne in your life? Is there something that’s holding you back from becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus? If so, you can turn it over to Jesus right now and receive forgiveness and peace and restoration. I’ve allowed false kings to reign in my life for too long now, and I won’t settle for their tyranny anymore. I want to be all in for Jesus, and I can only do that if I allow him to fully take charge of my life. What about you? Are you ready to invite Jesus to take his rightful place as the one true king in your life? Are you ready to cast out the pretenders and puppet kings you have allowed to take control? If so, the process begins when you recognize who Jesus truly is, when you confess that he alone is your savior and Lord, and when you trust that he is a good king and do what he commands.

I would like to close this morning with the words of a great hymn, O Worship the King all glorious above. Let this be our hearts’ cry this morning, as we welcome the king onto the throne in our lives once and for all.

O Worship the King all glorious above

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

O measureless Might, unchangeable Love,
whom angels delight to worship above!
Your ransomed creation, with glory ablaze,
in true adoration shall sing to your praise!


VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give you all glory and honor and praise today, and we recognize you for who you are – the King of Kings, Prince of Peace, and Lord of Lords. As we enter into this Holy Week, would you reveal to us the depths of your love, manifest in your Son Jesus, who for our sake endured the shame of a cross. Would you help us, even now, to open up the gates of our hearts and minds to receive you as our one and only King, and would you teach us to be faithful servants in your kingdom come. We ask all this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


Some Days Just Suck


I’ll probably get some flak for using that word, but the truth of the matter is that some days really do just plain suck. Even for those of us with a glass-is-half-full mentality, there are some days that start off wrong, get progressively worse, and by the end wind up seeming fit for nothing more than being tossed unceremoniously in the crapper.

I’ll probably get flak for that word too. “Pastor’s shouldn’t talk that way,” they’ll say. But pastors are people, too. And sometimes, we have days that suck.

Take today, for instance. This day’s trajectory is aiming toward a monumentally unsatisfying flush, unless something changes.

The kids are on spring break this week, which for many families is a time of fun and relaxation. We spent a couple of days earlier this week with family, which was great. I enjoyed spending some much needed down time with my wife, kids, and parents. But as anyone with a weekly production schedule knows, unless the production itself is being cancelled, “taking a break” just means cramming all of the same work into fewer hours later on in the week.

Since “Sunday is always coming” for pastors, and I had several other events scheduled before then, I knew that I would have to hustle the remainder of the week, even though I worked on a number of administrative tasks during our short “break”. We cut our down time short, so I could get home early enough to prepare for Wednesday night Bible Study (which was awesome) and I planned to take the entire day today to finish my sermon and a number of other necessary tasks. Remind me to tell you why it is a bad idea to still be writing a sermon the week you plan to preach it. But, I digress…

Yesterday didn’t go as planned. We got home decently early, but as often happens, some things came up that interfered with my work and we wound up rushing to grab some dinner before rushing to Bible study. By the time we got home and the kids were asleep, any hope of finishing the work I had planned for the day were dashed. So, when I went to bed last night, it was with a bit of stress, but mostly hope, about what today would bring. Remember, I am a glass-is-half-full kinda guy.


And then it went downhill

Last night was terrible. I didn’t sleep well. I woke up in a lot of pain from a nagging injury that flares up from time to time. My morning schedule got messed up. I waited too long to eat breakfast, and started getting hangry. I couldn’t find my ear buds. I forgot my coffee, when I left home to get some work done. And I watched as the precious few minutes of my morning slipped away, on the one day when I needed to be most productive.

On my way to the place where I am now writing (outside of my home office, because the kids shouldn’t have to be quiet during spring break, just because Daddy works from home) I had a bit of a melt down. It started as a prayer, but then turned into a yelling match with God about how sucky this day is turning out to be, and “why should I have to deal with all this nonsense when I am trying to prepare a sermon and deliver your message to your people?”

You see what I did there? I went from dealing with a crummy day to blaming God for my woes. I’m sorry if you passed me on the road and saw me yelling in my car. It wasn’t pretty, and I am ashamed.

So, why am I sharing my humiliation publicly? Because I know I am not the only one having a sucky day. But I want you to know that God is bigger than your biggest problem. And he is not afraid or offended to hear his people call out to him, even question him, when they are in distress. I believe he welcomes it.

Don’t believe me? Just read the Psalms.


How should we respond?

In fact, the Bible is filled with people who cried out to God seeking deliverance, understanding about their situations, and justice when they were at their wits end. God doesn’t only want to hear from us when we are composed and perfect. He wants us to turn to him first, whenever we have a need. But, so often, our first response to a bad situation is to turn inwardly focused, rather than to seek God’s help.

Here are some ways that I have tended to respond to bad situations. Do any of these resonate with you?

  1. Frustration. I can’t believe this is happening to me?
  2. Depression. Things will never get better.
  3. Guilt. My situation isn’t as bad as such-and-such situation. I have no right to feel this upset.
  4. Apathy. I don’t even know why I bother. anymore.
  5. Anger (at God). Why did you let this happen?

I have wrestled with all of these, just this morning. Maybe you have too.

But, God calls us to a better response in the face of negative circumstances. He calls us to faith.

The Apostle Paul gives us a good example of this in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.

“In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Paul was struggling with a less than ideal situation. We don’t know what his specific problem was, but he refers to it as “a messenger from Satan”, so it can’t be good.

But in his turmoil, Paul chose the better way – the way of faith. First, he trusted that God could fix the situation, if he wanted to. And when God’s answer was not to remove the problem, he trusted that God had a bigger plan for him that included the thorn in his flesh. In fact, he trusted God so completely that he began to see his weakness as strength, because of the surpassing power and presence of Jesus in his life.

God does not promise us that he will remove our burdens, when we turn to him, but he does promise to carry them for us. In other words, he may not change our circumstances, but he will always change our hearts, so that we can walk through our circumstances.


Trusting God doesn’t mean there won’t be days that suck

God has never promised us lives of bliss, devoid of problems. In fact, Jesus said we will face many troubles in this life (John 16:33). He has instead promised us that his grace is sufficient for even our most difficult situations, if we will turn to him in faith.

You might be having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day today. Like me, your morning might have totally sucked, and it might not get any better. But you alone can control how you will respond.

My first response today wasn’t the best, but thank God that he is a God of second chances. From this moment on, I’m chosing the better way of faith. I’m chosing to trust that God can carry my burdens, and even if he doesn’t change my circumstances, he is walking with me in them.

What about you? Which way will you choose today?


Sermon: All In


“All In”
Nehemiah 12:27-30

27 At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. 28 The musicians also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem—from the villages of the Netophathites, 29 from Beth Gilgal, and from the area of Geba and Azmaveth, for the musicians had built villages for themselves around Jerusalem. 30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.


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I. Introduction

I can only imagine how Nehemiah must have felt on the day when the Levites dedicated the wall of Jerusalem. It had been a long journey to this place, and one filled with uncertainty, hard work, and danger. These very walls, which had once protected the city and the Temple from attackers, had been destroyed almost 150 years before; the people of the city driven out to foreign lands. The gates of the city had been burned to the ground, and the Temple had been ransacked and desecrated. Over time, any hope the Israelites might have held onto that they would someday return to their homeland had dwindled, until Ezra the priest and a handful of hopefuls returned to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the Temple. When his efforts were stalled by Israel’s enemies and things were at their bleakest, God raised up Nehemiah, giving him a vision for rebuilding the city walls, so that the people might return in safety and so that the Temple might be rebuilt.

Nehemiah risked his life in order to approach the King of Babylon and ask for his blessing to go to Jerusalem and rebuild. He risked his reputation when he led his ragtag band of Jews to begin building the wall stone by stone, while their enemies mocked them. And he risked the lives of God’s people when he wouldn’t back down to threats of violence from the opposition. But throughout his struggles, Nehemiah placed his confidence in God. He believed that God would fulfill his vision of a rebuilt city, filled with people who would serve God and God alone.

His confidence was well placed. In just fifty-two days the remnant of Israel were able to rebuild the city walls and put up new gates. People began to return from exile to their ancestral homes. Ezra and the priests had read the Law to the people, and the people had confessed their sins to God. Despite all of the opposition they had faced, God’s vision had been fulfilled, and now Nehemiah would witness the dedication of the city walls as a testimony to God’s mighty acts. Oh, how Nehemiah’s soul must have soared.

You see, Nehemiah’s interest in what was going on that day was more than just a passing fancy. He wasn’t just a spectator who happened to come along to see what all the fuss was about. He had been an active part of it. In fact, he had led in this mission from the start. Even more than that, Nehemiah had risked everything to see this day come. He had poured himself heart and soul into accomplishing the task at hand. He had held nothing back in the pursuit of God’s vision for God’s people. He was sold out for God, and as he watched the wall of the city being dedicated in the name of Yahweh, he knew that he, too, was dedicated to God’s vision.


II. Dedication means going all in.

But what does it really mean to say that someone is dedicated? What does it mean to be all in for God’s mission and vision? It might be helpful to start with a definition this morning. According to the dictionary, the verb “dedicate” means to:

  1. devote (time, effort, or oneself) to a particular task or purpose.
  2. devote (something) to a particular subject or purpose.

In other words, to dedicate something means to set it apart for special service or to commit it to use by a particular individual for an exclusive purpose.

The Bible has a lot to say about dedication or devotion. In Colossians 4:2, Paul instructs the church to be devoted to prayer. Acts 2:42 says that the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship. Later, in Acts 18 we learn that, when helpers arrived to assist him in ministry, Paul devoted himself to preaching. In 1 Corinthians, Paul praises those who live devoted to the Lord, to his service, and to the apostles. And in Romans 12:10 he pleads with the church to be devoted to one another in love. The Old Testament often refers to people, places, and things as being devoted or dedicated to God. And in each of these cases, one thing is made clear. That which is dedicated must be dedicated to one thing only, because it is impossible to be devoted to two or more things at the same time.

Jesus summed this up well in Matthew, chapter 6. He was speaking to his disciples about money, and the dangers of seeking wealth. He instructed them not to store up temporary treasures on earth, but rather to seek the eternal treasures of heaven. His reason was that people’s hearts are naturally tied to whatever they value as treasure. And he clarified that a person’s heart cannot be tied to competing desires. In verse 24 he said, “24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t allow for half measures. He didn’t say that we can pursue temporal things and eternal things at the same time. No, he indicated that this is impossible, because whatever we devote ourselves to becomes our master. But Jesus also didn’t say that dedication is a bad thing, only that we must be careful what we dedicate ourselves to.

Nehemiah chose the wiser course. Rather than devoting himself to earthly concerns like his position in the palace, his reputation, and even his life, he gave himself completely to God and his vision for Israel. He didn’t hold anything in reserve, but freely and joyfully offered all that he had and all that he was to God to be used for God’s purposes.

I am not an advocate of gambling for a great many reasons, but I do find it interesting to watch really great card players from time to time. Many people call poker a game of luck, but it clearly requires incredible skill and mastery, or the same few people wouldn’t always finish at the top of the world championship games. At any rate, if you have ever watched a game of the World Poker Tour on television, you have likely seen someone get to the point where they decide to lay everything on the line for a single hand of cards, either because they have been dealt a winning hand, or because they believe they can successfully bluff. When this happens, the player pushes all of his or her chips to the center and says, “I’m all in”. They leave nothing in reserve for the next hand, instead committing all their resources to this single play.

Nehemiah followed God like a poker play, who is betting everything on a single hand. He went all in. He was fully committed to God’s vision, and had no backup plans. He was, by our own definition, completely dedicated to the outcome.


III. Being all in requires a focused mission & vision

It sounds great to talk about being completely dedicated, right? That sounds like a commendable trait. In fact, we often substitute words like loyalty or passion, when we talk about dedication. But when we hear someone say they are loyal or passionate, the next question we probably ask ourselves is what are you passionate about, or to whom are you loyal? In other words, what is the purpose behind your loyalty or passion? We should ask the same question when we talk about dedication within the church. What good does it do us to say that we are going all in for something, if we don’t know what the purpose, or final goal, is?

Now, I’ve known some people over the years that were enthusiastic about everything, ready to give 100% at all times. Have you ever known someone like that? Think about that guy or girl in high school or college who was “up for anything” or who always seemed to be in the middle of whatever was going on. Maybe you were that person. It can be fun and motivating to be around someone with unbridled enthusiasm, because they bring so much energy to a task. But that sort of unrestrained zeal is more often a hindrance than a help.

Even though a person like that might have passion, they are typically the last sort of person I want to work with on a team. The reason is that, when people have passion without purpose, they tend to run off in all directions. They tend to skip steps that might seem uninteresting or tedious. They are all about being where the action is at, and less about committing themselves to a long-term goal. Passionate people without a purpose tend to flit from one cause to the next when the excitement wears off. They tend to give up too soon, when the going gets tough.

We have a problem with misplaced passion in the church. We have a tendency to look for the project or program with the most excitement, jump in headlong for a while, and then move on to greener pastures when the fun wears off. We tend to withhold our limited resources of time and money and energy for those things that have the most aesthetic appeal, or that we think will have the biggest short-term payoff. This is passion without purpose.

When we seek instead to be purposefully passionate, though, it means we are willing to dedicate ourselves fully to any task, any program, and project of the church, because we know that each step that we take forward gets us closer to a common goal. Purposeless passion is ultimate self-seeking, because it’s objective is continued excitement for the individual. Purposeful passion, on the other hand, is other focused, because it seeks to achieve the goals of the group at the cost of self-fulfillment.

In order to become purposefully passionate, truly dedicated people, we need a clearly defined mission and vision. So, I would like for us to take a few moments this morning to talk about our goal as Jesus’ church. Let’s start with the general, and move to the specific.

  1. Great Commission (Matthew 28). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
  2. United Methodist Church Mission. Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
  3. The Vision of Union United Methodist Church. Praising God. Loving people. Seeking disciples. Serving Jesus.

This is the purpose toward which we need to focus our passion. If we are to live fully into who God has called us to be in Jesus, we must dedicate ourselves to whatever is necessary to achieve these goals. But in order for us to become truly dedicated to our common goal as a church, every person here has to become individually dedicated as well. In other words, each of us has to decide whether or not we are all in. So, are you ready to become fully dedicated to God and his vision for us?

Before you answer, consider this. Becoming fully dedicated to God’s vision might mean serving in a position that you don’t find exciting or fulfilling. It might mean taking part in difficult and thankless work. It might mean making a long-term commitment to doing something that doesn’t show results for months or years. Going all in for God’s vision will definitely mean surrendering your resources to Jesus. It will mean giving of your time, your talents, your energy, your prayers, and even your finances, with no strings attached. For Nehemiah, being dedicated to God’s vision led to uncertainty, mockery, and threats of violence. He was asked to give up everything – his royal position, his comfort, and possibly his life – in order to fulfill his purpose with passion. Why should we expect dedication to require any less of us today?


IV. Jesus was all in for us.

You might be questioning whether or not this sounds like a good deal, after all? The truth is, I think most of us know what God expects from us, when we make the claim that Jesus is Lord. We know that Jesus’ desire for us is not that we would become half-hearted groupies, but that we would become fully dedicated disciples, transformed into his image. But when the stresses of life begin to overwhelm us, or when the luxuries of life begin to appeal to us, we often find it easier to take a back seat and let someone else be the dedicated one. Have you ever said any of these things to yourself? I don’t feel led to do that. I’m too old. I’m too young. I’ve already put in my time. Someone else needs to take a turn. I’m too busy. I don’t think it will work. It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of money. What will I get out of it? It’s just not my thing. Why should I care?

I’ve said some of these things before in my own internal monologue. My guess is that I am not alone. Friends, we know what God desires from us, because he sent Jesus to demonstrate it on a cross. Aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t say, “I don’t feel like going all in. Let someone else do it. They are a waste of time. They are a waste of resources. They never learn. It won’t work. What will I get out of it?” God desires fully transformed people who love him, who love people, and who are willing to go all in, fully dedicated to serving him, even to death on a cross.


V. Application

Becoming fully dedicated to God and his mission has a prerequisite, though, and there is no way around it. We cannot ever be fully dedicated to God and his mission, until we are first found to be in Christ. You see, Nehemiah 12:30 links dedication to purification. Only when we are purified, can we be fully set aside for Jesus, and only Jesus can purify us from the stain of our sins. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” In Christ we are new creatures, who are no longer enslaved to our past lives of sin or present temptations. We are free to go about kingdom work, because we walk with the Holy Spirit, who gives us the power and wisdom we need. In Christ, we are adopted as daughters and sons of God, who are charged with the responsibility and authority of the Father to complete the work he has given us. And what is that work? To seek out those who are far away from him, and to bring them home to the Father’s house. This one thing should be our burning desire, and we must dedicate ourselves to it, if we would continue to call Jesus Lord.

Jesus went all in for us, so we shouldn’t rest until all people are in a relationship with him.

When I reach the end of my life, it won’t matter how much money I made. It won’t matter how many degrees I have from schools. It won’t even matter whether I sat in church every Sunday or read my Bible every day. None of those things will matter, unless Jesus has transformed my heart. And if my heart has really been transformed I will demonstrate it my actions. Everything I do at work, at home, at the store, at a ball game – everything – will point people back to him. Friends, I don’t know about you, but I want to hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” I want to be all in for Jesus, to know that I didn’t hold anything back. I don’t want to rest until all people are in a relationship with him.

There are sometimes many steps between where we now stand, and where Jesus wants to take us. And we are all at different points along that journey. If we you want to become who Jesus has called you to be, you have to take that next step, and then another, and another. Some of them are difficult, but when we take these steps we can do so knowing that Jesus’ journey to the cross was far more difficult, and through him we can have victory. So, what is your next step toward going all in for Jesus? Maybe for you the next step is:

  • A personal relationship with Jesus
  • Baptism
  • Confession of sin to God and a brother or sister in Christ
  • Reading your Bible daily
  • Inviting someone to church
  • Getting involved in a small group
  • Surrendering your finances
  • Reprioritizing your time
  • Volunteering in the church
  • Joining the church
  • Going on a mission trip
  • Sharing your faith with a neighbor

Maybe for you, the next step toward going all in for Jesus is to simply say “yes” to something we are doing as a church. For example, God has blessed us with the joy of many children and youth in our church. But we haven’t done all that we can yet to demonstrate to these kids how important they are to us and to Jesus. So, next month, after Easter has passed, we will be launching a new Children’s Church program for all children, through fifth grade. Our desire is to show our children how much Jesus loves them, to encourage them toward developing a personal relationship with him, and to help them experience church the way that all of us want it to be — a joyful place where they are valued, not for what they can do for us, but for who they have been uniquely created to be in Christ. And let’s not forget our older kids and teens. We want to provide a place for them to worship and learn to follow Jesus, as well. But for this to work, we need your help. We don’t need people who sense that children’s ministry is their whole purpose in life. We’ll take your help, if that’s you. But what we need are fully dedicated followers of Jesus who see these children and teens as God sees them — precious jewels, purchased at a great cost.

We are also taking some new steps as a church toward reaching those in our community who are living far away from God, through works of mercy. This month we started a new mission effort called One Thing. Each month, we will be partnering with an organization in our community or close to our hearts, to meet a tangible need for resources or volunteers. Sometimes, we get too comfortable with writing checks to meet needs. There is always a need for financial assistance, and we should continue to give to those in need, but what this world needs is not more philanthropy — it needs more Christians willing to step out of our church buildings and onto the streets of our neighborhoods and cities. This month, we are collecting much-needed items for the Clay County Food Pantry. But this isn’t just about buying some inexpensive items and calling it a day. At the end of the month we will also send a team to help them stock their shelves. In a church our size, we can make a sizeable difference, if we will just take the next step toward going all in for Jesus and his vision for our church.

Friends, we have so many things warring for our souls, things that would hinder us from becoming fully devoted to Jesus. But he died and was raised again, so that these other things would no longer have power over us. Jesus went all in for us. How can we possibly give him less than everything in return?


VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that you sent us your Son Jesus, to die in our place, taking our guilt upon himself, and setting us free from bondage to sin and the fear of death. Thank you, Jesus, for not withholding anything from your mission, instead giving everything so that we might become daughters and sons of God. Would you send your Spirit now to us? Would you make us wholly devoted to you and no other? Would you take our hearts and make them new, teaching us to love as you love, and holding nothing back for ourselves? We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Sermon: Facing Opposition


“Facing Opposition”
Nehemiah 4:1-15

4 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”

3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”

4 Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”

11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”

13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.


Download Sermon Study Guide

I. Introduction

A couple of weeks ago we took a look at Nehemiah’s first days in Jerusalem, as he carefully evaluated the work that needed to be done in order to rebuild the city walls. And we learned from his example what is necessary to build a healthy church that lasts. If you remember, we defined a healthy church as a church that keeps Jesus at the center of all life and worship, that seeks to grow spiritually under the care and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that engages thoughtfully in the Great Commission, so that God the Father will be glorified by our witness.

Nehemiah showed us that building a healthy church requires us to seek God first and trust him to fulfill his purposes in our midst. We talked about what it means to evaluate ourselves honestly, so that we can see clearly what needs to be done. We talked about the importance of understanding and communicating a common vision, and of being willing to take risks. And we learned that, at the end of the day, if we hope to build a healthy church that lasts, we have to get to work. Every member of the body of Christ has been placed by God in our community, has been given unique gifts and abilities, and has a vital role to play in the life of the church.

Nehemiah recognized all of these things, and we read in chapter 2 that he was able to communicate God’s vision to the people of Jerusalem and organize them together to do the work of rebuilding the city walls. But the Jews faced many difficult obstacles to their success. Some of their challenges came from the work itself, which was difficult and dangerous. But some of their biggest challenges came in the form of opposition from their enemies.

You may recall at the end of chapter 2 that when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about Nehemiah’s plans and saw that the Jews were getting to work on the city walls they mocked them, and even accused the Jews of rebelling against the king? And as Nehemiah and his fellow laborers began to make progress toward the fulfillment of God’s vision, the opposition they faced grew stronger and stronger.



II. What Opposition Did Nehemiah Face?

Outside opposition to God’s vision for us can take many forms, but whatever resistance we encounter typically falls into four broad categories. Nehemiah faced all four of these in chapter 4. Let’s see if these categories are familiar.

The first is anger. Chapter 4, verse 1 says that when Sanballat heard the Jews were rebuilding, he became angry and “greatly incensed”. For those of us without a dictionary on hand, some more common words for incensed are engraged or furious. Have you ever witnessed what happens when someone is enraged? Or, maybe you have experienced it yourself. I know I have, and I can tell you that when a person becomes enraged, they become violent, out of control, unable to behave rationally. They lash out at those around them, with no thought of the consequences. Enraged people become, in a word, scary. When Nehemiah led the Israelites in fulfilling God’s vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem, the first reaction he received from his enemies was undisguised fury.

As is often the case, the anger of Nehemiah’s enemies soon turned into ridicule. You see, it is the nature of uncontrolled anger to lash out, and it is easiest to do so with our tongues. And just like a schoolyard bully, Sanballat looked for others to join him in his hatred. Verses 2 and 3 tell us that he mocked the Jews in front of the Samarian army, and pretty soon his companion Tobiah joined in. They belittled the Jews themselves and they made fun of their attempts to rebuild.

Have you ever been ridiculed, mocked, or tormented? I’ll admit that I have endured this sort of hostility on a number of occasions, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve also been the one who ridiculed, mocked, and tormented others. Most of us have been on one or both sides of this equation, and we all know well the feeling of powerlessness that is felt by the victim. No matter how many times we utter the grade school mantra “stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” the truth remains that words, especially malicious words, can and do wound us deeply. And we know the insults of Nehemiah’s enemies bothered him, because in verse 4 he prays and asks God to turn their insults back on them. But still, the Jews continued in their work.

And when the anger and ridicule weren’t enough to force Nehemiah to alter course, his enemies turned to a third type of resistance: intimidation. After all, if words won’t do the trick, maybe threats will. Verses 7 and 8 say that Nehemiah’s enemies began to plot together to cause trouble for the Jews, and this plotting became intimidation when their plans were made known.

How many of you here have ever felt truly intimidated by someone or something? How did it make you feel? Did you find your thoughts consumed by what could happen next? Did it completely steal your joy? How did it alter your thinking and your behavior?

There is an old 80’s movie that popped into my mind as I was thinking about intimidation this week. Has anyone here ever seen the movie Three O’Clock High? Well, it is a story about a well-liked teenager who has tried to do everything right. He is a good student, he hangs out with good kids, his teachers like him, and he has even been trusted to run the school store that sells office supplies. Everything seems to be going great for this young man until the day a new bully moves into town. This bully is looking to make a name for himself and finds the perfect opportunity when the main character accidentally embarrasses him, and the bully tells him that when the bell rings at 3:00, he will be waiting outside to fight. The rest of the movie tells the story of this poor intimidated kid as he tries to find a way out of the fight. All of the protagonist’s efforts to fix the problem only make things worse, and we see his life slowly unravel with each tick of the clock.

I will say this, if you are the sort of person who roots for the underdog, then you would love the way the movie ends. He finds an inner strength of character and manages to lay the bully out flat with one punch, slightly assisted by a set of brass knuckles. But throughout the story, we see the affects of intimidation; of not knowing what could come next, but fearing what the enemy will do. Intimidation steals the peace of the victim and throws their life into chaos. This is why it is such an effective weapon. Nehemiah and the Jews were subjected to this sort of intimidation, and yet despite what they must have felt they continued to work at rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

Until finally, when all else had failed to deter the Jews, Nehemiah’s enemies moved from intimidation and the threat of violence to outright violence itself, and we are told later on in chapter 6 that they eventually attempted to have Nehemiah assassinated.



III. What Does Opposition Look Like Today?

We face similar challenges when we submit to following God’s vision for us today. When the outside world doesn’t understand us, Christians often meet with anger and ridicule. We see this all of the time in the media, and many of us have experienced it first-hand from people who don’t know us. Some of us here may have even experienced intimidation because of our beliefs. Our students will experience this as they grow older, even more so today than just a few years ago. They will endure ridicule and mockery as they hold fast to the commands of scripture, seeking what is good and avoiding what is evil. Some here may have even experienced the threat of violence or violence itself because of their faith, though this is a problem much less often experienced here in America.

Not all challenges to following God come from outside influences, though. Sometimes our greatest opponents to following God’s vision occur inside the church. Churches are filled with people of varying experiences, maturity levels, and expectations. And, though it is often hard for us to admit, even churches that don’t often see new faces on Sunday are many times filled with those who don’t yet know Jesus in a personally transformative way. For all of these reasons and more, we won’t always see eye to eye in the church. Because we are all messy people, when we don’t see eye to eye or don’t get our way, we sometimes resort to anger, ridicule, and even intimidation. And because the church is filled with messy people who don’t always see things with kingdom vision, sometimes we experience opposition from other congregations or denominations when we strike out accomplish God’s vision for us in new or different ways.

But more often than not, the greatest opposition we face to accomplishing God’s vision for us comes from within. When we continue to pursue attitudes or lifestyles or relationships that are contrary to God’s best for us, as revealed in scripture, we war with the Spirit of God living in us, and we create barriers to our own progress. Sin, apathy and laziness, fear, pride, and regret. When we allow any of these to gain control over our thoughts and actions, we become enemies of the good work that God wants to do in our lives, and they can cripple us in our attempts to discern and follow God’s vision for our lives and for the church.

Perhaps the reason we don’t experience stronger persecution as Christians in the West, is because we have already so effectively setup opposition to God in our own hearts.




IV. How Should We Respond to Opposition?

Whatever the source and type of opposition we face, we find solutions to it in scripture. Nehemiah provides us with yet another example to follow in chapter 4. As we watch the story unfold, his response to the opposition he faced was decisive and filled with faith. The easy thing to do would have been to give up and run back to Susa and the king. He could have abandoned his project in Jerusalem, and moved back to the easier work of a cupbearer. I mean, it’s not like this was his city anyway, right? He had never been there before. In fact, it had been destroyed more than a hundred years before he was born. Why should he risk his life for some place from Israel’s past, this abandoned city, this pile of rubble, with gates burned to the ground? Why should he care at all?

He cared, and he carried on, because God had given him a vision bigger than himself. And because he was viewing things from God’s perspective, he chose instead to stand up to his enemies and face his opposition head on. Nehemiah took five simple steps that we can still follow today, when we are facing challenges to God’s vision for us.

First, Nehemiah prayed to God for victory in verse 4. Why is that pray is so often our last line of defense, instead of our first? I think we often buy into the great lie of our culture that says we have to be self-reliant in order to be successful in life; that we just have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and that, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The Bible tells us a sweeter truth. Scripture shows us that a life of dependence upon God and his word leads to blessings, while a life separate from him leads to curses. Through Jesus we learn that the abundant life is one that abides with God in Christ. And this begins with prayer. When we face opposition, as Nehemiah did, our first response should always be to seek God on our knees.

Second, Nehemiah led the Jews to continue the work they had started. Verse 6 says that they continued to build the wall until all of it reached half the height that it once was, even while they were being persecuted. The easy thing to do, when we encounter resistance to our efforts is to simply give up. But Nehemiah shows us that we are called to press on in the face of hardship and trust God to give us the strength we need to persevere. Sometimes we just give up too easily, forgetting that anything worth doing at all is worth struggling to achieve. If we are willing to endure all kinds of hardship in order to accomplish our dreams for success in our jobs and families and even our hobbies, why then do we find it so hard to press on when we meet with opposition in our spiritual lives and in the church? We must learn to persevere in the face of challenges, if we would see God’s vision made reality in our lives.

Third, Nehemiah organized the families of the workers to protect on another from attacks. In verse 13 we read that Nehemiah didn’t just ignore his enemies, trying to pretend that their threats weren’t real. He didn’t tell his people to ignore them either. And he certainly didn’t just throw up his hands and say, “Well, we’re in trouble! Every man for himself.” Instead, he took decisive action and organized the families of the Jews to stand guard for one another as they continued with the work they had been given to do. Sometimes we crumble in the face of opposition, because we forget that we are called to be one body in Christ. We are no longer lonely lost sheep in search of a shepherd; rather we are the family of God, with the Almighty as our Father, the Spirit as our Helper, and Jesus as our brother, who has walked where we walk. And there is great strength to be found when we seek to be unified with one another in Christ. We have to stop living as though we are a bunch of individual Christians and remember that we are each a part of the family of God.

Fourth, Nehemiah trusted in God for protection and provision to accomplish God’s vision, and in verse 14 he reminded the people not to be afraid, because God is awesome and great. Sometimes we become so preoccupied by the challenges we face, that we forget who we serve: the One and only God of the universe! He is the creator of all things, and if he can make all of this, he can surely provide for us in our time of greatest need. Sometimes, we just need to learn to trust God more.

Fifth, and finally, Nehemiah prepared the people for future opposition, and remained diligent and alert for further hostility. He didn’t pretend that, once the immediate threat was gone, everything was going to be perfect from then on. Instead, Nehemiah prepared the people for the challenges that were yet to come. Sometimes, when we have just come through a tough challenge, we let down our guard and we begin to slip back into old patterns of though and behavior, don’t we? Maybe we have had victory against a particular sinful desire, so we stop being quite so diligent to avoid the triggers that set off our temptation. Maybe we have just pulled off a successful project or survived a difficult challenge as a church, and so we sit back and take a much-needed rest, only to find that we never start moving again. Or maybe the stress of a dangerous or divisive moment has finally passed, and we find ourselves no longer earnestly seeking God in prayer, because we don’t see any immediate threat. When we drop our guard, we become vulnerable to even more devastating attacks from the enemies of God’s vision. Instead, like Nehemiah, we should prepare ourselves for what is to come, not because we fear it, but because we desire to see God’s vision fulfilled.

Opposition can teach us a few important lessons. It teaches us that God alone is our source of strength. It teaches us that we are stronger together. It teaches us perseverance and patience. It reminds us that we are not citizens of this world; that our kingdom is heaven. And opposition teaches us that nothing in this world will satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.



V. Our Hope

When Jesus Christ walked the earth, he also encountered opposition to His Father’s vision. He overcame the rage directed against him by outsiders (Romans) and insiders (Jews) alike. He turned aside their ridicule and slander. He stood strong in the face of their intimidation. And he endured their violence, even unto death on the cross. And in so doing, he freed each and every one of us here from the bondage of sin and the fear of death. Through Jesus, we can now experience true union with God and unity with the Body of Christ. And because of him, and all that he endured on our behalf, we know that we too can persevere in the face of life’s trials. When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we become God’s adopted daughters and sons, we are born again from above, and we become citizens of heaven. And in Jesus alone, we find the only thing that will ever satisfy the desires of our hearts.

In Hebrews 12:2-3 Paul says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” In other words, don’t give up! When opposition rises up to meet you, don’t lose heart; instead, remember Jesus. We can face any opposition, because Jesus overcame every opposition on the cross. And he lives in us!



VI. Application

God’s vision for Nehemiah was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, so the people of God could return home from exile. God’s vision for us is that we would live holy lives, obedient to his Word, and actively seek out those who are living far away from him, inviting them back into relationship with God, through Jesus. This is God’s vision for every Christian, and Jesus summed it up for us in Matthew 22, when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Friends, now is the time for us to stand up to whatever opposition we face so that God’s vision might be accomplished in us. For you that might mean you need to confront some sin in your life. Maybe you need to confess it to God in prayer, and then ask one of your fellow Christians to support you and hold you accountable for remaining pure. Maybe for you, confronting the opposition means learning to trust God more fully in the day-to-day experiences of life, and choosing to turn over to God all your anxiety, worry, and attempts to maintain control. Maybe your greatest opposition comes in the form of regret for past sins or hurts, and your need to release those to the healing presence of Jesus, who forgets our pasts and gives us a future in him. Whatever the challenges you are facing today, remember this: We can face any opposition, because Jesus overcame every opposition on the cross.

Friends, we are beginning to embark upon a new stage in our journey as a church. I believe God is calling us to consider whether we are truly fulfilling his vision of loving God and loving people, or whether we have allowed opposition to get in our way. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be talking about how we can recognize success in following God’s vision for us, and we will begin evaluating ourselves personally and as a church, to see where our hearts truly lie. This process may be, at times, difficult and painful, but I believe it will also be filled with joy and hope as we witness the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I believe that God’s vision for us is greater and more amazing that we have dared to allow ourselves to imagine, and I believe that He is waiting for us to ask him to give us eyes to see it, ears to hear it, and the strength to persevere in the face of opposition.



VII. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you this day, that you are a God who has a vision for our lives; that you have not called us to wander aimlessly, but have directed our paths. Would you come among us today, now, in this place, and give us a renewed sense of your vision for us. Would you show us what it means to truly love you and love others? Would you show us clearly where there is any opposition to your vision, and would you give us victory over anyone or anything that stands between us and you? We love you, and we thank your for sending your Son, Jesus. And we give thanks that we can overcome all things, because Jesus lives in us. Amen.


Book Review: 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, by Andy Stanley, Reggie Joiner, and Lane Jones

7-practices-of-effective-ministryAndy Stanley, Reggie Joiner, and Lane Jones, Seven Practices of Effective Ministry(Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2004)

A pastor friend of mine handed me this book by the North Point team over the weekend, and once I started reading I had trouble putting it down. Don’t let the publishing date dissuade you; the wisdom contained in these pages is still just as relevant today as it was in 2004.

Let’s get a couple of disclaimers out of the way, before reviewing the content. First, though Andy Stanley is listed as the first author, his direct written contributions include only a short introduction and conclusion. If you are looking for material written by him specifically, this is not the book for you. However, his influence is clearly present on every page, as might be expected from his long time friendship and ministry partnership with Lane Jones. As a North Point resource, this book contains wisdom, strategies, and ideas that have grown out of Stanley’s leadership and the lessons learned at North Point Church.

Second, the style of this book is altogether different from what you might expect to find in a leadership book. In the first part, Lane Jones tells the fictional story of a young pastor at his wits end, who is lured by a friend into a coaching session with a successful businessman, under the pretense of free tickets to a baseball game. The entire story takes place within the context of the game, so the reader will find several references to baseball throughout. This story serves the function of providing a common narrative context for leadership lessons the authors wish to teach.

In the other half of the book, Reggie Joiner builds upon the foundation laid by Jones, and delves more deeply into each of the seven recommended leadership practices. This part of the book contains real world examples, which further illustrate the concepts highlighted in the fictional story.

Though somewhat unusual for the genre, this style of blending story and instruction works well to guide the reader into the book and cement the rational for implementing the recommended practices. The second part of the book doesn’t settle for restating what was said in the first, so there is no sense of tediousness in reading. I found that the story drew me in, prepared me to hear the wisdom being presented, and then drove the lesson home in the second half. Reading this book was much like listening to a well crafted sermon.

Now for the content. Stanley’s team convincingly argues the following 7 practices will enhance the work of ministry leaders:

  1. Clarify the Win – define what is important at every level of the organization.
  2. Think Steps, Not Programs – before you start anything, make sure it is where you need to go.
  3. Narrow the Focus – do fewer things in order to make a greater impact.
  4. Teach Less for More – say only what you need to say to the people who need to hear it.
  5. Listen to Outsiders – focus on who you’re trying to reach, not who you’re trying to keep.
  6. Replace Yourself – learn to hand off what you do.
  7. Work On It – take time to evaluate your work–and to celebrate your wins.

All seven of these practices challenged and resonated with me. Different personalities will struggle more with different individual practices, and many leaders will recognize practices they have already implemented into their leadership in some fashion. I was most personally challenged by practices 2, 3, and 4, and I think our church will be most challenged with practice 5. I look forward to thinking through the ways I can incorporate these strategies into my own leadership and instill them into other leaders in my ministerial context.

I consider this book a “must read” for pastors and other ministry leaders. It is a quick read that will challenge you to lead with purpose and consider the long-term success of your church or parachurch organization as more important than your own.

I highly recommend this book!


Sermon: Build to Last


“Build to Last”
Nehemiah 2:11-20

11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.

13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.

17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.

They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.

19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”

20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”


I. Introduction

Last week we began reading about Nehemiah, an Israelite living in Babylon during the exile and about 140 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls of Jerusalem and deported thousands of Israelites to other countries. While serving as the King’s cupbearer in Susa, Nehemiah received news from travelers that Jerusalem’s walls were still in ruins and the remnant who had returned to rebuild the Temple under Ezra’s leadership were in desperate trouble. This news drove Nehemiah to despair, because it seemed the exile would continue. But then Nehemiah turned to God in his grief, repented of his sin and that of his countrymen, and asked God to remember his covenant with Israel and give him success as he sought favor from Artaxerxes, the king of Babylon.

As chapter 2 opens, we find Nehemiah preparing to enter into the king’s presence to ask him for the favor he prayed about. Now, as the royal cupbearer, Nehemiah would have been a highly trusted companion to the king. They would have spent significant amounts of time together, so it is no surprise that Artaxerxes noticed something was wrong with Nehemiah when he brought the king some wine. When he was questioned about what was bothering him, Nehemiah gathered up his courage and shared his distress over the situation in Jerusalem. And because he sought out God’s blessing first, the king agreed to help him accomplish his dream. He sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem with all that he would need to travel safely, to gather supplies, and to do the work of rebuilding the city.


II. How Not to Build

Have you ever started an ill-conceived project that ended in disaster? I have on several occasions. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not what you would call “skilled” when it comes to building things, so it probably won’t surprise you that my attempts to construct ideas from scratch haven’t always gone as I hoped. While I was thinking about it this week, one particular event from my past jumped out at me that should serve as a cautionary tale for all the would be procrastinators here this morning.

When I was in eighth grade, my history teacher gave us an assignment in the spring that was intended to be a major project demonstrating what we had learned about history that year. We were given the flexibility to choose any theme and style of project that we wanted, so long as we ran it by him first, and we were give ample time to plan and implement our ideas successfully. But since I had plenty of time before the due date, once I got my concept approved I decided not to worry about it for a while.

I have always been fascinated by large ships, and since we had talked about explorers traveling the globe in giant multi-masted ships that year, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to build one. But there were a few problems with my idea, from the start. First, I didn’t know anything about how ships were constructed and didn’t consider it necessary to read up on the subject. Second, I didn’t make any actual plans for how to go about building the thing. I didn’t have any drawings or instructions, I had no idea what materials would be best to use, and there was no such thing as an Internet where I could look these things up easily. And third, I was a terrible procrastinator, so I waited to get started until the day before my project was due.

Needless to say, I was in over my head from the beginning. After begging my mom to take me to a local craft store to buy some supplies, I decided to build my three-masted ship out of dowel rods, Popsicle sticks, and hot glue. Unfortunately, constructing a complex object like a ship requires more than simple guesses and a rushed assembly. And apparently, hot glue does not hold together different types of wood very well. My idea was not planned out, I was rushed in the implementation, and I didn’t have the appropriate tools available to me to do the work well. The pieces of the ship kept falling off, the design looked terrible, I wound up having to switch to a slow drying glue that was still wet the next day, and by the time I got to school my project was a complete disaster. My teacher was not pleased, and he was not fooled either. He knew what had gone wrong, and the grade I earned was a strong warning to be more careful in the future.

Have you ever had an experience like mine, either on a small scale or a large one?

The fact of the matter is that it takes a lot of planning, a clearly defined goal, and the right tools and people to build something that lasts. When we don’t take care to construct things well, they are ultimately doomed to failure and our efforts are wasted.


III. How to Build a Healthy Church That Will Last

Nehemiah’s desire was to build a healthy city for God’s people, so that they could return from their exile and worship God in the land he had given them, but the lessons we learn from his leadership can also be applied to the life of the church. So this morning, I would like for us to consider what is necessary for us to build a healthy church that will last.

First, let’s define what it means to be a healthy church. A healthy church is one that keeps Jesus at the center of all life and worship, that seeks to grow spiritually under the care and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that engages thoughtfully in the Great Commission, so that God the Father will be glorified by our witness.

But healthy churches don’t just happen on their own. Fortunately, the Bible gives us some great examples that demonstrate for us how to go about the important work of building a healthy church that will last. Through Nehemiah’s leadership we can identify five things that are critical to building the church.

  1. First, building a healthy church that lasts requires us to seek God first, and trust him to fulfill his purposes in our midst (Ch. 1). If we were building a house for someone, it would make absolutely no sense to begin drawing up plans, purchasing supplies, or committing labor to the task until we first speak to the owner of the house, right? How could we possibly know what is needed or what the end result should look like if we haven’t consulted with the one who will approve of the work.

The first thing Nehemiah did in chapter 1 was to sit down and begin fasting and praying to God for direction about what to do next. And after seeking God’s blessing and protection, Nehemiah trusted God to see him through it (2:4, 20). In verse 4, he prayed to God for strength to speak plainly to the king, and in verse 20 he confirmed his belief that God would give him success. Before, during, and after Nehemiah began his quest to restore Jerusalem, he sought out God in prayer and trusted God to carry him through. Nehemiah recognized that his efforts would be wasted, unless they were blessed by God, and he understood the only approval that mattered would come from his Heavenly King.

Why, then, do churches so often set off on a course of action when they haven’t yet consulted the head of the church about his desires for it? If we are to build a healthy church that lasts, we have to begin on our knees, praying to God for his direction, his blessing, and his protection. At the same time, we need to cultivate a deep trust in God that he will continue to build his church where we are faithful to follow him.

So, have we, as a church, been seeking God’s direction and desires for us?


  1. Building a healthy church that lasts requires us to evaluate ourselves with humble honesty. Nehemiah didn’t just jump into action the moment he got the go ahead from the king to rebuild Jerusalem. Verses 11-16 tells us that before he began any work or made any announcements about what he was going to do, Nehemiah took stock of the present situation. He took just a few men with him and surveyed the damage that had been done to the walls and gates of the city. He took time to carefully consider what needed to be done to ensure that his work would be laid on a solid foundation.

Every healthy church is built with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. One reason churches sometimes fail in their mission is that they have substituted other things in the place of Jesus. When we create programs that don’t point people to Christ, when we do justice ministry that isn’t founded upon the love that only Jesus can put in our hearts, and when we fail to preach, teach, and give witness to the good news of Jesus in our halls of worship, we are building on a shaky foundation that will not last.

The church is the bride of Christ, and when we don’t stay by his side and take our lead from him, we become like an unfaithful spouse, prone to wander and forsake the one we love. So, one question we need to ask ourselves is this: have we allowed Jesus to take his rightful place at the center of our church?

While we are asking that question, maybe you sense the need to make it more personal. In order for us to recognize Jesus as the center of our church, we first have to recognize him as Lord of our lives. So, Have you ever taken that first step and received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? If not, you can take care of that right now. There is no need for you to wander aimlessly through life, wondering what God’s purpose is for you and your family. When you receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers through faith, he will give you _his_ purpose and _his_ plan. And you can have both right now, if you just confess him as Lord and believe that he is the Son of God, who died and was raised from the dead for you.

Or maybe you received Christ long ago, but lately, he hasn’t taken the front seat in your life. Maybe you’ve gotten so busy with work or kids or life in general that you haven’t been spending time with Jesus. Maybe you haven’t been seeking him in scripture and prayer, and he’s become something of a stranger in your house. That can end today, too, if you’ll confess your weakness to God and as Jesus to take his rightful place as Lord in your life and home.

If we want to build a healthy church that lasts, we have to start by humbly evaluating ourselves, both personally and corporately, to discover whether we are building on shaky ground, or the only foundation that will endure.

So, Have we, as a church, taken the time to honestly and humbly evaluate ourselves lately?


  1. Building a healthy church that lasts requires us to understand our mission and share a common vision. Once Nehemiah took the time to seek God’s blessing and evaluate his present circumstances, he communicated his vision to the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t mince words when he told them “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire (v. 17).” But neither did he hesitate to share his plan of action. “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace (v. 18).”

Notice what Nehemiah didn’t do here. He didn’t linger on the negative. He was honest about the present situation, but he didn’t get caught up in complaining or worrying about it. Instead, he saw God’s vision as sufficient enough to answer their need. And he encouraged everyone to get on board with him.


The mission of the global church is found in Jesus’ charge to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” And the vision of Union United Methodist Church is to be a people who are “Praising God, loving all people, growing in Jesus, and seeking disciples for him.”

Are we, as a local congregation, accomplishing the mission and vision of the church?


  1. Building a healthy church that lasts requires us to take risks. Nehemiah took some huge risks in order to accomplish his vision of rebuilding Jerusalem. He risked his life when he spoke to the King and asked for his help. He took a risk when he traveled to a land he had never before seen. He took a risk when he told the people of his plans, and in verse 19 we see that he risked being mocked and ridiculed by those who didn’t understand what he was doing. Nehemiah was even willing to risk the possibility that others would think he was being disloyal to the king. He was willing to risk everything to rebuild God’s city.

If we would build a healthy church that lasts, we must be willing to take risks. We must be willing to risk our time, our efforts, our finances, our reputations, and anything else God asks of us for the sake of our mission and vision.

What are we willing to risk in order to build God’s church?


  1. Building a healthy church that lasts requires us to get to work. When Nehemiah was honest with the Israelites about their current situation, and shared his vision for rebuilding with them, their response was immediate. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding!” and verse 18 says that they began this good work.

When we have sought out God in prayer, evaluated our situation honestly, and listened to his direction, the next step is to act. All the planning in the world won’t benefit the church one bit, if we never put those plans into action. Fear causes us to hesitate sometimes, but faith gives us the courage to begin the good work God has given us to do.


IV. Application

All five of these things are needed, but a truly healthy church requires one more critical component. It requires the full participation of the Body of Christ. Nehemiah chapter 3 spells this out well, when it describes the work that each individual contributed to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall. Each person’s contribution is not only valued, but also necessary. Had any single individual decided that they didn’t want to get involved, the wall of the city would have remained weak and vulnerable to attack. The same is true of the church. Every person here is necessary to the life of the Body, and each person outside the walls of this building is cherished by God. God has sought out each and every one of us, because he loves us as his precious children, and has invited us to become part of this holy mystery that we call the church. And, hear me when I say this, friends – God doesn’t make mistakes.

This past week there has been a lot of international media coverage about Christians in the Middle East. This coverage hasn’t come because of some special international relief effort, or because of some other ministry of the church. Middle-Eastern Christians have been in the news, because just a few days ago 21 Egyptian Christians, who were working in Libya to feed their families by helping with reconstruction efforts there, were kidnapped by ISIS terrorists and were killed on camera for their faith. The terrorists said this was done as a warning to “the nation of the cross”; it was a warning to Christians. These 21 men died, because they would not deny their faith in Jesus, even though they knew it would lead to their death. Jesus was more important to them than their own lives.

When I hear about stories like this, I find myself asking if I would have the strength to give my life for Jesus and his church? Do I love him enough to give anything for him?

What about you? Do you truly love Jesus? Because you can’t truly love him without also loving the church that he died to establish. If we want to truly show our love of Christ’s church, then we have to work to build it up. What are you willing to do, in order to build the kind of healthy church that lasts in the face of hardship, persecution, or even death?

Are you willing to commit yourself to seeking God together in prayer? Are you willing to do the hard work of honestly and humbly evaluating your life and the ministries of the church to make sure that Jesus is at the center? Are you willing to work together toward a common mission and vision?

Are you willing to take some risks, even if they lead to failure, in the hopes of reaching just one more person with the good new of Jesus Christ? Because the Church is not a building, friends – it is the body of Christ, made up of people who love him and profess Jesus as Lord. If we would build a church that lasts, we must invest in bringing people to meet him.

So, are you ready to get to work? Every one of us is vital to the health of the church. God has led each of us here to this place, and he has given us the collection of gifts and abilities that we need to successfully follow wherever he is leading us as a congregation. But when anyone decides to sit on the sidelines the whole team suffers. You are each needed, you are each wanted, and you are each vital to the Body of Christ. Let’s get to work!


V. Closing Prayer

Will you pray with me? Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not left us to build your church on our own, but that you have given us the Holy Spirit to guide us. We can trust that your church will grow healthy and that it will last wherever your people are faithful, because you have built it upon Jesus Christ, the only foundation that will last. Thank you for loving us so much that you sent him to die for our sins, so that we might become free from guilt and shame. And thank you for calling us together as one Body to be your hands and feet in the world. Would you make us faithful to complete the work you have given us to do? We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Sermon: Good Grief


“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.


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


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.


Sermon: Now What?


“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!


Sermon: 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.