Sunday, January 7, 2018

Covenant Renewal Celebration (Hebrews 10.19-25)

It has been my custom for the past several years to start the year with a covenant renewal celebration. When I first did this I meant it in the sense that every time a church gathers around the Lord's Table, they engage in a covenant renewal activity - that's how holy communion functions. But in 2016, we established a church covenant and now, at the beginning of the year, we can see this first Communion Sunday as a time to reflect on and re-affirm our commitment to one another in our church covenant. 

This morning, I am going to direct my comments to the covenant members of the church – those who have signed the church covenant and committed themselves to this fellowship of Christians to be participants in our life and ministry together. I know many are present who are not covenant members; you are all invited to listen in, and  I’m sure there will be much you can gain and appreciate from what I will say. Yet I am speaking directly to the members.

I would like to begin in an unexpected way this morning, by reminding you of the tabernacle. This is a picture of the tabernacle – the large tent of worship the Israelites were commanded to make in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula in the 15th century bc.

This tent-structure was inside a large enclosed area where worshipers would gather. God himself commanded that Moses have the Israelites construct this moveable, semi-permanent tent; in fact, he gave him explicit instructions to “build it according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain” (Exo 26.30, etc.). In other words, as the New Testament indicates, this tabernacle was simply an earthly copy of a heavenly original – the true “holy places” are in the presence of God where Jesus Christ now intercedes for us.

Now, the tabernacle had two rooms – the outer one was called “the holy place.” This was the room containing a table with twelve loaves of bread called, “the bread of the presence,” and it contained a brilliantly lighted lampstand with seven lamps (like a menorah today among the Jewish people), and the golden altar of incense right in front of the thick curtain that separated this room from the inner room called, “the most holy place.” In this completely dark inner room was only one price of furniture: the ark of the covenant. This was a golden chest with a shining gold top over which two angels hovered. This was the "footstool" on which, in the imagery of the tabernacle, the living God rested his feet from his dwelling place in heaven.

Into the holy place, the priests could go every day to maintain the lamps, to burn the incense, and to refresh the loaves. But into the most holy place only the high priest could go on only one day of the year to sprinkle the blood of an atoning sacrifice on the ark of the covenant - on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

The tabernacle represented the presence of the holy God with his chosen people. They knew he was Lord of all and could not be contained in an earthly building. But they also knew that he promised to dwell with and among his people in a unique way – protecting them, providing for them, and guiding them. God himself designed this place and everything inside of it for the express purpose of revealing his holy presence and inciting his people’s heartfelt worship and awe. God filled the heavens and the earth but, in a unique way, he dwelt among his people in the tabernacle. 

That is the image that you are to have in mind when you read this passage. Read again:
Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God” (Heb 10.19–21).
The tabernacle of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai was only a shadow (the writer of this letter says) of which Jesus is the reality in heaven. That is what the writer has been endeavoring to show in the whole book up to this point. Now that Christ has come, we who believe have the reality of what the former people of God had only in a suggestive, representative form. 

This letter was written, we can gather, to a house church in the city of Rome around 50 ad. This small group of people – less than thirty or forty, most likely – had come to faith in Christ out of the Jewish people in the capital city. They had experienced new life in Christ, had been visited by the representatives of the apostles; they had suffered for their faith at the hands of the both the Roman government and even more from their former friends and families in the Jewish synagogue; and they are weary. In their discouragement, they are being tempted to give up Christ and return to their former way of life. The writer writes to encourage them hold fast to Christ, to not give him up. He informs them of the privileges of their new status in Christ and he warns them of the consequences if they turn away from him.

And this passage is one of the high points of application in the book - it actually introduces the fourth warning, though we're not going to go that far. This whole paragraph is like an “If/then” statement. Only the “if” is a certainty, translated “since.” Since we have the reality of what was only pictured in the Old Testament, since we have the reality of what the tabernacle was, since we have the actual presence of the holy God, since we have the truly atoning blood, since we have the great high priest… then here is how we should live, these are the conclusions. Look at your Bible, there are three conclusions:

Verse 22: “let us draw near…”
Verse 23: “Let us hold fast…”
Verse 24: “let us consider…”

These three exhortations tell us what it means to live as God’s people in light of all that we have in Christ. These instructions are as necessary for us today as they were for the early believers in Rome. 

First, verse 22: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Let us draw near…to what? Well, in the imagery of the passage, we are to confidently enter the most holy place at the bidding of our great priest who is over the people of God. That which only the high priest could do and on only one day, we can do at any time in our spirits as we take the hand of Jesus (so to speak) and follow him into the presence of the Father. 

And because of that, he draws a picture of our condition both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, we have “our hearts sprinkled clean from evil conscience” (v 22). This is, according to Ezekiel 36, the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing that is like the rain, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean,” promised the Lord of what the new covenant would bring. In Christ, we have in reality what the Old Testament saints had only by faith, the full forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of the conscience from guilt. This is God's inward work in the life of one who trusts in Christ alone.

And, the writer of Hebrews adds, “and our bodies washed with pure water.” This is the outward work of cleansing that is based on the first, inward work. In response to his grace, we confess our faith when we are baptized, which is  our symbolic acknowledgment of what God has done inside of us.

Since, this is true (the writer tells us) we should draw near to God in worship demonstrating our devotion to him with hearts of intense submission to him and recognition of his worthiness. That’s first, “let us draw near.”

And, second, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” (verse 23) “for he who promised is faithful.” Sometimes when we celebrate the Lord’s supper we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed or the Heidelberg Catechism. That is not what this confession is about. This is about the basic confession that any other confession is based on. This refers to the confession that is made in baptism.

You see, baptism is the foundation of the Christian life. In baptism, a person gives a personal expression of faith – Christ has saved me. But, baptism is also called, “the pledge of a good conscience toward God" (1 Pet. 3.21). In baptism, a believer confesses faith in Christ AND submission to Christ. That confession, whether or not the words are used, is summarized by Paul as, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” So, any time a baptized Christian is called upon to confess his or her faith, it is simply an extension or a confirmation of that basic confession they made in baptism. Any confession of your faith – in church, at work, to your children – is simply a re-statement and a confirmation of your baptismal confession. Hold on to it, he says, don't let it go!

It is our faith in Christ he is urging us to hold fast. These believers were in danger of slipping away – many are today. “Hold fast your confession” he says.

So, “draw near in true worship,” and “hold fast your confession,” he says to us.

Finally, verse 24: “let us consider how to stir up one another to faith and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

This follows on the first two: If we are to draw near and hold fast, we are going to need the support and encouragement of our fellow-Christians. So, it is the responsibility of each member to consider how to stir up others to live for Christ, and it is the expectation of each member that as he or she does that, they will be stirred up as well by the others. Without it, we become weary, dull, sluggish, careless, and cold.

Those are our responsibilities: Draw near, hold fast, stir up.

But let’s note something about this passage, in fact, something about this whole book that is easily overlooked. The writer speaking to a church, that is, not the leaders but the members. When you read this book, you don’t even know that there are leaders until the last chapter and even there he doesn’t address them. There, in one sentence, he summarizes that responsibilities of the members to them their leaders:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13.17).
Why is the focus on each of the believers not on those who have some spiritual responsibility for them? It is because leaders are given for the well-being of the church, not for its being. What I mean is that a church exists wherever true believers come together to worship and witness in a community; leaders – elders, pastors, ministers – are given to prosper the church. They aren't given to make up the church. Ultimately, I am only one of the members of this church, as are all the elders and staff. The church is the people, not the leaders.

That means, you members are responsible for this church – not me, not the elders, as though we could somehow lead it effectively ourselves without your participation.

Look at our church covenant which is inside your bulletin today. In one sense, this is also simply an extension of our individual baptismal confession. When we individually say, “Jesus Christ is Lord” at our baptism, we obligate ourselves to live according to his gracious rule which he communicated in his teachings in the New Testament. He said, “Go and make disciples, baptizing them… and teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” All the covenant does is summarize his teachings so that we can commit ourselves to them. 

May I summarize the covenant? None of it should surprise a Bible-reading person or be considered an unrealistic demand.
Introductory Conviction (first paragraph): We affirm that God has saved us by the gospel… So here’s what we intend to do:
Then there are seven bullet points: 
  1. Wwill walk together in Christian love, as brothers and sisters doing for each other what we should…
  2. We will hold marriage and singleness in honor as God commands - faithfulness in marriage, chastity in singleness…
  3. We will seek to bring up our children in the Christian faith… 
  4. We will worship together and alone…
  5. We will strive to live carefully in the world…
  6. (Let’s camp on this) “We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.”

This point isn't given to the elders... except insofar as they are members. The members are responsible to maintain a faithful gospel ministry. All of the members! Those of us who are elders and pastors ought to do this as well, because we are members. You are responsible to maintain a faithful, gospel ministry in this church.

My four children were home over Christmas - with their spouses and children and of of the things that go along with them. We had a great time... and Laura and I were happy to see them wave to us our of their rear view windows when they drove away! But I had occasion to do a lot of reflection this Christmas. 

On one hand, about three weeks before Christmas, we learned that Laura's mother has cancer and is dying. I am one of those privileged souls who knew that my parents-in-law loved and respected me and I felt the same about them. Margaret, Laura's mother, is the last of their parents and for us, the last of their generation. 

On the other hand, in our house we had these grown children who grew up in that house. I had to remind myself that I'm not longer the parent of small children; I can't tell them what to do anymore. My only responsibility is to spoil the grandchildren and feed them candy. 

Family's change! That's the nature of family. Nothing remains the same. 

Our church is a family. And it is changing. is changing. One thing about our church family makes change difficult. We have always had a long-serving staff team. Right now, there are eight staff people listed on the back of the bulletin: Two of us (Clare and I) have been here for over thirty years; two more (Paul and Mary Kay) have been on staff for nearly twenty years; and two more, grew up at the church before joining the staff. (The other two we accepted in from outside!). That's a good thing and it provides real stability to a church. But that kind of stability makes change difficult. 

Last month, our music minister, Brandon, and his wife, Katherine Bellanti moved to Boston. We’re in a process of looking for a replacement. That change is hard. But there are more substantial changes coming.

Next month, mid-month, Clare Holden will leave our staff. Some of you know, Clare has been to me like the sister I never had – faithful, hardworking, with the gift of service, she helped to create the administrative structure that has allowed this church to ministry faithfully. She took on responsibilities that allowed us as a church to focus on small groups, relationships, teaching, and not on arguing about finances and colors of paint. I can't imagine not having Clare in the office next to me! Clare’s retirement will not be a big change for most of you – she’s never had a prominent, up-front, kind of stature in the church. She’s had a quiet, behind-the-scenes, skeletal stature. You don't see a skeleton, but do you know what happens when you remove a skeleton from a body? You have a puddle on the floor! 

Her retirement is a profound loss to the staff of the church, mostly me. But that's how families' work - they change. 

And those changes will continue to happen. Someday, I’ll retire. Another, either from our staff staff or from outside, will take my role. Part of my responsibility is to help you face that as covenant members ought to.

You are responsible to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church - even as the church changes over time. How to you do this? The covenant states at least some of the ways. 

First, you will do that "by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines." As you  come to worship, read the Bible, participate in small groups, involve yourself in ministry, and build life-altering relationships, God will shape you to be the kind of Christians who know the gospel and love the gospel. 

Second, the covenant says you maintain that by contributing to the ministry of the church. "We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.” Those are the three things churches are meant to do - your support in doing that is what allows us to be a gospel-centered church. 

Third, let me add what is found elsewhere in the covenant - you must pray for the church, for its leaders, for God's guidance and protection, and for the effectiveness of the gospel in people's lives. 

As we stand and re-affirm the church covenant at the beginning of this new year, let's keep these things in mind. We are members of a living church, a lampstand in the heavenly tabernacle, and a shining light in this community! 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas 2017: "The Promise-Keeper" (Genesis 3.15)

At the end of sixth grade, I had a fight with my best friend, Larry Miller. After some event at school, some long-standing conflict that I don’t remember came to a head, and we fought it out outside the school – my first and last fist-fight. We smacked one another until we were both tired, crying, and bruised, and went our separate ways.

As we move through life, everyone sometimes learns that relationships end. Sometimes relationships end with conflict and pain; other times, they end simply because you start to move in different directions in life or you literally move away from each other and don’t maintain the relationship. As a pastor, I’ve also helped people through the end of relationships at times – sometimes by trying to bring reconciliation but not being able to; at other times, simply as a friend who is helping someone seek to heal from the end of a job, or a friendship, or a marriage. 

The Bible opens with the failure of a relationship – the relationship between God and human beings. The Bible opens with the creation of the first two people by God; it moves on to the story of how the first two humans turned their backs on God at the instigation of a serpent, who is transparently, in the biblical text, a front for some malignant power. The rest of the Bible’s story is about what God does to mend that relationship.

I don’t need to retell you the whole story: The first two humans listen to the voice of the serpent who tells them that God is simply trying to keep them from something good by forbidding them from eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They take the fruit, and by that they show that they are now going to listen to the serpent rather than God to learn how life works.

But God comes and looks for them to enjoy fellowship with them in the garden, but they hide themselves from him. 

Adam says, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid myself.”

God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten the fruit of the tree?”

Adam says, “The woman who you gave to be with me….” (The first whining blame-shifter in the Bible!)

Eve said, “The serpent…” (The second whining blame-shifter)

What follows are called the oracles of curse. They go in reverse order from what has just transpired. First, the serpent; then the Woman; then the Man. Only the serpent is cursed directly; the man and woman find that the sphere of their greatest responsibility in life is now cursed.

We only want to look at the curse on the serpent. Look at verse 14:
“Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.”
This is the personal consequence for the serpent. Liberal scholars tend to see in the Bible only individual units of material – they don’t believe the Bible comes from God and tells a story. So, they read this as an ancient story that explains why people don’t like snakes. Period. But that doesn’t seem to explain the place of these words in the event that has just happened. Some believe this is saying that before the fall, snakes had legs and after the fall, they had none. The text doesn’t actually say this – this is simply a statement of the low state of the snake in the scheme of life and the fact that the snake or serpent becomes, throughout the Bible, a symbol of evil and degradation.

But it’s the next part we want to explore. Following upon the fact that the snake, by nature, slithers along on the ground without any limbs, comes these words which contain the seed promise of the serpent’s ultimate defeat – in fact, they are the first promise stated in the Bible:
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
      and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
      and you shall bruise his heel.”

Twenty-seven words in English; only 15 in Hebrew. Now, this is a brief and enigmatic statement – so short and succinct that it appears to be a prediction of some distant event. The participants represent more than themselves: they are people and forces in conflict until some distant “offspring” appears. There is in this verse a puzzling yet important vagueness: Who is the “offspring of the woman”? It seems obvious that the purpose of verse 15 is not to answer that question but to raise it.” It takes the rest of scripture to answer it. I’d like to answer it this morning.

Let’s break the verse into two parts – in the text they are divided by the semi-colon. The first part reads, again:
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring.
The fall has just occurred. Tempted by the serpent, the first humans have sinned. They have sided with the serpent against God, determining to be autonomous, to make their own way through the world. And what these words predict is that, because of the fall, there will be a constant struggle within every human between good and evil.

Remember, the cause of the fall was the desire to know good and evil. God told Adam: “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2.17). And the serpent said, “God is withholding something from you because he wants to keep it to himself – you will not surely die.” The fall was an act of rebellion, a siding with the serpent.

And now, after the fall, they will know good and evil. In part this knowledge is personal experience – they won’t just understand the different between good and evil; this will personally experience it. And even more, they will desire the good, but they will find that they will do the evil.

With this event, the humans – Adam and Eve and all who have descended from them – fell under the sway of the evil powers of the universe. The serpent represents the evil one and, as the story unfolds, we find clearly that he is, as it says in Revelation 12, “…that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12.9). And there we have been held till this day.
Here’s what we read in Eph 2.1:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2.1-3)
With the fall, all the race fell under the sway of the evil one and exists there until this day. We have been captured by the malignant powers of the universe, the devil and his minions. Humans become the dupes and stooges of evil.

Now this doesn’t mean that every human being is as evil as possible or that we are incapable of ever thinking good thoughts, desiring to do good and to be good. It means that we are incapable of actually doing good for the right reasons so that all of our righteous actions are stained by sin in the sight of God as Isaiah said so clearly.

And what was the promised outcome of their disobedience? “You will surely die…” this happened when they sinned. But they would have had little idea of what this meant; they wouldn’t immediately grasp that death is first spiritual and only later physical. But the first inkling comes in the next chapter when Cain murders Abel. Imagine the grief the first parents felt – “we weren’t created for a world like this; it was not like this when we walked in fellowship with God in the garden.”

Because of the fall, there is a constant struggle within every human between good and evil. We conceive of good – in life, in society, in family. But we cannot carry it out in any consistent way; we always twist the good into some self-serving end, as our political parties inevitably show us, because of sin. Why is it so frequent that old people are disillusioned, angry, and cynical? They hoped for so much more! And they find that, in the end, they are not what they hoped and life is not what they envisioned. Make this world your all, and that is what you will find.

In the midst of the statement of the consequences of the serpent’s work, in the midst of the curse, comes a surprising promise.
 “he shall bruise your head,
      and you shall bruise his heel.”

A couple of notes on this. The first enigma about the curse is first the word “offspring” and second the word “bruise.”

Offspring is actually the Hebrew word “seed.” Many of you may be using a Bible that translates this “seed.” This word is word in which the singular and the plural are the same – offspring or seed can refer to one person or to many. And it becomes an issue in this passage: is the promise talking about one descendant of the woman or whole generations? The text leaves that open.

And then, the word bruise. This word simply means to “strike a heavy blow” as in “He hit him with a hammer.” The word itself doesn’t tell you whether the blow is fatal, merely that it is substantial. The same word is used of what the serpent will do to the offspring and what the offspring of the woman will do to the serpent.

What makes this clearer in this passage is the location of the blow – “he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”

Imagine hearing of a soldier in warfare. It is reported that he was struck with a bullet from a high-calibre rifle. Now much of the outcome is going to depend on where he was struck. If it says he was struck on the foot with a bullet from a high-calibre rifle, you know that the wound is significant but, by itself, not likely to be fatal. Such a bullet may obliterate his entire heel which will cause a debilitating wound. The soldier may lose his foot; if not, he will certainly require many surgeries, over many weeks or months, with a long recovery. He may never walk again, and if he does, it will be with a limp.

However, if he is struck, the report says, in the head, you are dealing with not a debilitating wound, but a deadly wound.

That’s what’s pictured here: The serpent will strike at the Offspring’s heel (as snakes are apt to do, because that’s generally how far they can reach) and it will bring a significant but not deadly wound. The Offspring will strike the snake with his heel – that is, he’ll stomp on him. And that will crush his head. A deadly wound.

The basic promise is: The offspring will destroy the serpent and in the process be wounded himself.
Here’s the meaning: God promises to destroy the curse-bringer through the descendants of the woman.

Stephen Dempster says this: “In light of the immediate context, the triumph of the woman’s seed would suggest a return to the Edenic state, before the serpent had wrought its damage, and a [seizure] of the dominion of the world from the serpent.” There’s the promise.

Now, let’s ask: How would Adam and Eve have heard this promise? Forget all the intervening history, the growth of civilization, the rise of the people of God, and all that. They were the first to hear this promise. It was spoken in their hearing.

Well, the next thing that happens is the birth of Cain, Genesis 4.1, and Eve says exuberantly, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” They would have thought he was the Offspring! But he proves himself not to be by his murder of his brother. Next, Genesis 4.25, the birth of Seth. Eve says, “God has appointed for me another offspring (there’s the word!) instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.
Or move ahead in the biblical story. How would Israel later have understood this as they wandered in the desert? Well, the promise was clearly given to Judah, one of the sons of Jacob – he would rule. But Judah proved incapable of fulfilling the promise.

Or, later, when Israel entered the promised land, how would the people of God have understood this promise? Well, David, of the tribe of Judah was appointed as king and he established the kingdom. But he didn’t reverse the curse, in fact, he was caught in it himself. But then, they looked to the descendants of David, also the offspring of Judah. But again, failure!

When Israel was exiled for their sin from the land and cast into foreign nations, how would they have understood this? The prophets, who preached during that time look to the faithful remnant who would return to the land. They would crush the serpent’s head. But, though the remnant returned to the land, their hearts were not yet faithful.

How about the remnant who returned and lived in Palestine from the close of the Old Testament until the birth of Christ? Well, they searched the prophets and longed for God to fulfill his promises, they looked for the Messiah, that is, the Davidic king who would come and restore them to their favored position among the nations.

And how does the New Testament look for this promise? It is centered on Jesus Christ, David’s greater Son.

·        He was, as Paul said, “Born of a woman.” No one has ever been born who was not born of a woman, but the usual phrase in the Bible is that a person was the son or daughter of a man – but, the virgin birth is the proof that the fulfillment comes through one who is the fullest respect “born of a woman” in fact, without male involvement.

·        He was of the tribe of Judah and Jacob’s blessing predicted. He was of the lineage of David, as God predicted through Samuel.
      He gathered, as the prophets’ predicted the truly “faithful remnant” – those whose obedience was both internal and external, in his apostles and later in those believers that they gathered into churches.
·        And Paul makes a final statement of the Offspring to the church in Rome (Rom 16.20):
     For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.  The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.
      The promise, stated in such simplicity and almost enigmatic in its meaning has grown in meaning and in significance. The promise made right after the fall is fulfilled in Christ and still awaits its final and complete fulfillment when Christ comes with his people to establish the kingdom of God on the earth. 

The offspring, the “seed” is both singular and plural. It is Christ who fulfills the promise, just as we are told that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2Co 1.20). And those who by faith are united to him will with him be a part of the final accomplishment of God’s purposes to overturn the curse and return the garden.

In sum, when we celebrate Christmas, this is what we celebrate – not simply the birth of a child in long-ago and far-away Palestine (though, thank God, that is how it happened!); not a child lying helpless in the arms of his mother (though, wonder of wonders, for a time God reduced himself to such a place!). Not shepherds and angels (though, yes, heaven met with earth to rejoice at that great event.

But those are just little pieces of the story. What we celebrate is that the living a true God showed himself to be the Promise Keeper. Exactly what he promised in the beginning – that the Offspring of the Woman would destroy the ancient Enemy of the human race. And all who trust in him and in him alone become a part of the people of God who will share in the final crushing the Serpent’s head.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus!   

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Christmas 2017: He Will Save His People from Their Sins (Matthew 1.18-25)

People speak today of a ‘war on Christmas.’ It is more appropriate to acknowledge that the war is on religion, it is on belief in God, any god. And, because Christian faith was the religion that shaped the Western world, the war in America is primarily on Christian faith – all Christian faith. Since we are about to celebrate the Christmas, I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect together on how we should think and act this year.

Now most people are aware that Christmas was not celebrated in the early church. There is information in the New Testament about the birth of Jesus Christ but there is no evidence it was a subject of much thought to the first Christians – it was only in the fourth century that the church decided to celebrate his birth on December 25. By doing this, the growing Christian movement replaced the feast of the Winter Solstice in the Roman pagan calendar. The Winter solstice is ‘the shortest day of the year’ and was called the feast of the invincible Sun because it is the day on which the amount of daylight begins increase each day. This was celebrated in most ancient cultures which were all based on the seasons of the year. I’m not sure that was a wrong choice but it did lead to some unfortunate consequences. Since it was for centuries considered a season for celebration, usually accompanied by drinking, feasting, and relative freedom from work, that part of it became a part of the Christmas celebration as well. And that tension – between celebration of the birth of the Savior, and celebration of life and freedom – has remained a part of the celebration of Christmas ever since.

For over 1000 years, Christmas was just one of the days of the church year, an important day, granted; sort of a high holy day, but it was not a family celebration as we know it now. But the pagan festivities continued, which the church, with varying degrees of effort, tried to suppress.

During the reformation, in the 1500’s, many leaders were convinced that the church should only recognize those holidays found in the New Testament. They taught that the only true ‘festival’ is the weekly gathering of Christians on the first day of the week, which they called, “The Lord’s Day,” or, “the Christian Sabbath.” But people never really bought it – certain times of the year were, by the custom of centuries, thought to be important to maintain and a winter-festival like Christmas was one of them. But the Reformed churches, and later the Puritans, never really succeeded, although one of the victories of the Reformed churches was a great decrease in the ‘cultural celebration” activities like drinking, partying, and immorality. That lasted from about 1500 until 1800. 

But Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas with the kind of fervor we see today really until the 1840’s. What we think of as “Christmas” started with the influence of one, well-known, person named Charles Dickens. Most of us have heard of his little book, “A Christmas Carole.” What most people don’t know is that – when he was strapped for money with a rapidly growing family, he wrote that little book in addition to the book “David Copperfield” which he was writing at the time, simply to produce some income. Dicken’s books were produced “in serial.” That means, he had to produce about 70 pages of material a month which came out in magazine form. In the day before television, this was the equivalent of the ‘sit-com’ or the ‘dramatic crime shows,’ like “Law and Order” that we have today. He wrote them to come out over a twelve month period which explains why all of famous novels are about 850 pages!

But his little Christmas book was so immensely popular that he did that for five years. Between 1843 and 1847, he wrote, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ ‘The Chimes,’ ‘The Cricket on the Hearth,’ ‘The Battle of Life,’ and ‘The Haunted Man.’ They all pictured Christmas as a time of feasting, singing, family happiness, gift giving.

Now Dickens had a very sentimental view of Christianity – it’s sole purpose is to uplift people to be better, kinder, and more giving with each other. And the view of Christmas for one of the most popular authors in the world, a true world celebrity, was infectious. The modern idea of Christmas was born.

Let’s add to that the great change that was brought into Western Culture by the enlightenment in the 1700’s. This was a cultural movement, at first primarily in the universities of Europe that stressed skepticism of religion and the general ideas of tolerance, individual liberty, and the scientific revolution. The result was a slow, two-hundred-year erosion of confidence in the Bible, and trust in religious authority which finally accomplished its aim by seeping into all levels of society by the end of the twentieth century so that undermined Christian faith. We are now reaping the bitter fruit of that as the majority of people in the Western world have abandoned even the vestiges of the biblical world-view that was once the predominant world-view of our country.

With that, we have come a full circle by returning to the point when Christians first married Christmas to the feast of the Winter solstice in about 350 ad. The tables have been turned, and the Christian attempt to pre-empt the pagan religious holiday has been repaid by the pagan attempt to re-establish the general cultural Winter festival in place of the Christian celebration of ‘Christmas.’
If it is true that “History is written by the winners,” the ascendant philosophy of our day which is Secular Materialism or Secular Humanism or whatever name you want to give it is re-writing history to say that Christianity was a dominant philosophy for a time but its time is up. So now, we are told we must say “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas,” and we can celebrate Christmas by watching Elf or the Polar Express, setting up a tree with lights, and drinking egg nog – none of which contain any element or reference to Christian faith or the birth of Jesus Christ.

So God’s word to you this morning is “Let the pagans have their holiday.” Lay down your arms and give up the fight. There never was a fight to begin with.

We celebrate the birth of Christ because it is revealed in the Bible. Only two of the four gospels give information about the birth of Christ, Matthew and Luke. Mark doesn’t focus on it, though the fact of the virgin birth is referred to in a rather obscure, though clear way in the Gospel of John. Matthew gives the story of the birth as it impacted Joseph which Luke seems to contain the eye-witness testimony of the mother of Jesus.

And it’s a good idea for us to celebrate what originally was called “The celebration of the Nativity” (which mean birth). Even though we don’t know exactly what year it occurred or what season of the year, December is as good a time as any. And it provides us an opportunity to consider the impact of his birth ourselves, to teach our children about it, and to use the occasion to teach people about the origin of our celebration.

This passage that was read for us gives the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph, the step-father of Jesus. What Mary had been told by the angel so many months before, that she would bear as an unmarried woman by the action of the Holy Spirit, and she would bear “the Son of God,” Joseph would learn only later. Joseph, this tells us, was a just man and didn’t want to publicly disgrace Mary by an open divorce – this would reveal her as a woman who had been unfaithful to him during their betrothal. We are told that he was a just man, and this doesn’t mean he was a compassionate or merciful man (though he was). Just or righteous in its Old Testament meaning indicates that he was faithful to God and observant of the law. He could not in good conscience marry Mary – to go ahead with the marriage was to take the blame on himself as though he had violated the betrothal by impregnating her before the formal marriage. But the law allowed for a private divorce before two witnesses. His planned course would have left Joseph’s conformity to the law and his compassion intact. But, so the angel instructs him to take her as his wife, which meant taking the responsibility for her pregnancy on himself in the eyes of society.

But the central point of the story, and the one important for us this morning, is verse 21:
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
This incredibly important sentence ties together the Old Testament and the New Testament. "She will bear a son" takes us back to the beginning of the Bible, when the first woman, Eve, is given the promise of the gospel — a woman, a daughter of Eve, will bear the promised seed who will crush the serpent’s head. The daughter of Eve now bears the promised Seed who is from God, the one who is ‘conceived from the Holy Spirit.’ Joseph is to name him “JESUS,” which is an Old Testament name – Joshua (Jehoshua) in its long form, or Jeshua in its shortened form – which means “Yahweh” (the name of God”) “Yahweh Saves. Why? Because he will save his people from their sins.
Interestingly, the angel doesn’t explain the etymology of his name (like I just did). He doesn’t refer to the two key Old Testament people with the name Joshua – the successor of Moses, Joshua, the one who led the people into the promised land at the beginning Old Testament history, and the high priest, Jeshua, at the end of the Old Testament history who accompanied the descendant of David, Zerubbabel who led the people back to the land.

Instead, he refers to a psalm that promises that “He (the Lord) will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Ps 130.8). It reminds us that God’s aim is the redemption of individuals, the salvation of his people. This is why he came. As Jesus says about himself in this same book, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20.28).
So, let the pagans have their Christmas. Let them continue to press their attack on any expression of Christian values in the public square – but don’t you suppress your commitment to Jesus Christ.  

And remember why he came – ‘he will save his people from their sins.’ 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Thanks-Givers (1 Thess. 5.18)

In 1996, the elders of our church had the privilege of going to Albania, a small country in the Balkans just north of Greece. It was just five years after Communism fell. Albania was an independent Communist country that was closed off from the rest of the world. The dictator was fiercely anti-Christian: every Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox priest and every Muslim Imam was either imprisoned, deported or killed. The local Cathedral was turned into a basketball court. Every Bible was confiscated and destroyed. We met people who had never seen a Bible until the last couple of years. They had life in Christ that was powerful and exuberant, but they had no structure to understand how to live that life.

This is often observed in former Communist countries. The suppression of whatever Christian heritage they once had led to relational chaos and there is a need for clear instruction in basic Christian ethics.

That is just like the first churches we read about in the New Testament. Often, at the end of their letters, the apostles would give a series of simple, concise, rapid-fire applications that were designed to drive home the teaching found in the whole letter. In America, we do have a Christian heritage, which we tend to rely upon. While our culture seldom realizes it, they live on borrowed capital. And as things slide farther away from God, we also need these passages to remind us of the basic implications for life that gospel brings us under.

In this list, I would like to explore briefly verses 16–18. The series of statements are found to focus on several seemingly disconnected themes. These three verses are put together and the stand apart from what precedes and what follows. Let me make a few notes about the three verses.

First, these are all technically impossible commands to fulfill. Just take “Pray without ceasing.” How would that be possible? You can always do more than one thing at a time, but you can’t do them all well. Something will suffer. And prayer, the scripture tells us, requires concentration. There are spiritual limitations as well. Sometimes my heart is cold towards God – I don’t want to rejoice or pray. Some events in my life are so painful that I can’t authentically thank God. These are technically impossible and obviously they aren’t meant to be taken in a slavishly literal sense.

And, second, these all focus on a heart-direction and deal with our attitude toward God and his work in our lives. Like the word ‘maturity,’ these are never quite accomplished, but they point in the right direction. ‘Maturity,’ even in a simply human sense is a multifaceted concept. Physical maturity can be measured. But emotional, relational, vocational maturity, and so forth, is never complete. We all only attain a measure of maturity some more some less. No one is fully mature in every area of life.

These three brief commands are meant to focus our hearts to keep moving in the right direction. Every event, conversation, or situation can only cause us to rejoice if we can see the relationship between that event and the gospel. When we can see that, we can draw the line between the two and rejoice. That’s the direction our heart should be moving.

So, two basic guidelines: These are impossible to literally fulfill and these are designed to direct our hearts in the right direction in our relationship with God.

With that in mind, I’d like to focus our attention on v 18. In this week in which, in America, we celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate to look at this verse:
1 Thess. 5.18: Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Even with the above two points, I find this to be the hardest one to understand and to put into practice. Like many things in life, this instruction is easy as long as things are going well and hard when they aren’t.

Let’s break the verse down into its three components, and explore each one. First, “Give thanks;” second, “In all circumstances;” third, “For this is the will of God.”

Give thanks”: This means that we should acknowledge with gratitude that God is our good Father and our almighty King.

To give thanks simply means to acknowledge someone with gratitude for something they have done for you. In relationship with God, that call us to acknowledge with gratitude that God is the source of what you receive in life.

This, in the Bible and in the history of Christian faith, has been regarded as a human duty. God, being the creator and Lord of all of life, ought to be acknowledged by his image. In our day, duty is often viewed in a negative light – many seem to think that the only proper motivation for worship is gratitude. While the highest, purest motivation is gratitude, I’m not sure duty and gratitude should be thought of as opposites.

Now, in this case, we are to thank God for two aspects of his character. This will become more plain as we go on but essentially we must thank him for both his greatness and his goodness. That God is our creator means he is all-powerful, he is “great” in the fullest sense of that word. He is far above us, unlike us, frightening in his eternal power. But if we didn’t know that he is also good, we wouldn’t be able to thank him properly. Yet, for those who trust him, God tells us, he is not only the eternal, majestic, all-powerful God who controls all things; he is also our loving spiritual Father. He is good. What is best for us is his purpose and aim. That’s who we are to thank for all that we receive in this life.

Second, “In all circumstances.This is where it becomes more difficult. We should acknowledge with gratitude this great and good God, in everything that comes into our lives. At every point of our experience, in whatever comes into our lives, we are to thank him.

Again, this is easy when good but hard when bad.

I know that everyone responds differently to life’s stresses, but I tend to see every difficulty as being either my own fault or the fault of someone else’s faith; I don’t customarily blame God. When something goes wrong, my first response is to figure out what I or someone else did wrong that brought about the situation. That is not what the scripture teaches that I ought to do.

Scripture tells me that ultimately, God is behind every event of life. Whether it is something that I experience as good, or something that I experience as difficult, even if it is something I experience as tragic, it has come into my life for a purpose to accomplish God’s will for me. In fact, scripture tells me he allows it to come into my life for the purpose of shaping me to be more like Jesus Christ. Now, the event may still have come about as a result of something I did, or something another person did, or a combination of many people’s actions. But behind it, God has a purpose. God is actively using the choices of human beings, weaving them together, and overseeing all, to accomplish his purpose.

Now, this is the most hated teaching of the Christian faith in this generation. I want to hear me acknowledge that up front. The idea of God’s ultimate control as Lord of the universe is despised by modern thought. According to modern thought, all things must be explainable only by mechanic processes that can be observed in the universe. This is called Scientific Materialism. That doesn’t mean all scientists hold to it, thankfully; it means that those who represent modern thought in a philosophic way make this a pillar of their religion: There is not spiritual realm, they say, and even if there were, it has no relevance for the physical universe in which we live. So, any idea that there is a God who is before, behind, and in control of, the natural processes of life must be rejected.

But there is a religious form of this today. It is called “Open Theism.” Such philosophers who want to retain some religious thought but accept this , say that God doesn’t know everything. Because he created free creatures who make their own choices, God cannot know something until the creature creates it by his or her choices. Thus, God cannot know the future; he knows all that has and is happening at every moment, but he cannot know the future. If he could know the future, he could change it. But God, like us, is caught up in the material laws that he has created; he is dependent on our choices to create the reality he can then deal with. This is why things seem to happen by chance, they say. It’s because of the choices of humans. This absolves of any responsibility for evil in the universe. But, it also absolves him of any power to change it.

The biggest problem with this, according to the Bible, is prophecy. If God doesn’t know things until they happen, how could he predict in detail things that would happen hundreds or thousands of years after he predicted them. All that to say that the God of an open theist is not the God of the Bible. You may not like the God of the Bible, but you shouldn’t try to make him into something else, something less that he himself claims.

Just consider two verses. One from the Old Testament, one from the New.
Isaiah 47.8–10: “Remember this and stand firm,      recall it to mind, you transgressors,        remember the former things of old;for I am God, and there is no other;      I am God, and there is none like me,declaring the end from the beginning      and from ancient times things not yet done,saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,      and I will accomplish all my purpose.’
Eph 1.11: In him (Christ) we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

This is the teachings that Christians have always called “Providence.” I have found the following statement to be helpful that was written in the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563.
Q27.  What do you understand by the providence of God?
A27.  Providence is the almighty and ever-present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.

That is a good description of what scripture so clearly teaches. It is a difficult fact that you and I must deal with in life. God doesn’t reveal himself to us as the therapeutic god, the god who is supremely good but can’t really change things. He isn’t a god who says, “Let me come down to your level and put my arm around you and comfort you because I have been broken by sin as well. That’s what we do for each other in the midst of pain.

God has been broken by sin; that’s the meaning of the cross. But God in Christ was broken by sin so that he might break the chains of sin and set us free. If you want to have a God you can understand, a God who does nothing that will ever shake you, will never make you question or doubt or struggle, then you have a God who can’t do anything. Listen: A God with whom you never have to struggle, is not a God worth worshiping. Read the psalms! Listen to the struggle! These songs were written to teach you how to bring your heart to the eternal God and ask you to see him as he is and bow to his eternal purpose. But, remember, his purpose is good, because he is not a supernatural tyrant; he is a loving father.

Providence is great when you hear a groom tell a story as I have heard at weddings. He was lonely and wanted to be married. But he wanted to be faithful to God as well. So, he trusted God and waited, because he wasn’t just looking for a woman; he was looking for a wife. And in God’s time, not his, God brought into his life a wonderful woman. And he feels gratitude to God for what he has done and expresses it.

Providence is not so easy to understand or to accept when the story is the loss of a job, or a mental illness, or the death of child.

I’m not pretending this is a simple concept. We should note that the verse doesn’t say, “Give thanks for all circumstances” as though we should be grateful for house fires and car accidents. It says, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” which is something different altogether. But it’s what is behind this verse. How can you “Give thanks in all circumstances,” if you do not believe that the eternal creator-God who rules the universe according to his eternal purpose is not also your loving heavenly Father who seeks your eternal best? 

So, we should acknowledge with gratitude this great and good God, in everything that comes into our lives. But there’s one more part of the sentence we need to consider: “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

In reality, this phrase relates to all three of the brief little directions God gives here. To understand it, we need to consider what is meant by the words “will of God.”

“The will of God” of course simply refers to God’s choice or intention about something. In scripture, it can used in one of at least three ways.
  • The most rare but important, is what I’ll call God’s sovereign will, or better, his eternal will. This is God’s eternal purpose and covers all things that actually come to pass in his creation. Scripture refers to this as a single decree by which God, in eternity past, determined all that comes to pass. The eternal plan of salvation is included in this comprehensive plan. Scripture refers to it and it is helpful to us to know that there is such a thing. What God decrees is helpful to us only as we look back on what has unfolded in history; it doesn’t help us to live the Christian life. It is a mystery to which we are not encouraged to seek to pry into.
  • A second way scripture refers to the will of God is what I will call his permissive will. God, in his eternal will, doesn’t unilaterally determine all that happens. Based on his foreknowledge, he weaves human choices, even sinful choices into his purposes. He permits things and weaves them into his eternal purpose without directly willing them, since God cannot choose or think or do evil. That also is helpful so that we know that, while God may have allowed sinful actions and their consequences, he doesn’t directly will them. Yet he uses them.
  • But then, there is what we can call God’s preceptive will. These are the precepts, or instructions, that he gives to us about how to live. The ten commandments, for example, are part of God’s preceptive will. They tell us what God requires of us; they don’t tell us what is going to happen in every case. Obviously, these three verses are a part of God’s preceptive will which is the most helpful aspect of the will of God for our everyday life.

The life God intends for us to live and the life that will result in the greatest blessing is a life of thankfulness to him. A thankfulness that is not a sentimental, Christmas dinner kind of “God’s blessed us this last year, hasn’t he.” Rather a daily reckoning with the reality of life and a free choice to thank God for the way he is actively working to conform us to the character of Christ.

So, let’s finish our sentence that’s we’ve been building from this verse:
We should acknowledge with gratitude that God is our good Father and our almighty King, in everything that comes into our lives, so that God receives the glory and we receive the blessing that he intends.
Why do I say that this kind of thankfulness results in God being glorified and our being blessed? Because it is, “the will of God in Christ Jesus” for us! It is how our choices magnify the eternal purpose of God in Christ. In Christ is found all the riches of God. It is God’s way of blessing us so that life reflects him and his glory.

Oh, that we would see this at Thanksgiving. That we would look beyond ourselves and, regardless of our circumstances, see that God is intimately involved and concerns with everything in our lives. O, that we could rest in the providence of God and rejoice that “all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.”

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Saints (1 Corinthians 1.1-3)

At some point early in our marriage, Laura and I acquired a plate that has become a part of our family lore. It is a gaudy red plate unlike anything else we own that has written on it is large, white letters, “You are Special Today.” It became the birthday plate in our family. At dinner on your birthday, this is the birthday person’s plate. We have never used it for any other purpose – it is in the china cabinet except on birthdays. It is set-apart for one purpose. In fact, it is “holy.”

The basic meaning of the word “holy” is set apart. In the deepest sense possible, God is holy, he is “set apart” from everything else that exists. God’s holiness is “sets him apart” from us. In ourselves, apart from something God can do inside of us, we are not holy, we are unlike him — he is unique, exclusive, matchless in every way. But the most important ways he is “holy” are in his abilities and in his character.

In his abilities, he is complete even in things that we reflect — we can think and act because God made us in his image, but our thinking and our doing are just dim reflections of the complete knowledge and unparalleled power God has. This makes us feel small, weak, submissive.

But God is also complete in his character – his ethical goodness. When people say God is good, what they often mean is that he does good things for them; but people are so easily disappointed when he doesn’t come through in what they expect. God’s goodness permeates all that he is and does, so that he defines goodness. God alone is good in the fullest sense of the term – he is “right” in all his characteristics, motivations, and actions. We fall short of his goodness.

And yet, the Bible calls all those who belong to God “saints.” The word means “holy ones.” In our passage this morning, Paul writes,
1 Cor. 1.2: “…to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…”
This word “saints” is confusing for a number of reasons:
  • There is a church tradition of calling particularly outstanding believers “saints.” Some churches have a practice of officially designating people as saints after they have died, so that they are known as “Saint Peter” or “Saint John.” That is not in the Bible – the word saint is applied to every believer in the fellowship of the church in the same way as the word “Christian” or “disciple.”
  • The Mormons call each other (and are mockingly called by others) “the saints.”
  • There is a football team, the New Orleans “Saints” – does that mean they are holy?
  • All of this confuses people. Perhaps “holy ones” is a better translation than “saints” but even that is confusing.

In what way can we be called “saints” or “holy ones”?

That word is used about 80 times in the Bible referring to the people of God. If the psalmist can say of God, “You alone are holy” (Psalm 15.4), how can we be called “holy ones”?

The answer to that requires that we expand our understanding of salvation so that it includes a part of God’s purposes that we usually relegate to the important but not essential. Here’s what I mean: Often Christians think of faith in Christ for salvation as the goal of everything God wants to do. Once we’ve come to faith, the whole point is to stay there. But faith in Christ is the all-important starting point, not the end point of God’s work. Consider this verse:
Lev. 11.45; 1 Pet. 1.16: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
God’s point in saving us is to shape us to reflect his character. If God is holy, he seeks to mold us to be holy as well, order that our lives might exhibit the power of his grace. This means that part of our identity as Christians, one that should form our self-image, is that we are “holy people.” Saints.
What does this mean for us? How does it display itself in our lives?

First, we must see ourselves as ‘set apart’ for God.

People speak today of “identity politics.” We tend to divide people into categories based on sexual orientation, race, political viewpoint, social status, money (or lack of it), and so forth. We don’t tend to use larger categories like character. The Bible is different.  

The most basic identity the Bible names is found in the confession we make in baptism: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” What that means is that I am called to identify myself as being under the authority of Jesus Christ first and foremost. All other identities are secondary to that “pledge” we make “from a good conscience” in baptism. We must see ourselves as holy = set apart for God’s purposes.

We all face many opportunities, temptations, and choices in life, just like everyone else in the world. The difference is that we are called to face them and to make our choices based on our identity as people who are called to belong to God and reflect his character. Everything falls under that heading. 

So, what television shows we watch or don’t watch, what we do with our time, how we talk to and treat the opposite sex in every setting, how we earn, save, give and spend our money… everything must be seen through the lenses of the baptism pledge, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

This has profound implications for everything we do in life! Today, we are so afraid to be known as Christians. We live within a vocal and strident minority that is accusing Christians of all kinds of crimes against modern thought. The voices are so insistent that Christians are afraid to identify with Christ and his cause. But you already made that decision in baptism, didn’t you? You are “set apart” for God.

We must see ourselves as ‘set apart’ for God. But, secondly, we must see ourselves as responsible to be holy, set apart for God in our character and behavior. We must seek to reflect the character of our Father in our lives.

This means that we are to understand that we are “called to be saints.” Called by God to live as holy people. Not just to identify with Christ but to seek to display Christ’s character to others. If we are set apart for God, we must also be set apart from sin.

Now we all struggle with sin and we will until we’re with him. We will fail. We will become angry, be unkind, make selfish choices, and display the typical failings of human beings. But, we won’t defend it as right; when we become aware of it, we’ll pick ourselves up, and go to God in repentance and reliance on the blood of Christ. Then we’ll go to whoever we have offended and apologize. We won’t pretend that we’re something we’re not. Yet, repentance will be our response to our failings.
We’ll seek to be different – both in our attitudes and in our behavior.

Seek to see the Christian lifestyle as something measured by what you do, not by what you don’t do. This is something you have to cultivate in life, each of us.

My grandfather Lewellen was a very successful businessman. I only knew him, of course, later in life. But I have one distinct memory that shaped the kind of person I want to be. For my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, they wanted the whole family to come to Florida – their three sons with their wives and ten grandchildren. They had a big dinner at which it was only our family. I was sitting near my grandfather. When the waitress came to the table before the meal, he said, “Do you have a family?” She said yes, three children, aged two, four, and six. He said, “Well this is my family” and he introduced each one by name. He said, “Thank for you taking care of us on this special occasion.

After dinner, when the waitress came to take care of the bill. He handed her money and said, “I don’t need any change. I gave you a little extra and I want you to use it to care for those precious children you have at home.”

I never forgot that. I don’t know of my grandfather’s spiritual commitment – he went to church but never talked about God or made the Christian faith a part of his life in any other way. But, later in life, when I grew up and had a family, I have often thought of that event. And, I’ve thought that he displayed the kind of character that Christians ought to display – a generous, encouraging, giving spirit. It’s funny the things that God uses to shape character, isn’t it?

God calls us “saints,” holy people. May this shape our identity in such ways that we live it out before a watching world.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Unwrapping Your Identity: Restored (Matthew 8.14-17)

A number of years ago, a woman visited our church a few times who was from a tradition different from ours. She asked to meet with me and opened with a question: ‘Why don’t you believe in raising the dead?’

I assured that I do believe that the dead can be raised – basic to being a Christian is the affirmation that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that, because of that, all believers in him will be raised as well at the last day. But, I added, I assume you mean to ask, “Why doesn’t your church engage in seeking by prayer and faith to raise the dead?” That was her real question and we went on to have a vigorous discussion about it.

In our conversation – which of course, was not simply about raising the dead, but also about healing and miracles – she made an interesting point. Quoting the words I just read in Matthew 8, she noted that Matthew quotes Isaiah 53. And in the most famous passage in the Old Testament predicting that the Messiah would die for sinners, it says:
Isaiah 53.4: Surely, he has borne our diseases (physical illnesses) and carried our pains (the emotional suffering caused by sickness).
Note that the two words – ‘borne’ and ‘carried’ are the words used throughout the Bible to describe atonement. ‘Christ bore our sins in his body on the cross’ (1 Peter 2.24). This whole passage is about the atonement, the death of Jesus in the place of sinners, dying in our place. Modern translations often say, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” but literally this is what it says. “He has borne our sicknesses.” (CSB).

Now, her point was this: If Jesus took on himself our physical diseases when he died on the cross then there is healing in the atonement. So, we can go to him now and expect him to heal those for whom we pray because he died for that illness.

What do you think of that? Is there healing in the atonement? Not only forgiveness. Not only restoration to fellowship with God. Physical healing. On that point, she was right. And I think that has profound implications for our identity and for our behavior. Let’s think together for a few minutes about three things: Jesus’ healing miracles, why he did them, and what that means for us.

When we read about Jesus’ ministry in the gospels, over one quarter of the material describes the last week or so of his life. But the material before that describes the approximately three years of his ministry. Two things stand out: Jesus’ preaching and his miracles. Concerning his miracles, we note that Jesus healed people both spiritually and physically.

This passage, in fact, describes both. First, he heals Peter’s mother-in-law. She has a fever; he touches her and the fever departs. And we know that her healing was instantaneous because she got up and began to serve him. Then, we are told, that evening the townspeople bring many people who were both oppressed by demons and who were physically sick and ‘he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick’ (v. 15). 

Now, what do I mean by spiritual and physical healing? Well this passage displays both.
  • Spiritual healing involves freeing people from the oppression of evil spirits and from the consequences of their oppression.
  • Physical healing involves freeing people from physical illness and restoring them to wholeness.

There are two questions that arise at this point. The first is, ‘What is the relationship of sin to sickness?’ When a person becomes sick, is it because they have sinned in some way and God is punishing them for their behavior?

Scripture frequently connects sin and sickness, sometimes directly but usually indirectly. We know that sinful behavior can bring about sickness – as in drug addicts sharing needles, or immoral behavior that leads to a sexually transmitted disease, or when a drunk driver injures someone in an accident. In those cases, the person’s behavior that is contrary to God’s instructions has, as its natural and logical consequence some related outcome they must then deal with. My experience tells me, however, that if there is no obvious connection between our behavior and some undesirable event in our lives, we shouldn’t try to make one.

The reason is because sin is related to all evil in the universe in an indirect way. “Death entered the world through sin” we are told in Romans 5. And because of this, the whole “creation is in bondage to corruption” it says in Romans 8. We live in a world infected with sin and showing the consequences in disasters, disease, crime, relational conflict, and death. Even apart from our own behavior, we can expect to be touched by the consequences of sin. It is not until the fulfillment of the age to come that we will experience freedom from these things.

But this little passage forces us to ask not only, ‘What is the relationship of sin to sickness?’ but also, ‘What is the relationship of Satan to sickness?’ What is this ‘demon oppression’ that Jesus dealt with? Do demons cause disease.

Well, Scripture doesn’t only connect sin to sickness, it also connects evil spiritual powers with sickness. That is not to say that all sickness is caused by the devil. There is no basis for speaking of a demon of depression, or a demon of suicide, that some people speak of. What I mean is that evil spiritual forces have an interest in any state that tends to drive a person away from God. If a Christian becomes sick then they can easily feel depressed and not desire fellowship with God. The spiritual aspect must be considered as one factor.

In sickness, it seems that there are always at least four contributors:
  • biological — say, a virus or bacteria of some sort,
  • developmental — we have unresolved factors from upbringing or exposure to unhealthy ways of handling life that set us on a trajectory of handling life’s pressures in unhealthy ways,
  • relational — perhaps, handing a job conflict or child-rearing problem poorly.

Those are always true, but scripture says we must consider a fourth and that is
  • spiritual — the battle with evil spiritual forces who seek to (in the words of scripture) oppress us. 
After all, the apostle Peter said,
      1 Peter 5.8–9: Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.
      For the Christian person to ignore or deny the reality of Satan and his spirits is to enter life unprepared for the spiritual battle it involves.

Think of it as a pie that is cut into four parts — biological, developmental, relational, and spiritual. How that pie is cut up and what size and shape each of those pieces are is different in every case. At times, the biological factor is the largest piece and the others are in the background. At other times, the spiritual piece is dominant. But there are always at least those four factors.
But what we must see is that evil spiritual powers have an interest in any state of life that is in any way opposed to our experience of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17).

Jesus dealt with the ‘whole pie’ in his healing ministry — he cast out the spirits with a word of command and he healed all who were sick. That kind of activity, along with preaching, characterized Jesus’ ministry up until he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
But what we need to understand is why he did this. What was the point of Jesus’ healing ministry? Was it just to show that he was a miracle-worker? Was it just to draw a crowd so he could preach.

What Matthew tells us is, first, that Jesus’ healing ministry was meant to show that he was the Messiah. Look at v. 17:
Matthew 8.17: This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
We have to note that his healing ministry was the fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would heal people and what Jesus was doing that evening in Capernaum was the direct fulfillment of that promise.

John the Baptist, we are told became discouraged with events surrounding his ministry especially as his life became endangered and became more evident that it would not end well. He sent representatives to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Even he, the man appointed by God to introduce the Messiah to Israel, wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah. What did Jesus say?
Matthew 11.5–6: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus himself notes his miracles and his healings are the demonstration that he is the Messiah that John was to introduce.

It’s interesting that this passage emphasizes that Jesus “healed all who were sick.” Of course that doesn’t mean that he healed everyone, everywhere; it means that he healed everyone who was brought to him that evening in Capernaum. It is evident, however, that Jesus didn’t heal indiscriminately. He never entered a town and said, “Gather all the sick and demon-oppressed who are here and I’ll have a healing service.” He never said, “Let’s heal some people to draw a crowd.” In other words, healing people, for Jesus, was not an end in itself. It was a means to a greater end: to show that he really was the Messiah.

Now, you might think, ‘Why wouldn’t God in the flesh heal people as widely as possible? Isn’t it wrong for God himself, who has the power to overcome sickness, disease, and demon-oppression, to NOT heal people? How could he be in the presence of the consequences of sin in human life and not make things right? 

I once walked with a man through the process of dying from cancer. A couple of months before he died, he fell and broke his hip. The doctors put him in a nursing home so that his hip could heal enough for him to go home… and die. It didn’t feel very good; they put the man in a hospital to heal him in order that he could die. I’m not faulting them; that was all they could do.

But apply that to Jesus – if all that he did was heal people and make their lives physically whole again, he would have healed them physically… and left them to remain spiritually dead and hell-bound. Jesus tells us in Matthew 20 why he came. He said,
Matthew 20.28: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The primary purpose of Jesus’ death was to die for sinful people. Healing us but not dealing with our sin problem would have had only temporary effect.

That’s the first reason for his healing ministry: Jesus healed people to show that he was the Messiah. But, this passage shows an underlying reason: Jesus healed people to reveal the kingdom of God.
I have used this little diagram to show how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament promise of the coming of the kingdom of God.

The Old Testament expectation, which is what the prophets wrote about, was that this age in which we live would be followed by the age to come — the Messiah’s kingdom. In the age to come, God would make all that is wrong would be made right. Sickness, disease, and death would be overcome. God would reign and wipe away all sorrow, there would be a new heavens and a new earth. They saw a range of mountains up ahead that would be the age to come.

They saw this age swallowed up by a mountain that would be the age to come. Jesus fulfills that, but not quite in the way they expected. The mountain range is actually two mountains. The first one is his first appearance in humility while the second is his second coming in glory. In the first coming he inaugurates the kingdom; in his return he fulfills it.

During Jesus earthly ministry he inaugurated, or set in motion, the kingdom of God.
  • When he first began to preach, he said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mk 1.15).
  • When he spoke to the Pharisees and they asked when the kingdom of God was going to come, he said, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” He was the king and the kingdom is wherever the king is. He was setting it in motion.
  • Why did he do miracles, heal people, cast out demons? To show that where he is present the conditions of the kingdom are already present — to display the presence of the future in his presence on the earth.

From that point forward, according to the New Testament, the age to come is inaugurated and the whole period during which you and I live is called, “the last days.” When Jesus returns, he will consummate the kingdom and fully reveal its power and presence by the eradication of sin and the final judgment.

That means that you and I live during a time when the kingdom is “already, but not yet!” here. The church, the gathering of the people of God, is the present and temporary form of the kingdom. Because Jesus has introduced the kingdom, we who believe in him “share in the Holy Spirit, taste the heavenly gift…[and] the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” in our lives and worship together. But the taste is not the fulfillment, not the full satisfaction.

Well, let’s conclude: Is there healing in the atonement? Well, answer it this way: Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, there will in the end be a multitude “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5.9) gathered at the throne of God. For them, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21.4).

Yes, there is healing in the atonement — the ultimate, final, complete lasting healing from sin and from all of the effects of sin. It is birthright of every believer. And, there is healing now — sometimes. Remember: Already but not yet. That’s tension in which we live in the present age. Taste, not complete satisfaction. Because we live ‘in-between the times,’ in that period between the inauguration of the kingdom and the consummation/ completion of the kingdom, the kingdom (so to speak) reaches back into our time.

Now, what does that mean?

Well, first, we should pray for healing – for ourselves and others. We serve the God who is able to heal and we live by faith in the presence of the same Savior who showed his healing power when he was on the earth. We should confidently ask him to extend that same power into the present age. BUT, we should not demand healing because we know that, for Christians, the prayer for healing is always answered with a definitive “Yes!” A yes that we may not see now.

How often I have spoken to people – often young people, but also spouses, siblings, and friends of those who have died. They ask, ‘If God is really good, why did my loved one die? I prayed and others prayed for her. My mother,’ they say, ‘was such a fine Christian. I can’t believe in a god who would let my mother die when he could have healed her!’

But don’t you understand that when a Christian dies, she is restored to wholeness — instantaneously, completely, finally — and in God’s presence rejoicing? The lame can walk, the blind can see, the cancer-ridden is whole and pure. It is a mark of God’s love, not his mean-ness, that he takes them home.

Because of Christ’s death and his victory over sin and death in his resurrection, our resurrection is guaranteed… ultimately. That doesn’t mean we can demand it now. In the same way, the woman was right, there is healing in the atonement… ultimately. But that doesn’t mean that we can demand it now. We should pray for healing and always remember that, for believers, that is a prayer he will always answer in the affirmative – either now or in his kingdom. This should change how we pray — with real confidence that he who healed all who were brought to him that night can and will do the same. Can… now. Will… in the end, if not now.

But note that the healing we often put in first place is, in the biblical way of seeing things, only a by-product, of the real healing of the soul by the covering of sin in the blood of Christ. Why did Isaiah say, “He carried our diseases and bore our pains” while elsewhere in the same chapter, in the next verse, he says, “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities”? Because he died both for our real problem – sin, iniquity, transgression – and for the effects in our lives – diseases and pains. He didn’t just cut off the fruit; he dealt with the root that bore the fruit.
By faith in him we have both – faith in Jesus Christ alone.