0

Sermon: Reborn

foundations-blue

 

“Reborn”
John 3:1-6

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

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

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

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

 

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

II. Nicodemus

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III. Born Again (from Above)

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

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

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

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

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

 

IV. What Happens in the New Birth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

V. Application

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

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

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

 

VI. Closing Prayer

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

0

Sermon: Blameless

foundations-blue

 

“Blameless”
Romans 5:1-11

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

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

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

 

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

 

II. Justification by Grace through Faith

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

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

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

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

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

 

III. What Happens When We Are Justified?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IV. Receiving God’s Justifying Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

V. Application

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

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

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

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

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

 

VI. Closing Prayer

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

0

Mourning with Those Who Mourn

mourning-with-those-who-mourn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

Sermon: Just One Bite

foundations-blue

“Just One Bite”
Genesis 3:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I. Introduction

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III. What is Original Sin?

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

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

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

 

IV. God’s Response to Original Sin

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

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

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

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

 

V. Application

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

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

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

 

VI. Closing Prayer

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

 

https://vimeo.com/116514966

0

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

expositional-preaching-9Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

Sermon: Eyes Wide Open

eyes-wide-open

“Eyes Wide Open”
Acts 9:1-22

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

5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

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

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

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

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

 

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

 

II. Coming Face-to-face with Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III. Living with Spiritual Blindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

IV. Opening Our Eyes

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

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

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

 

V. Application

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

 

VI. Closing Prayer

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

0

Sermon: All Things New

all-things-new

“All Things New”
Revelation 21:1-11

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

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

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

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

 

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

II. The Bride of the Lamb

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

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

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

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

 

III. God Makes all Things New

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

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

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

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

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

 

IV. What Does God Make New?

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

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

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

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

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

In John, chapter 3 Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

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

  1. Third, God renews the minds of those who trust in him (Romans 12:1-2). In Romans 12:1-2 Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

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

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

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

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

 

V. Application

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray.

 

VI. Closing Prayer

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

 

0

Sermon: Not-So-Silent Night

not-so-silent-night

“Not-So-Silent Night”
Luke 2:1-20

1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

 

I. Introduction

Have you ever stopped to really reflect on the words of the hymns we sing at Christmas? Have you ever wondered about the background of these songs, or what led their composers to write down these words and put them to music?

Just a couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with June Jenkins about the song The Little Drummer Boy, and I confessed to June that it has never been one of my favorites. Then she surprised me by really explaining the words of the song, and how they represent the desire of the little drummer boy to offer up, with praise and thanksgiving, the only gift he had to give to Jesus; the gift of his drum. This new understanding opened my eyes to the reality being conveyed beyond the music. And I can tell you that I have a newfound appreciation for that hymn. In fact, we will be listening to a beautiful version of it this evening at our candlelight service.

The funny thing is that I have been a student of hymnody for years. I even once wrote an academic paper about the role that Wesleyan hymns played in the development and transmission of theology in early Methodism. Our tradition has long been known for the songs that we sing. Methodists have often been referred to as a “singing people”, and Charles Wesley, one of our founders, is believed to be the most prolific hymn writer in history. Scholars estimate that he wrote an average of ten lines of verse every day for fifty years. And those verses that were put to music tell the sweeping story of God and creation, of humanity’s need for a Savior and Christ’s willing sacrifice for sin. They describe our bondage to sin, the freedom offered through the cross, and the holiness of life that is found in the Spirit.

The songs that we sing as Christians should all convey our understanding of where we come from, what God has done for us, and who we are called to be in Christ. And yet I often forget to pause and think about the words I am singing, particularly around Christmas time, when my familiarity with the tunes takes over, and I sing without really considering what I am saying.

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself thinking about the lyrics of the song we just sang: “Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright…”. On the surface, they convey such an overwhelming sense of God’s peace; that somehow, all is now right in the world, because of the birth of this special baby. They indicate that everything was tranquil and calm on the night that Jesus was born, as though a perfect peace had fallen over the earth. But when I read the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke of Jesus’ entry into our world, they don’t fill me with a sense of peace and quiet. I don’t imagine baby Jesus cooing quietly in a cradle as all the animals stand around in silent reverence. Instead, Luke paints a picture of uncertainty, loneliness, and fear leading up to and surrounding Jesus’ birth. While we now know that Christ’s birth was indeed the herald of a new promise of peace with God, Mary and Joseph were experiencing a reality that did not promise a silent night, when they arrived that evening in Bethlehem.

So, maybe the author had something else in mind, when he penned these words. What if he wasn’t attempting to illustrate the events of the evening, so much as the expectant pause, the sharp intake of breath, and the ensuing silence inspired by awe at the presence of the miraculous? What if he was describing the only plausible response of creation to the news that God has entered human space?

Perhaps, this song is echoing the words of the prophet Habakkuk,

“The Lord is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him.” (Hab. 2:20)

 

II. Not So Silent

For every breath, held in awe and anticipation, there must eventually be an exhale. Our reading this morning from Luke, chapter 2 tells us the story of that exhaled breath. It describes the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, which marked the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel and the end of their four hundred year wait for the Messiah. The only fitting response to such a momentous event is not silence, but praise! And this is exactly what we find in the text.

Luke 2:9 tells us about the first public announcement of Jesus’ birth, when an angel of the Lord visited nearby shepherds to declare the miracle of the incarnation. As with every other appearance of an angel in the Bible, the shepherds were terrified. But the angel’s very first words were “Do not be afraid.” God’s message to them was not one of doom and gloom, but rather one that would generate joy. And to prove that this good news would be for all the people, the angel announced it to shepherds in a field, men on the lower rungs of societies’ ladder, instead of giving the message to the cultural or religious elite.

Then immediately following the announcement, we are told in verse 13 that a great company of angels began singing praises to God for the message that was just delivered. Its as if a message this good has to be delivered right away, because the messengers are just bubbling over with enthusiasm, and can’t wait to give thanks to God.

As soon as the shepherds received the good news of Jesus, they hustled off to do exactly what they just saw the angels do. Verses 16-20 say that they immediately went to find Jesus, and after seeing for themselves that the message was true, they began spreading the word about what they had seen. Like the angels before them, once they told others about the good news, they erupted into praise and thanksgiving to God.

The reaction of the angels and shepherds in Luke are not the only instances of this sort of response to the good news of Christ. In fact, Jesus’ arrival is an event that is often accompanied by the immediate proclamation of who he is, which then leads to rejoicing. When Jesus steps on the scene in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist immediately starts pointing to him and telling his own disciples that Jesus is the promised one, the Messiah. He can’t wait to tell everyone that this is the guy they have been waiting for. Likewise, when Jesus called the first disciples, they response was to immediately run and find their family and friends, doing everything they can to tell them about the good news and invite them to see for themselves.

Once we have seen Jesus for ourselves, and heard the good news about him, our natural response should be to go and tell other people the message we have received about him, and then give praise to God. But in order to do that, we have to first remember the message we have received.

 

III. The Message (What is Proclaimed about Jesus?)

On the night Jesus was born, the angel declared that God had entered into his creation, and that this event would bring peace between God and humanity. The message was one of a promise not yet fully realized, but guaranteed by God’s faithfulness. As those who stand on this side of the resurrection, we have been called to join in the proclamation of God’s promises by witnessing to the in-breaking Kingdom of God, even as we wait with expectation for Christ’s return in final victory.

We are in a unique position, because we know that God has already fulfilled his promises in Christ, even though the implications of his work have not yet fully been realized on earth. So, as those who have received God’s free gift of grace, we are called to bear witness to God’s faithfulness by telling the world all about Jesus – who he is and what he has done.

The good news of Jesus Christ is this: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that anyone who believes in him might have eternal life with God as his adopted child and heir to his promises of resurrection and new birth.

This message begins with Christ’s incarnation and birth, and the good news that the Son of God, who is fully divine, became fully human for our sake. The message continues by calling people’s attention to Jesus’ life and ministry as the evidence of God’s Kingdom coming to Earth. It encompasses Jesus’ death on the cross, as a perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins, and announces the freedom he purchased for us from guilt and shame. The message also proclaims Christ’s resurrection as the proof that he was who he said he was, and completed the work he came to do. And it explains to people how they can experience victory over fear and death, and gain the promise of eternal life through him. This message reminds us that Jesus ascended into heaven, where he now sits at God’s right hand, interceding for those who call him Lord. And it conveys the promise of Christ’s return in final victory, when he will fully establish his kingdom on earth.

The message we proclaim must encompass all of this, or it does not faithfully tell the story of Jesus or announce the good news of his arrival. But how do we go about spreading the message that we have received?

 

IV. The Church is Called to Proclaim Jesus’ Arrival

The manner by which different people have proclaimed the good news of Christ has varied in different times and places. But the church, throughout her long history, has consistently announced Jesus’ arrival, and what that means for humanity, with five key practices that we carry on today as the body of Christ.

First, and foremost, we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, through the right worship of God. The church is the body of Christ, and we find our identity in him. When we gather together for worship, we declare that Christ is our head and that God alone is worthy to be praised. We tell the story of God and us, and we join together with the host of heaven to echo the words of Revelation 5:12-13, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

Our worship points always to Christ, as we give glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this way, we transmit God’s message of hope and love, the good news of Jesus’ arrival, as we invite God to make us his image bearers to the world.

Second, the church has observed the Sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist as a primary means by which we announce the arrival of Jesus. When we partake in the Lord’s Supper together as the community of faith, we remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, until he comes again, and we become recipients of God’s grace. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, spoke of Communion as a converting ordinance, by which he meant that God’s grace is so present to those who come together to receive the elements, that it may convince them of sin and lead them into a living faith in Christ.

Likewise, in baptism, God’s grace is poured out by the presence of the Holy Spirit upon the one who receives. Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace, and points to the work of Christ for us. Through baptism, God declares that we have died to sin, and have been raised to new life in Christ.

When we celebrate the Sacraments in the life of the church, we proclaim Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, along with all Christians, everywhere, and we invite those who are lost into the new life that can only be found through him.

Third, the church has always proclaimed the arrival of Jesus through works of mercy. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus instructed his disciples, telling them that those who welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit prisoners do these things as though they are done to him. And those who fail to do these things have failed to do them for Christ.

He goes on to say that, at the final judgment, each person will be judged according to how they have treated those who are on the margins of society. The issue here is not whether or not we have crossed certain actions off of our list. A person may very well be engaged in social justice to the poor and marginalized, and yet have no saving faith in Christ. However, those who truly profess Jesus as Lord cannot avoid doing these things, because they are the natural expression of a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit.

When the church has faithfully ministered through works of mercy, we have shown the love of God to the world, and have, in effect, done these things for Christ, who died so that the world could be saved. When the church has failed to do these things, we have professed a dead faith, and we have made a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice.

Fourth, the Church proclaims the arrival of Jesus through evangelism and mission. Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus came to his disciples and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:18-20).”

The church fulfills this call to make disciples by sharing the good news of Jesus to the communities around us, and by sending missionaries around the world. Each of us is called to engage in the work of evangelism and mission in our homes, our workplaces, and our schools. We are called to share the love of God with a world that desperately needs him with our everyday actions, and then introduce people to the source of our hope by telling them about Jesus.

Finally, the church, throughout history, has proclaimed the arrival of Christ in our world, through the witness of lives transformed into his image. When we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us and make us more like Christ, we give testimony to the good news that Jesus saves, both now and in the future. We become living proof that the message we carry is true, and we give glory to God with our lives.

These are the outworking of our faith, and they are the primary means by which we proclaim the message we have received. If we are neglecting any of these, as the Church or as individuals, we are not fully witnessing to the miracle of Christ’s arrival.

 

V. Application

It is by proclaiming and celebrating the facts of Jesus’ birth, his death, and his resurrection that we make known to the world that God has not abandoned us in our hour of need, but has acted in history to restore humanity to holiness and happiness in him. And it is by proclaiming our faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, through both words and actions, that we bear testimony to the world that Jesus, and Jesus alone, saves lost souls from the power and presence of sin and death; that Jesus, and Jesus alone, has made a way for us to become blameless before a holy God; that Jesus, and Jesus alone, has opened the door for us to become sons and daughters of the Living God; and that Jesus, and Jesus alone, has purchased for us salvation, both in this life and the next, through his blood. Jesus Christ is the only way! There is no other. And he offers us all of these things freely by the grace of God.

The world asks us how we can place our trust in Jesus, and why we celebrate his birth at Christmas? How could we not trust and celebrate him? Look what he has done for us! In fact, I want to make this personal for a minute, and look at what he has done for me! He has taken a wretched sinner, who could not love because of his own selfishness, and he made me one of his own. He removed my anger and bitterness and feelings of defeat, and gave me peace and confidence in God. He took the fears that I had about never measuring up to God’s holy standard, and placed them on a cross. Jesus has released me from the fear of death that haunted me for most of my life by showing me the beauty of God’s promised future for those who follow him. He freed me from the guilt I wrestled with daily, because I knew I was a sinner, and he spoke the most beautiful words I have ever heard four years ago, when he told me that I am his beloved, with whom he is well pleased. The Holy Spirit works in me daily to help me overcome the temptation to sin and to love people as he loves them. Though I am not perfect, he works daily to perfect me in love. My God is so good and so faithful, how could I not trust him?

The Church of Jesus Christ stands as witness today that God does the same for all those who, by his grace, place their faith in Christ alone to make them new. This is good news; how could you or I possibly keep quiet about it?

As we enter into this holy week of celebration at the birth of our Savior, consider this. When the shepherds hear the news about Jesus’ birth, they ran to see him for themselves. And as soon as they saw him, they began proclaiming the message they had received to all who could hear them, and then they returned home giving glory to God and praising his name.

What will your response be to Jesus’ arrival today? You have heard the message, but have you ever taken that first step of going to meet Jesus yourself? If not, you can do that this morning, right where you are. The Bible says that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of holiness. We have all rebelled against his desires for our lives. Even so, the Bible says that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Now, if we confess our sins to God, we are told that he will be faithful to forgive us. And if we profess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved from the power and presence of sin and death into the hope and promise of eternal life. This is the free gift of God, and it is yours to receive this morning, if you will turn control of your life over to him.

If you have made that first step of faith, and you have met Jesus for yourself, have you ever moved on from there? Have to been content to stay with Jesus in the stable, where things are safe, or have to followed the example of the shepherds? Has your meeting with Christ filled you with excitement until you couldn’t help but tell other people about him? And after proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ arrival to everyone you meet, has your heart turned to God with joyful praise and thanksgiving? If not, I wonder if you’ve really met him?

We have not been given a message that calls us to silence, but one that demands to be shouted from the rooftops. Jesus has come into the world, and God has given us the promise of new life in him, if we will only believe. This is good news. Will you share it?

 

VI. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we give thanks to you today that the message of Christ’s arrival has been passed on from generation to generation until it reached our ears and transformed our hearts. We thank you that we have been given the privilege to become bearers of this message to the rest of the world. As we gather together with family and friends to celebrate Christ’s birth this holiday season, would keep us ever mindful of the charge you have given us to go and make disciples. Would give us both opportunities and courage to proclaim the good news of Jesus to all those we meet, and to witness to your love for the world with our lives. We ask all of these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

0

Silencing the Distractions

distraction

*Warning: this is a long post, because I am processing something that has been on my mind for quite some time. If you don’t have the stamina to read it all, here is the gist. I am taking a step back from social media, email, and other digital distractions to pursue a life of excellence lived in pursuit of loving God and other people. I hope you will consider joining me.*

I have a confession to make: I like technology. I am a gadget geek, a video game lover, and a social media junky. I spent fifteen years working as a software and web developer. And I still regularly come up with ideas for web or phone applications that could make my life a lot easier.

I am also a pastor, a husband, a father, and a PhD student. This means that I have some pretty significant demands on my time and attention. There are times when technology has truly benefitted me in these roles, but more often than not, technology has proven itself to be more of a distraction than an aid.

Here is an example. Many years ago, I had to give up video games as a regular past-time. They had become too consuming, and I was trading time with family and excellence in my school work for the experience of living in virtual worlds.

Now that our kids are older, they like to play games like Minecraft, and they sometimes ask me to play with them. This is an area I have relaxed a little, because I know how much the kids love it (I enjoy it too). But, while games no longer hold the same attraction they once did, I still have to check myself often to make sure I’m not slipping back into old behaviors. It is fine for me to occasionally fire up Minecraft and play with the kids. It is not OK for me personally to do so on my own, when I could be doing so many better things with my time. The same is true of those little games on my smart phone. I just deleted a pool game that I downloaded one day in boredom, but which has steadily become an every-evening distraction.

Like games, I have found the many modern forms of online communication to be a huge distraction for me. I find myself giving up more of my life to Facebook, Twitter, email, and the like, while gaining very little benefit in return.

This is not to say these things don’t have redeeming applications, but for this pastor-husband-father-student the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

Not all communications should be viewed as distractions. There is no substitute for face-to-face and even telephone conversations. Even the most reclusive of us all need the mutually comforting exchange of ideas and friendship that we gain through conversation. But our culture is engaging in less and less real conversation these days, and it is something I dearly miss.

So, in an effort to redeem the time that God has given me on this earth, and to begin making more space for the Holy Spirit to work in my life and teach me to love God and others, I am putting my foot down, and saying no to the tyranny of distraction.

Here are five reasons why I have decided to take steps toward eliminating digital distractions from my life, and five more ways that I am making that happen.

 

5 Reasons that I am silencing the distractions.

1. Christians are called to pursue the renewing of the mind.

Romans 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

I am thankful for a recent article by fellow pastor and blogger Drew McIntyre called “Maybe the Thought Police Aren’t Such a Bad Idea?”, which reminded me that critical thinking is imperative to those who would receive God’s understanding and act as Jesus acts.

It is nearly impossible to allow God the time and space to do this work in us, when our minds are constantly distracted. I find myself longing for simpler times, when we were less-connected by the internet and smart phone, and when it was OK to have time in the day that is not filled with constant entertainment and chatter. I desire to give space for God to speak into my life and to renew my mind. I desire time to read devotional and academic books that help me to engage thoughtfully with my faith.

For me, this will begin by cutting off digital distractions that don’t add emotional, spiritual, or intellectual value to my life.

2. I don’t want to view life through an iPhone camera.

A while back, before I owned an iPhone and began to realize the struggle myself, I wrote an article about how our culture has become consumed with our smart phones, to the detriment of those around us, particularly our kids.

The other day, it hit me just how much of my recent life has been viewed through the screen on my phone. I record videos and take pictures of all the cool things going on around me, and miss out on the experience of just being present.

This really became apparent to me a couple of weeks ago, when we attended the Christmas production at our kids’ school. We were sitting too far away to get a clear video of them singing and dancing, so I snapped a quick picture of each of them, then put my phone away. I then proceeded to truly enjoy everything going on.

Afterward, the kids asked to see the videos of their production, and were genuinely upset that I didn’t take any. And then I realized, I’ve been missing out on the wider scope of life by trying to capture it in a phone-sized frame.

I don’t want to miss important events anymore, because I am too busy recording, tweeting, or Facebooking them. I want to really enjoy the life I have been given to share with my family by becoming fully present.

3. Distractions are stealing time from more worthy pursuits.

Those of you who know me, or who have read my sporadic posts for a while, know that I am entering the last year of my PhD program at the University of Manchester, where I am researching the Christology of John Wesley.

There have been many times in the last six years, when I have not been as diligent as I need to be about carving out time for research and writing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I don’t want to mess it up by becoming distracted. By removing digital distractions from my life, I hope to free up more time for the important work that God has given me to do through academic research.

Related to this are my reading habits. I have always been an avid reader or books and articles, but of late, I have been corralled into very narrow reading patterns, often controlled by what I find available in my FB feed (some of which is very good, but none of which is adequate on its own). I would like to rediscover the joy of reading books for spiritual encouragement and discipleship, for academic and pastoral excellence, and for pleasure. This necessarily means stepping back from reading everything posted to FB and Twitter; instead filtering for those articles that I believe are most important for me to engage with, and leaving the rest of my reading to published works.

You will also notice that my blogging has been very sporadic for some time. I consider this a product of distraction as well. I process things well, when I write about them. God has given me an opportunity to encourage and engage with people over the years through this blog, and I would like to begin writing more regularly. I can’t do that if I am spending so much time doing other things online.

There are a myriad of other pursuits that I can give time and attention to, if I am not so distracted, but these are three important ones for me at present.

4. I will never be able to reclaim hours lost to digital distraction.

There are no “do overs” in this life. We have each been given one life to live before Christ returns. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to waste mine pursuing things that don’t matter in the long run.

I am not one of those folks who think entertainment is all bad, but let’s face it, we have taken entertainment to unprecedented levels in America. There is hardly a moment in the day when games, movies, or a variety of other “fun” things aren’t at our fingertips. I believe this always-on, instant-access mindset has led to the inability for many of us to be calm, quiet, and alone for any length of time.

I personally love to watch movies at the theatre. I dig the whole theatre experience, from the surround sound and big screen to the popcorn and Milk Duds. I also love sports, particularly football, college basketball, and boxing/MMA. They all provide an occasional escape from reality, and a much needed mental rest. But what once was an occasional diversion from the difficulties of life has become life itself for many people.

At the end of my life, I don’t want to look back, only to discover that my best years were spent locked into activities that do little more than use up time in the day. Like candy, entertainment is an occasional treat that can add excitement and spice to life. But taken in too large a quantity, it leads to mindlessness, disease, and the constant craving for more.

I don’t want to look back with regret, wishing that I could reclaim that which I have lost. I would rather live my life in such a way that I am able to redeem the time God has given me with pursuits that have a lasting value.

5. I want to pursue life-giving relationships.

I have already experienced moments of regret at the time I have had to spend away from family in order to fulfill academic and business pursuits. The older my children get, the harder I find it to leave them and their Mom for any length of time.

I will never be able to reclaim hours spent pursuing things other than my family, so why would I waste those precious moments on something with no eternal value.

If I must spend time away from family, let it be in pursuit of God, who alone has the power to transform my heart until I love my family as God loves them. Anything less is tantamount to stealing from my wife and kids.

Likewise, time spent building relationships with others is always time well-spent. We cannot be with family 100% of the time, so when we are away from them for work or other necessary pursuits, we should take care to invest in those with whom we come in contact outside the home, whether at church, at the office, at a store, or on the street. We should seek always and everywhere to be the presence of Christ in a world that desperately needs him. We cannot do that when we have our noses buried in a phone.

 

5 Ways that I will start silencing distractions

Now, here are five ways that I plan to begin removing digital distractions from my life today.

1. Deleting the Facebook App from my phone.

Facebook is, without a doubt, the biggest distractor in my life. Even before I got a smart phone, I found myself spending far too much time on FB each day. I told myself this was OK, because I mostly use it to find new articles to read, rather than to see what friends are up to. But after a few years of reading practically every article posted to my FB feed, I don’t feel any more prepared to deal with life’s demands, nor can I name one tangible way that my life has been improved by FB.

I also need to delete this app from my phone for the simple reason that the thought of doing so stresses me out. You know what that is a sign of? Addiction. And I refuse to live my life captive to addictions of any sort.

2. Turning off all notifications on my phone, including email.

Only a few short weeks ago I turned on email notifications on my phone, adding a plethora of new sounds to the already ample collection from Facebook status updates, Twitter likes, and app notifications. Now the constant dinging is literally stressing me out. If I forget to silence my phone before visiting a parishioner, I find myself constantly getting interrupted by the noise, my mind regularly being hijacked by whatever is going on in my pocket.

This is no way to live. So I am making the difficult choice to silence all notifications on my phone other than calls and text messages. This means I might not see your Facebook messenger chat to me right away. I might not get to your email for a couple of hours. I might not ever see that you posted something to my wall. And you know what? That is good for both of us.

I gave this a trial run a few days ago by turning off app icon notifications on my iPhone (the little red numbers that show up on icons, telling you that you have missed something). My stress levels immediately went down, and within a couple of days I stopped thinking about all the things waiting for my attention online. What freedom!

Today, I am finishing what I started and silencing all of my notifications. Can you hear that? Its the sound of my phone not controlling my life anymore.

3. Checking my email twice daily (mid-morning and afternoon).

I have a fascination with productivity blogs and podcasts. All of them deal with the nightmare that is modern email at some point along the way. Most of them recommend one or another method for putting email out of your mind by pursuing a combination of inbox zero, GTD triage, or outsourcing. The only one that seems to really work for me is limiting email to set times during the day, so that I don’t get lost in the quagmire.

So, starting today, I will only be checking my emails twice daily. Once mid-morning and once in the afternoon. Why those times? Because my best work is done first thing after I wake up, when I am not otherwise distracted. I am most creative and productive before 11:00 am. So why would I continue to give that time to something as mindless as email. Nothing I receive in an email is so important that it cannot wait until lunch to be addressed.

And in the afternoon, when my mind is already tired, I still have enough mental acumen to send or answer emails that pertain to the next day’s work and events. It makes no sense to email at night, when nobody should be working, anyway. And it helps me to mark the end of my work day with a productive task.

I’m sorry if email is your favorite way to communicate. But if you really need me, you can always just pick up a phone and call. I will be happy to talk with you anytime.

4. Limiting my engagement with Social Media to evenings.

I want to finish my work and spend quality time with my family before I even consider spending time on social media.

This is going to be difficult for me, because it will mean that I have to change my morning routine. I have made a morning habit of checking Facebook and Twitter on my phone, while I battle the sleep from my eyes over a cup of coffee. I will also have to schedule posts ahead of time, if I have something I want to share during prime-time, and will likely miss out on lots of online conversations. I might even start to become uninformed about things going on in the world.

I am OK with becoming one of the un-informed, in order to become one of the Spirit-formed.

5. Going for a walk.

Not long ago, I read an article about the daily habits of C.S. Lewis, who is one of my favorite Christian authors. His ideal day, he said, was spent in study and reflection, and was punctuated by a two-hour walk every afternoon.

I think a nice daily walk would be a good use of my time. It requires unplugging from my desk, rediscovering the beauty of God’s matchless creation, and a little extra exercise for good health. And without the distraction of my phone notifications (which won’t exist anymore), it becomes an opportunity to think and to pray; to spend time, alone or with a friend, in pursuit of things which have eternal consequence.

I like the sound of that.

 

Reality (Gut) Check

It is, in many ways, unwise to completely unplug. Through social media, I am able to very quickly engage with other pastors and ministry leaders, with whom I have no other connection. I am able to see quickly what things are happening in the lives of the parishioners under my care. And I am able to keep in touch with friends around the globe, who I have genuine relationships with, but who I cannot have live conversations with because of distance. So, I am not deleting Facebook or Twitter or disabling my email addresses. Yet.

But I would be lying if I said I don’t hope for a day when none of these distracting technologies will be necessary. I suspect it won’t be long before Facebook and Twitter are a distant memory. I just hope we don’t find even more disruptive replacements for them.

In the meantime, I am going to try to redeem some time. Is anyone else with me?

0

Sermon: A Bruised Reed

a-bruised-reed

“A Bruised Reed”
Isaiah 42:1-9

1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4     he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the Lord says—
the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out,
who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you.”

 

I. Introduction

The prophet Isaiah was called by God to deliver a message to Israel in the wake of their unfaithful behavior. Like all of the prophets, his message was filled with pronouncements of God’s judgment, but tempered with promises of God’s faithfulness. In the first 39 chapters, Isaiah details the penalty for Israel’s disobedience, which includes impending exile and oppression by other nations. He pronounces woes upon the unbelievers in Israel. He describes the impact his judgment will have on the other nations he will use to punish them. And then he chronicles the events that have led to the fulfillment of his prophecy.

Following all of this, in Isaiah chapter 40, he begins to speak words of comfort to Israel in the face of their impending exile. He wants to assure Israel that God will not abandon them, and even though their immediate future looks bleak, they can be sure that God has a plan for them. He begins by making an announcement that would have been welcome news: God would soon return to Zion, and when he returns, he will raise up a deliverer to set the captives free. Then, in chapter 42, he begins to describe what the deliverer will looks like, and what this means fro Israel and the other nations.

God had done this sort of thing before, in Israel’s past. We remember that, in the period of the Judges, God had raised up deliverers to rescue Israel from their oppressors, whenever they cried out to him for help and turned away from their idolatry. Even before that, God had given them Joshua to lead them in their quest to enter the Promised Land. And in the generation before that one, God had called Moses to lead Israel out of their captivity in Egypt. The idea that God would save his people through a deliverer was nothing new; it was the pattern that he had followed with them over and over again, when they had turned to him in their need.

The second half of the promise would have been equally familiar to Israel. They knew what it meant to have God dwelling in Zion, his holy mountain. In Isaiah’s day, the return of God to Zion would mean the restoration of God’s Law, which was given to identify sin, and the sacrificial system, which was given to cleanse people of their sins, once identified. God’s return also meant that they would experience peace with their enemies, after God conquered them and drove them out of the land. God’s presence with the people would give them a renewed hope for their future, because wherever he was present people prospered and the land became fertile. And they knew that, whenever God dwelled with his people, he made them to be salt and light for the nations, blessing others through his covenant people.

Do these things sound familiar? I hope they do. We talked recently about what it means to say that God is with us today. We learned that, because of Christ, God is with us in our struggle against sin in a new way. Through the incarnation, the Son of God, who is fully God, became fully human as well. Jesus was tempted in every way we are tempted, and he overcame. He bore the burden of our sins as a perfect sacrifice, and forever cleansed us from our sins on the cross. He was raised from the dead, and conquered death. And he ascended bodily to sit at the right hand of the Father, where he will forever identify with humanity and intercede for us until his return. There is no temptation you or I will ever struggle with that Christ has not already overcome. When we put our trust in Jesus, God promises that we will receive the Spirit, who gives us the power to resist sin and to live as fully redeemed and holy people.

We also learned that God with us today carries the promise of his peace. Remember that this is not a promise for the absence of conflict, but for an abiding sense of peacefulness and security that carries a person through conflict or sickness or sorrow or pain, leaving them whole on the inside, even though they might be broken on the outside. This is the peace that says, “I trust you God, and I will delight in you,” even when life’s circumstances are less than desirable.

And we found that God’s presence still brings hope for us. The peace that is promised to those who believe is grounded in God’s promises for a future that have been purchased for us through Christ, and it relies on the Holy Spirit for its strength. We can have hope for the future, because God has proven his faithfulness to us time and again. And even though we might, at times, be unfaithful to God, we can trust that he will never forsake his covenant with us.

Finally, we know that when God is with us he continually works to transform the lives of those who believe in Jesus and trust the Spirit to guide them. When we allow the Spirit to work in and through us, we become bearers of God’s image to the world, and he once again makes us salt and light to the nations. We learn to love as God loves, and we seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. This is God’s sanctifying grace working in us, to conform us to the likeness of his Son.

God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. His presence still brings about the same things today that it did in Isaiah’s day. Knowing this, when we read Isaiah’s words to Israel, his prophecy takes on a double meaning. On the one hand, he is predicting the eventual return of Israel from their exile, promising that God would remember his covenant with them and overthrow their oppressors. On the other hand, Isaiah’s prophecy foreshadows the coming of Christ as God’s ultimate act of faithfulness and his decisive action that will free all those who are captive to sin and death for all eternity. The goal is the same: freedom, peace, hope, and witness for God’s people, but the manner by which God has accomplished these things is vastly changed from Israel’s expectations.

 

II. The Chosen Servant

When he spoke of the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, the one who would come to rescue Israel, by the power of God, Isaiah was proclaiming God’s message of a future hope and deliverance to a people who were about to undergo tremendous upheaval. Now, on this side of the resurrection, we know that this promised hope and deliverance have been fully realized for all people, everywhere, through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Isaiah had no choice but to look forward with faith to an unrealized future, but we have the benefit of looking back through our confirmed faith to see the evidence of God’s plan all along.

Through this advantage of hindsight, we know that Jesus has fulfilled all of the prophecies about Messiah made by Isaiah and the other prophets. But for those who lived before the time of Jesus, one of the biggest questions to arise out of Isaiah’s prophecies would have been this: how are we supposed to recognize God’s Chosen One, when he arrives?

Though he did not know who the Messiah would be, Isaiah was given insight into the things he would do. Here are three ways he said Israel would recognize the Servant of the Lord.

  1. God’s Chosen One would first, and foremost, bring justice to the nations. At the time of Isaiah, Israel lived surrounded by other nations, who did whatever pleased them. They couldn’t care less about God or his desires for people, and they certainly weren’t going to obey God’s law. Their only concern was what they could get for themselves in this life, and they had created idols to worship in place of God. Does this sound familiar? Not much has changed. The Psalms are filled with laments from God’s people, asking him why the wicked seem to prosper in this life, while those who seek righteousness suffer at their hands. God’s answer to these questions has always been in the form of a promise; that someday, both the righteous and the wicked will be judged according to God’s standard, and would be held to account for their actions.

At its core, justice means fair treatment. It does not simply mean that the wicked will be punished and the righteous rewarded; it also means that standard used to judge wickedness and righteousness will be fair. God’s justice isn’t about getting revenge on those who have broken the law; it is about ensuring that the law is fair to begin with. The Bible tells us that all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All people are in need of God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness. In essence, we are all wicked, because we are incapable of measuring up to God’s standards on our own. God’s justice is good news to us, because it means that he will treat us fairly. It means that he will not establish laws that we cannot hope to abide by; rather he will give us the power to meet those standards. It means we will not be found guilty for faults that are not our own; rather we are held accountable for our own sins. And it means that we will not be punished more severely than our infractions deserve; rather, we will be offered forgiveness, when we repent of our sins and place our trust in him. Isaiah says that the Messiah will be known, because he will bring about God’s justice – true justice – to the nations.

  1. Secondly, Isaiah says God’s Servant would be known, because he would lead with humility. Verse 2 says, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” Messiah would not come to lead in the same way as the prophets or the Judges. These leaders from Israel’s history were raised up to convict the people of sin and proclaim God’s judgment on them. Israel’s expectation was that God’s servant would come as a mighty warrior to speak condemnation on Israel’s enemies and conquer them with a sword. But Isaiah says that God’s servant will lead in a different way than they expect. His way would be the way of the suffering servant, rather than the way of a conquering King.
  2. Finally, Isaiah said Israel would recognize the Promised One, because he would see his mission through to completion. Verse 4 says, “He will not falter or be discouraged until God’s justice has been established on earth.” God’s servant would be faithful, just as God is faithful. He would not give up on God’s people, and he would not leave his work half finished. This was good news to a people with a dark future, because they knew that God would be faithful to bring them back out of their darkness and into his light.

 

III. A Bruised Reed and a Smoldering Wick

Isaiah said that Messiah would bring justice to the nations, that he would lead with humility, and that he would see his mission through to completion. But there is one thing further that Isaiah promised about the way God’s chosen One would accomplish his work. And this bit is really important, because it takes the work of the Messiah, which has so far been viewed in very broad terms, dealing with the whole earth, or nations, or even God’s covenant people as a whole, and it narrows the scope. This promise takes the general and makes it particular; it takes the impersonal, and makes it personal.

Isaiah 42:3 says this: “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In other words, the work of Messiah would be done in such a way that those who are already hurting are not destroyed. His approach will be merciful and just, filled with God’s loving-kindness. This is very good news for all people, because we are the bruised reed and smoldering wick that Isaiah is talking about. We are bruised from the constant battle we wage against sin in our lives. And though God’s grace has been made available to all people, evidence of that grace for many people has dwindled to the size of a tiny flame in the midst of life’s burdens. Though God could easily come with harsh judgment and condemnation, Isaiah promised that he would not add another burden on those who were already so overburdened. Messiah would be different, seeking instead to gently lead the lost back to his Father. He would offer compassion and mercy in place of condemnation, and forgiveness and adoption in place of judgment. Now this doesn’t mean that Messiah won’t hold people to account for their sins. We have to remember that he would first bring justice. But his justice would be represented by an outpouring of God’s love and mercy to the lost, and an opportunity to make things right with God, through faith in his Holy One.

Unlike Isaiah, we have the privilege of living on the tail end of history. We know now that God has already accomplished all of the things foretold through the prophet Isaiah. His promises have been fully realized through Christ’s incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection. He has brought justice to the nations by taking on the burden of sin and offering us true freedom to become righteous and live up to God’s standard, by the power of his Spirit. He came with humility as a suffering servant, and modeled for us a new way of bearing witness to the nations about God’s love. And we know that he carried God’s plan through to completion, because God raised him from the dead and he now sits at God’s right hand, interceding for us.

 

IV. Application

As those who live on this side of the resurrection, it is neat to see how Isaiah prophesied that God would deliver Israel from their captivity, and at the same time prophesied deliverance for the whole world. It is fascinating to see all the connections in the Bible and learn how the pieces all fit together to tell the story of God and us. But I bet some of you are thinking to yourselves, “That’s great and all, but what does all of this Old Testament stuff have to do with me? How does this help me, when I’m just trying to get through the next month, or week, or day with my sanity intact? Why does it matter that Christ fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy about the Servant of the Lord?”

Maybe you are here this morning, and you feel like the bruised reed that Isaiah talks about. Maybe you have been fighting the war against darkness and hopelessness for so long that you just feel bruised and beaten. Maybe you feel like you have been left alone to fight life’s battles on your own, and you just don’t know if you have the strength to keep going anymore. Maybe you find yourself constantly losing the struggle against temptation, and sin has slowly taken hold of your life. You are doing things you don’t want to do and know you shouldn’t, but you feel helpless to stop. Maybe you think God has abandoned you, or that you aren’t worthy of his love.

Or maybe you can relate more to the image of a smoldering wick. Maybe you had a personal encounter with Christ at some point in your life and you cam to believe in him. Maybe you repented of your sins and invited God to take control of your life. Maybe you were on fire for Jesus at the beginning, but then the burdens of life started to pile on, and that bright flame you once had has begun to dwindle. Maybe you have wondered if it was all a big sham; whether or not you were ever really saved, and why you feel like God is so far away sometimes. Maybe the joy you once had in Christ has turned into dreariness in the midst of life’s struggles.

If you can identify with either of these scenarios, then the words of Isaiah can offer you real hope. Because we know that Jesus has fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy about the things Messiah would do, we can also have confidence that he will deal with us in the way that Isaiah said he would. We can trust that Christ will not deal harshly with those that come to him in need as bruised and broken sinners, but he will use gentleness, cherishing even the smallest evidence of grace received, comforting and healing us. And we know that he will not snuff out the smoldering wick of our faith, when it has been weakened by life’s burdens. Instead, he will fan the flame until it once again rekindled. We can trust that he will continue to deal lovingly with those who respond to him in faith and cast their burdens on him. And we can trust that he will complete the good work he has begun in us, so long as we continue to follow where he leads us, and allow his Spirit to dwell in our hearts. All we have to do is give up. Give up control of our lives and stop trying to run things on our won. Give up our pride that says we don’t need God to help us. And give up our fears that we are beyond God’s help and beyond all hope.

I don’t know about you, but I am ready to give up this morning, and let God take complete charge of my life. I’m ready to begin living as though the trust I say I have in him is real. When we do that, Isaiah indicates in verses 5-7 that we have a part still to play in bringing in God’s justice on earth.

When we become fully committed to Christ, we become seekers of righteousness. We desire to live as the holy people God has called us to be, and we trust in the Holy Spirit to make that possible for us. As we seek righteousness, we truly become and remain God’s covenant people, who are set apart as a light for the world. We become bearers of God’s image, and witnesses to the mighty work he has done in and through Jesus Christ.

And, as God’s image bearers, we become doers of God’s work: pointing to Christ with our words and actions, because every encounter with Jesus results in opening blind eyes to God’s truth, freeing prisoners from their captivity to the fear of death and the darkness of sin. Jesus does all of these things, not us. But we are called to bear witness to these truths through transformed lives that seek to love others as God loves. That means being seekers of justice, lovers of mercy, and humble servants of God.

All of these things are possible only if we keep our eyes on God, and remember who he is. Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” We must always remember that God is God alone, and all praise and glory and honor belong to him, and no other. It means keeping God in his rightful place at the center, and not stooping to idolatry. It means giving praise to God in all circumstances of life. And it means actively pointing to the evidence of his work in the world.

 

V. Closing Prayer

Let us pray. Our heavenly Father, we thank you that you have fulfilled all of your promises to Isaiah and to us by sending your Son, Jesus, to die in our place as a sacrifice for our sins. We thank you that he lives, even now, and reigns with you in heaven, and that through him we have the hope of eternal life with you.

Father, we ask that you would continue to come and dwell with us this Advent season. Would you make your presence known, bringing healing to those who are bruised, and fanning the flames of faith in those who are weary? We ask all of these things in the name of Jesus. Amen.