Sunday, September 18, 2016

Worshiping the King of Kings, Psalm 96

I first read The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, when I was recovering from hepatitis in 1978. I was in Kathmandu, Nepal, at the time, and a Christian believer there gave us access to his library. As I was rummaging through the shelves, looking for something to read, a friend who was with me picked up the series and said, “you’ve got to read this.” Since then I’ve read it over and over again, a total of more than ten times, and each time I read it I feel like I’m taking a vacation in Middle Earth. I've recently been listening to it in audio form while I'm driving to work.

With the movie versions produced by Peter Jackson, Tolkien’s fantasies have become popular with a whole new generation. People see the movies and then they want more, so they go out and buy the books. But then, I sometimes hear questions about the value of stories like this. Is fantasy really a worthwhile thing? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on the real world, rather than escaping into a world of fantasy? Several years ago I read an article by a Christian journalist who commented, “yes, this is a very good story, but reality is actually much more interesting and exciting.” She was saying, in effect, “I suppose this sort of thing is OK, but it’s much better to be engaged in real life.”

The question is, is it true that works like this are irrelevant to “real life?” Is it true that we’re better off without these kinds of imaginative stories, that these kinds of things are OK – at least we’re not sinning by entering into them – but that it’s far better to give our time to “the real world?” What I’ve noticed is that these stories help me see things I would have missed otherwise. Living a full Christian life involves using our imaginations: projecting ourselves into the biblical stories, wondering what it would have been like to have been there, and also imagining ourselves in the future kingdom when we will live in God’s presence and see Him face to face. God hasn’t only given us minds to extract principles from Scripture; He’s given us imaginations, and He calls us to use them. Works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, train us in using our imaginations. They help us to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise. One year, as I was reading The Return of the King (the final volume in The Lord of the Rings trilogy), when I came to the section after the ring has been destroyed and the dark lord is overthrown, it was like being given a glimpse into the joy and freedom we will know when God’s kingdom arrives in its fullness. Imaginative works like this can help us see more clearly, they can give us a glimpse into that “new heaven and new earth” that God is preparing for us.

They can also help us think more clearly about this present world. There’s more to reality than what we see on the surface. That’s the problem with those who smile condescendingly and say, “well, you know, that’s not how it is in the real world; it’s fine to be young and idealistic, but someday you’ll be just as jaded and cynical as I am; you’ll learn that all this Christian stuff doesn’t work in the real world.” They’ve seen something of the truth; they’ve seen that in a world where people are selfish and dishonest you’re more likely to be successful if you compete on their terms. If you take advantage of others, you’re less likely to have others taking advantage of you. That’s true, at present. But it’s not the whole truth. The truth is that this is an abnormal state of affairs, and it’s not always going to continue this way. We need help in seeing beyond what appears on the surface.

Eugene Peterson, writing about the story of David and Goliath, says this: “There’s something just beneath the surface of everything, something invisible but just as real, maybe even more real, than what we’re seeing and hearing and touching.... The only person fully in touch with reality that day was David. The only fully human person in the Valley of Elah that day was David. Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see. Humanness is mostly a matter of what never gets reported in the newspapers. Only a prayer-saturated imagination accounts for what made holy history that day in the Valley of Elah – the striking immersion in God-reality, the robust exhibition of David-humanity” (Leap Over a Wall, pp. 38, 44-45). “Reality is made up mostly of what we can’t see.” Works of fantasy can help us see this reality more clearly. Psalm 96 does the same thing. It gives us a larger picture of the truth: despite all the evil and mundaneness of life in this world, the Lord is king, and He calls all people everywhere to worship Him. But rather than describing and explaining, this psalm declares the truth and invites us to begin participating in this larger reality as worshipers of the one true God.

The first thing that’s here is the call to worship the Lord: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” This call is given, not only to the people of Israel, but to “all the earth.” During this period, God’s purposes were focused on the nation of Israel. But His purpose in choosing Israel was to bring salvation to the whole world. God’s promise to Abraham was: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God is not a tribal deity, like the gods of the surrounding nations. He is the Creator of all, and His purpose is to make worshipers of all the nations. So Psalm 96, even at this stage of Israel’s history, calls all people of the earth to worship God.

The call is “sing to the Lord a new song.” All these nations, in turning to the true God to worship Him, will be singing a new song, a song they’ve never sung before. But it’s also a new song because they’re singing to the Lord, who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Paul says that in Christ we become new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). Listen to this description of the worship before God’s throne in Revelation 5: “They sing to the Lord a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The song we will sing in the new heaven and new earth will be a new song, a song to the Lord who makes all things new.

It’s interesting to notice how often the word new comes up in advertising. Advertisers are trying to get our attention, and one of the surest ways is to convince us that their product is new and improved. It’s better than what they were selling last month. It’s not the same old thing. They’re appealing to our longing for something better, our sense that things aren’t all they should be. The word new appeals to our sense of hope that things will be better in the future, that everything isn’t just going to continue as it is right now. We long for something new, something better. Advertisers are right about us; but the things they’re selling can’t possibly fill the void. Our longing for newness is a longing for the kingdom of God, a longing for that day when we will see Him face to face. God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in Him (St. Augustine). So the call, “sing to the Lord a new song,” is an invitation to enter into the reality that will fulfill the deepest longing of our hearts.

The second thing is an answer to the question, “why should we obey this call?” The psalmist is inviting us into a larger vision of reality, so he doesn’t just tell us what to do, he goes on to list reasons why we should worship the Lord: “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” It’s right to mention the subjective benefits of worship, that worshiping God fulfills the deepest longings of our hearts. But that’s not enough in itself. We don’t worship God because of all the good things we’re going to get. We worship Him because He is worthy. We worship Him because He is God, the Creator of heaven and earth. He’s the one who created us; we long for meaning and fullness because He created us with an innate desire to know and worship Him.

Several years ago I was talking with a young man who was preparing for ministry. He told me he always assumes there’s something wrong with him if he doesn’t feel uplifted in worship. If he doesn’t feel exhilarated and moved, if he doesn’t have a great “worship experience,” he assumes that either he’s doing something wrong or the worship leaders aren’t doing their job. I’ve seen an increasing tendency in evangelical churches to do away with the reading of Scripture in corporate worship. Instead, the songs flow together, one into the other with increasing intensity to create an emotional response, to lead the congregation into a “worship experience.” In that kind of worship, we are at the center; we’re doing everything we can to achieve the feeling we want (and when we get that feeling we assume that God has blessed us). The importance of worship is not that it makes us feel good all the time. The importance of worship is that God is worthy, and since He is worthy we should do everything we can to keep Him at the center. We need to hear from Him through His Word, and sometimes hearing from Him will make us feel worse before it makes us feel better. When we hear from Him we’re humbled and led to repentance; often it turns our lives upside down. But the important thing is not how we feel; the important thing is that God is exalted and glorified in our midst, because He is “most worthy of praise.”

The third thing is that when we respond to this call to worship God, we participate in the life of the coming kingdom. It’s not only that we perceive deeper realities with our minds; we become fellow-worshipers with those who are worshiping before God’s throne: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” The whole creation is bursting with joy in anticipation of what God is about to do. And what is He about to do that brings such joy? “He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” The psalmist is not thinking of personal judgment here, but of the fact that God is going to set everything right. This world that so often leads people into cynicism and despair will not always be this way, because God the Judge is going to set things right.

When we come into God’s presence in worship, we enter, in a very real way, into that future kingdom. Thomas Howard grew up in a very prominent evangelical home; Elizabeth Elliot is his sister. But he tells of discovering that worship involves more than he had realized or been taught when he was young: “I had never heard the idea, taught in the Church for centuries, that in the act of Christian worship the scrim that hangs between earth and heaven is drawn back, and we in very truth join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever laud and magnify the Divine Name” (Evangelical is Not Enough, p. 57). When we gather for worship we are joining together with the glorified Church in heaven. This is part of what the author of Hebrews is saying in chapter 12: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:22-24). So the invitation at the beginning of this psalm is not only an invitation to a future inheritance; it’s an invitation to enter into a larger reality right now by worshiping the Lord of heaven and earth.

We look forward to joining all the saints in the new heaven and new earth, singing together a new song before the throne of God. And Jesus will be at the very center of that new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). And in the meantime, we are invited even now to join in this new song. “Sing to God a brand-new song! Earth and everyone in it, sing! Sing to God – worship God! Shout the news of his victory from sea to sea, Take the news of his glory to the lost, News of his wonders to one and all! For God is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs. His terrible beauty makes the gods look cheap. Pagan gods are mere tatters and rags. God made the heavens – Royal splendor radiates from him, a powerful beauty sets him apart.... An extravaganza before God as he comes, As he comes to set everything right on earth, Set everything right, treat everyone fair” (The Message). “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” Since this is true, and since we’ve been given such a gracious invitation, let’s make it the priority of our lives to “sing to the Lord a new song.”

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Almighty Liberator, Psalm 114

Shiloh Lutheran Church
State College, PA
September 11, 2016

One of the subjects Christians are most likely to argue about is the question of eternal security. Are believers secure for eternity, or is it possible to be a genuine believer and then fall away and be lost? Churches divide over this question and others related to it. People who disagree break fellowship with one another and accuse each other of not taking the Bible seriously. And both sides are certain of their position, because there are passages in Scripture that can be used to support both views.

I’m not going to address this issue directly this morning. What I’m most concerned about is that so many have been given a false sense of security by some of the teaching they’ve heard. They’re not following Jesus Christ; they have no interest in knowing God or living in obedience to Him; they may not attend church at all, or maybe they attend sporadically; their way of life is no different from that of unbelievers, and they're content with that. But they have a strong assurance that they’re going straight to heaven when they die, because at some point in the past they “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior,” or they believe inn justification by faith alone, or something of that sort. This really has nothing to do with the doctrine of eternal security; it has to do with the nature of saving faith. The question of whether or not believers are safe for eternity is irrelevant to people in this condition, because they’re probably not Christian believers at all. They’re most likely nominal Christians, people who have a partial faith but who haven’t turned to Jesus Christ in genuine, lasting repentance. There's no evidence of faith in their lives. They’re the kind of people Jesus was addressing when He said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

How does this relate to Psalm 114? Psalm 114 presents us with a God who changes everything He touches: “Yahweh accepts nothing as it is, but always changes everything. Nothing is secure when the God of liberation begins to make his move” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, p. 142). God transforms everything, and everyone, that comes before Him. Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, said this: “Belief in Jesus is seeing him as the gateway to an endless journey into God’s love.... Looking at Jesus seriously changes things; if we do not want to be changed, it is better not to look too hard or too long” (Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light, pp. 5 & 13). Coming to Jesus changes us; if there’s no change at all, there's something wrong. To be liberated by God, to experience salvation in His name, is to begin a lifelong process of transformation into His image.

This psalm is looking back on two major events in God’s deliverance of Israel: the Exodus from Egypt, and the beginning of the Conquest of Canaan, the land of Promise. In both events, God intervened in a miraculous way: “The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.” The psalmist puts both events together, even though they were separated by forty years or so, because they are both part of God’s work of deliverance: He was not only delivering them from slavery in Egypt; He was delivering them to freedom in the land of Canaan.

Notice, first, how Israel was affected by these events: “Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.” The psalmist is using parallelism here; he’s not making a distinction between Judah and Israel. He’s using two different names to describe the nation, so both parts of the verse apply to the same people. The second statement parallels, and develops, the first one. He’s saying that two things happened as a result of God’s intervention: 1) they became the dwelling place of God; and 2) they became people under His sovereign rule. These two ideas come across clearly in The Message: “Judah became holy land for him, Israel the place of holy rule.” As a result of His miraculous act of deliverance, they became people among whom God chose to live, and they were called to live in obedience to Him.

There’s more happening here than a simple act of deliverance from slavery. God is restoring something that is broken. Because of the Fall, because of sin, the world is not the way it was intended to be. God created us to live in His presence, and He created us to live under His sovereign rule. The Fall has ruined that. Because of sin we’re cut off from God, living in a world that’s too small to satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. And we’re in slavery to things and desires that were intended to be used in obedience to God, not to be substitutes for Him. In the Exodus we see God at work to bring restoration, setting aside a people among whom He will live, and who will begin to order their lives in obedience to Him.

Notice, next, these dramatic effects in nature: “The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs;” and, at the end of the Psalm: “who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.” God is demonstrating, on behalf of His people, His lordship over creation. But there’s more; God’s deliverance of His people is also a deliverance of the whole creation. This event in the Old Testament looks forward to what Paul is describing in Romans 8: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (v. 19). God is at work, not only calling a people to Himself; He is at work preparing the way for a new heaven and a new earth, the holy city described near the end of the book of Revelation: “Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:3-4).

This God who brought deliverance to the people of Israel is the Lord of all creation. The psalmist is so confident and so taken by this realization that he goes into a taunt song in vv. 5&6: “Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?” These things are all so much greater, more powerful, more stable and lasting than we are. And yet, look how they respond when God begins to intervene on behalf of His people. As one commentator says: “The remarkable story of this psalm is that this awesome Presence has identified himself with a people” (Craig Broyles, Psalms, p. 427). This God, before whom the greatest forces of nature are as nothing, who causes the sea to flee and the mountains to skip like rams, has called a people to Himself.

How do we respond to such a God? Verse 7 gives us the answer: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.” We’ve been given free access into God’s presence, it’s true; but this is no place for flippancy. We need to remember who we’re approaching when we come before God. He’s the One before whom the earth trembles, before whom all the nations are only a drop in the bucket.

I spend a lot of time driving in my job, and a few months ago I started listening to audio books, which has been a great blessing. The first one I listened to was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. In this series of books, the Son of God appears as a great lion named Aslan. This is how the main characters respond when they first hear about him: “‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake’ said Mrs. Beaver, ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (pp. 75-76). Our God is not safe; but He’s good. We need to keep both of these things in mind when we enter His presence: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.”

But someone might ask, “is this really relevant to us? After all, we’re living under the New Covenant.” Does our God, revealed perfectly in Jesus, still inspire trembling? The authors of the New Testament seem to think so. The risen Lord appeared to Saul of Tarsus, who was on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians, and when He appeared Saul fell to the ground and cried out, “Who are you, Lord?” He was overwhelmed and temporarily blinded at the presence of Jesus. As a result, this persecutor of Christians became the apostle Paul. Jesus also appeared to John on the Island of Patmos; John was one of the twelve disciples and had been imprisoned at Patmos because of his faithful ministry. But listen to how he responded when the risen Lord appeared to him: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid” (Revelation 1:17). The risen Lord inspires trembling, even among those who are closest to Him. The author of Hebrews, who spends much of his letter contrasting the old and new covenants, reminds us: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:28-29).

Our God is good, but He’s not safe. He doesn’t submit to our petty desires and programs. He doesn’t cater to us. He comes to us as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When we perceive Him as He is, the first effect is fear and trembling. We’re humbled in His presence. We see the truth about ourselves and we find that we are undone. Who are we to appear in the presence of the Living God? He humbles us, and He transforms us. If we’ve encountered Him truly, we’re not the same as we were. We don’t laugh at our sins; we don’t casually say, “oh well, at least I know I’m going to heaven, no matter what else happens.” Our sins grieve us, because He has brought about a change. We may not understand what’s happened; we may not be able to explain it, but we know that we are different.

God is not just seeking to rescue a number of individuals from eternal destruction. He’s at work restoring His creation. He’s preparing a new heaven and a new earth, and He’s preparing a people to be the bride of His Son. The Exodus is a true historical event, but it points beyond itself to the ministry of Jesus. In Christ, we experience an exodus, a deliverance, from this world of sin and death: “He rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). The events described in Psalm 114 point forward to the ministry of Jesus; they’re fulfilled in Him. In Him we have received “every blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3), we’ve been set free from this world of sin and death and made part of His eternal kingdom. The proper response to this is not flippancy and presumption; the proper response is wonder and praise. How can it be that God would do such things for us? “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord.” Fall before Him in worship, and as we worship Him with reverence and awe, we will be increasingly transformed into His image.

Our God is not safe: “Nothing is secure when the God of liberation begins to make his move.” But He is good. His purposes are wiser than ours. He wants to restore us, make us into the kind of people we were created to be. Our liberating God changes everything He touches: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Do Not be Anxious, Luke 12:22-34

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College, PA

Early last week I woke up at 3am and started thinking about this sermon, how to frame the main questions, how to introduce everything, how to develop the main points. After awhile I realized that this was keeping me awake, so I turned from this subject but then found myself thinking about work. This was my final week at Strawberry Fields and there were many things I needed to get done before leaving. I thought for awhile about my paperwork, then about the clients I needed to call in the next few days; then I realized that this was keeping me awake, so I put it all aside, but a few minutes later I found myself dwelling on the guitar fingerboard, chord shapes, and things I want to learn about jazz harmony, classical pieces I'm working on. It was a lousy night's sleep (and I'm usually a pretty-good sleeper). I had to get up at 6 and managed to doze off a little before then, but it was not the kind of sleep I was hoping for.

Years ago I was teaching a class on prayer and the subject of meditation came up. One member of the class, a psychiatrist, said that mediation is like worry. When we meditate on something we think about it over and over again and visualize it in practice. We don't just think about it in the abstract as a topic for study, we enter into it imaginatively. And when we worry about something we do the very same thing: we enter imaginatively into what might happen in the future. That's what I was doing, entering imaginatively into the work I was planning to do over the next few days. But it wasn't helpful, because it kept me from doing what I really needed to do at that time; it kept me from sleeping. It kept me from living in the present moment.

In this passage, Jesus instructs His disciples not to worry, not to enter imaginatively into what might happen in the future but to live in the present moment, to be responsive to what God is doing at the present time because life is more than the things we worry about. It's good to ask ourselves, what are the things that are most important to us, the things we find ourselves thinking about when we are free to think about whatever we want? What is at the center of our lives?

It's important to understand what Jesus is talking about here when he says “do not be anxious.” I recently worked with a man who suffers with severe mental illness; he has schizophrenia and also experiences panic attacks. Sometimes, after driving, he thinks that maybe he clipped someone even though there is no reason to think he did. He is a Christian and is committed to following Christ. He spends much of his free time reading books that will help him grow in discipleship. But his perceptions of reality are often distorted by his mental illness, and simply telling him “don't be anxious” is not likely to be much help. And the severe anxiety he experiences, which often has a clearly physical dimension, is not the problem Jesus is addressing in this passage. No doubt he also struggles with worry of the kind we see here and would be helped in this area by paying attention to Jesus' instruction. But his panic disorder is something different from what Jesus is talking about in this passage.

Why do we worry? Why do we become anxious? Because we were created in the image of God with a desire for permanence and stability and we live in an unpredictable and constantly-changing world. Things go wrong. People we love die. We lose our jobs. Our lives in this fallen world are not stable or permanent. Things go horribly wrong and nothing we do can prevent this from happening. Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, was the pastor of a church just outside Baltimore and told of coming to the realization that many of the people in his congregation, people who were generally doing well financially, were living “huddled, defensive lives.” Their lives were focused on preserving what they had, defending and protecting their possessions and lifestyle. And Jesus' instructions in this passage are directed toward this kind of huddled, defensive living, an outlook on life that is primarily concerned with our possessions or the things we need to get done to get ahead in the world.

God often calls His people to a life of insecurity. Paul was a very successful Pharisee until Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus and called him to an uncertain future (in terms of life in this world). This is what Jesus said about him shortly after his Damascus Road experience: “I have picked him as my personal representative.... And now I'm about to show him what he's in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job” (Acts 9, The Message).. St. Francis of Assisi had it made when he was young. His father was a very prosperous merchant who was willing to hand the business over to his son; but God called Francis to leave all of this behind. Following Jesus often involves stepping out into uncertainty, depending on the faithfulness of God, the very opposite of huddled, defensive living.

The reason Jesus tells us not to worry is that life is more than the things we tend to worry about. Huddled, defensive living doesn't lead to the sort of abundant living Jesus was talking about when He said “I came so that they can have real and eternal life, more and better than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10, The Message). We can be so focused on getting more or getting ahead or protecting what we already have that we don't enjoy the life God has given us. Eugene Peterson tells a great story about John Muir, the 19th century explorer of the American West: He describes Muir as someone who“tramped up and down through our God-created wonders, from the California Sierras to the Alaskan glaciers, observing, reporting, praising, and experiencing–entering into whatever he found with childlike delight and mature reverence.” In 1874, he was staying at a friend’s cabin in the Sierra Mountains. A storm set in one December day, a fierce storm–trees were bending over backwards. Instead of retreating to the safety and security of the cabin, Muir left the cabin and entered the storm. He found a mountain ridge, climbed to the top of a giant Douglas Fir and held on for dear life “experiencing the kaleidoscope of color and sound, scent and motion.” Muir rode out the storm “relishing weather: taking it all in–its rich sensuality, its primal energy.” Peterson says this about the story. “The story of John Muir, storm-whipped at the top of the Douglas Fir in the Yuba River valley” is an “icon of Christian spirituality.” “A standing rebuke against becoming a mere spectator to life, preferring creature comfort to Creator confrontation.” ( Muir is a great example of entering into life at the fullest, the exact opposite of a huddled, defensive life.

How do we learn to live life to the fullest, resist the temptation to huddled, defensive living? Jesus uses the word “consider” two times in this passage. “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” He's saying “look around, observe God's care over His creation and know He will also care for you,” first, because you are of more value to Him than the ravens He provides for, and second, because He is your Father and as a perfect Father knows what your needs are. Reflect on what you know about God, consider your life in the light of God's constant care for His created order, knowing that He has adopted you into His family.

But this reflecting is more than an inward thing. We need to act out our reflections in daily life, knowing that “it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Our response to the things we know is rooted in God's goodness and willingness to give us what we could never earn. As we live in this world of buying and selling – of earning our own way – we need to often remind ourselves that this is not the way God deals with us.

This can be difficult to accept, especially for people who have worked hard and want credit for what they've accomplished. That's the point of the parable about the workers in the vineyard. The landowner hires workers in the morning and sends them out after having agreed on payment for the day's work. Others are hired at intervals, then near the end of the day he sends out some workers who hadn't been hired by anyone; and starting with these end-of-the day workers, he starts paying each their wages. When the latecomers receive the amount those hired in the morning had agreed to, those who have worked all day naturally expect to get more and are disgruntled with the landowner: “These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun” (Matthew 20, The Message). And the owner responds, “Are you going to get stingy because I am generous?” God doesn't deal with us in terms of buying and selling, earning our own way, getting what we feel entitled to. Here are verses 29-30 from our passage in The Message: “What I'm trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don't be afraid of missing out. You're my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.” Reflect on God's generosity.

This leads to the next step, which is to imitate God's generosity. Paul says in Ephesians 5, “be imitators of God.” He has freely given to us, so our calling is to give freely to others. Be generous toward those in need. But consider this: God's giving is not motivated by a desire to get something for Himself but simply reflects His own generosity. I knew a man, a few years ago, who expressed a desire to help some people in need. He knew these people and had the means to help; so he wrote to the pastor of the church and said what he was planning to do. He then asked about getting a tax credit for his contribution. But when he learned that this was not allowed if the money was designated for an individual family, he withdrew his offer. His generosity, in this case, was contingent on him getting a tax break. If we want to be imitators of God's generosity, we need to be willing to give without getting anything in return.

God gives without expecting anything in return, and He also honors us as people made in His image – despite our spiritual poverty – and He calls us to join Him in showing generosity. I've known many people whose primary concern in helping others is to make sure these people use the money carefully, that they are good stewards. One church I knew had a policy of never giving money to an individual or family; the family had to submit bills to the church for payment, even if the money had been given by an individual in the church specifically for that family's need. We need to know that being on the receiving end of this kind of giving can be a humiliating experience. It's better, I suggest, to show generosity and have our gifts misused – or used in ways we don't fully agree with – than to give in a way that devalues people. God cares more about these people in need than He does about the proper use of our money – and I'm not talking here about giving money to help people buy drugs. All-too-often it has seemed to me that churches are more concerned about protecting the money they're giving than they are about recognizing the value and dignity of the people they're trying to help. God calls us to give without expecting something in return and to give in a way that preserves the other person's dignity and self-esteem, even if we have to take risks in doing so. In doing this, we are storing up treasure in heaven: “Get yourselves a bank that can't go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on” (The Message).

He concludes this passage with “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” or, as it reads in The Message, “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.” The things that matter most to us are the things we end up thinking about most of the time. I recently read Grace Like a River, the autobiography of Christopher Parkening, one of the great classical guitarists of the 20th Century. I heard him speak in the mid-80's, and he told us his goal was to work hard and retire by the time he was 30. He was a gifted musician, endorsed by Andres Segovia as one of the greatest guitarists in the world, but his real passion was fly fishing; he saw his work as a concert performer as the way to achieve the freedom to fish full time.

And he was able to do that. He performed all over the world, recorded albums and published both method books and arrangements for other guitarists. By the time he was 30 he had enough money to retire. He stopped performing, dropped out of the music world, and bought a ranch in Montana. He spent all his time doing the things he wanted to do, but after awhile he found himself lost and disappointed. He was bored, lacking any sense of purpose or direction in his life. He had the life he had dreamed about, but it was not what he was hoping for.

What was his treasure? He was an amazing musician, with a career that most musicians dreamed of, but his real treasure was fly fishing, or having the freedom to do what he wanted all the time without having to work. But in the midst of his disappointment, realizing that his dreams were not what he was hoping for, he found himself confronted by Jesus Christ, and now he says that his entire focus was wrong. He eventually started performing again but put a sign on his music stand that said “Chris, what are you here for?” He recognizes now that his treasure is in heaven and that his calling in the present is to exercise the gifts God has given him in a way that brings glory and honor to his Creator. But he also recognizes the need to remind himself of this on a regular basis.

Our hearts will be where our treasure is. How do we know where our treasure is? By asking ourselves, “where does my mind go when it is free to go wherever it wants?” What kinds of things do we meditate on, enter into imaginatively, when we don't have to pay attention to anything else? Asking this question gives us an idea of where our treasure is at present. And if we discover that our treasure is something less than God, focused on what we can have in this life, we have the opportunity to repent and turn our lives to Jesus Christ, as Christopher Parkening did, knowing that God is faithful and will care for all our needs as we seek first His kingdom and righteousness. But this isn't a “once-and-done” thing. We need reminders, like Parkening's music stand. We, over and over, focus our minds on the things of God, meditating on His Word, turning to Him with brief prayers throughout the day, and in doing these kinds of things we train our minds to increasingly dwell on Him. May He enable us to be more and more aware of the treasure we have in heaven.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Living as Citizens of Heaven, Colossians 3:5-14

At the end of July, 1974, I began boot camp in the U.S. Navy. I had grown up in Northern California, and for the most part I was used to doing what I wanted. This was true for most of us who were together in the barracks on that first morning. Most of us were individualistic to an extreme. We didn’t like being told what to do; we thought our own plans and ideas were about as good as anyone else’s. But our first morning in the Navy began very abruptly. Drill instructors woke us up by throwing metal garbage cans on the cement floor, yelling at us to get up and get dressed, and then they literally chased us out onto the parade ground. And they lined us up in front of a big sign that said: “Welcome Aboard. You are now men of the United States Navy. The tradition of the service demands your utmost effort. Give it cheerfully and willingly.” The basic idea was: “You are now part of the U.S. Navy. Act like it.” Paul is saying something very similar in this passage. In verses 1-4, he has been stressing that this world is not our true home, that our citizenship is in heaven: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.... For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.... Put to death, therefore....” This word, “therefore,” shows that he is drawing a conclusion. It’s important, when we’re reading Scripture, to pay close attention to words like this. They tell us why the author is saying these things in this particular place. One of the greatest dangers, as we read Scripture, is taking things out of context, and transitional words like this help us stay on track. These ethical instructions that Paul is giving do not stand on their own. They grow out of the things he’s been saying throughout this letter. And, in particular, they follow naturally from what he said at the beginning of this chapter.

What he’s saying here is this: we live in this world as representatives of God’s kingdom, and our lives must be consistent with our citizenship. We’re not citizens of this world any longer. We’ve died and been raised with Christ, and our new life is now hidden with Him, at the right hand of God the Father. But this isn’t just a theological truth. It affects the way we live our lives in this world. The theological truth is essential; these instructions are really meaningless apart from the truth of our citizenship in heaven. But the theological truth is not meant to stand on its own either. Several years ago I read a review of a new book on New Testament theology; the reviewer said “this needs to be thoroughly discussed.” Theological truth is not something we spend our lives discussing over coffee. It affects the way we live our lives, and if it doesn’t affect our lives, we haven’t properly understood it. Our citizenship in heaven is to transform the way we live in this world. Our lives must reflect our citizenship.

Notice, first, that before we were in Christ, we lived like citizens of this fallen world. Paul says, in verse 7: “you used to walk in these ways.” Here it is in the New Living Translation: “You used to do them when your life was still part of this world.” Paul is assuming that there’s a difference between the way they live now and the way they lived in the past. And he’s also assuming that when they were citizens of this world, they lived like it. It’s important to realize that he’s describing a general approach to life here. Not all of them were involved in all the things he lists. Not all of them were sexually immoral. But his list is not only about outward behavior. It also addresses the condition of their hearts: “lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.” They all lived as citizens of a fallen world. Some of them may have lived morally upright lives, but they were still guilty of lust, evil desires and greed. They were all guilty of idolatry, because they worshiped and served something less than the one true God.

There are many similarities between this letter and the letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians seems to have been a circular letter, and it may have been sent out to all the churches of the region, along with Colossians and Philemon. At any rate, there are many parallels between these three letters. Here’s what he says in Ephesians about their past life: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3). We used to follow the ways of this world, we lived as citizens of this fallen world. And we lived under the certainty of God’s coming wrath. “Because of these [these things that characterized our lives when we were citizens of this world] the wrath of God is coming.”

The second thing to notice here is that as citizens of God’s kingdom we’ve received a new nature: “you have taken off your old self and put on the new self” (vv. 9-10). This new self “is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” Paul is not just interested in behavioral change. He’s not trying to turn them into moralists. Their behavior matters, but Christian holiness is a transformation from the inside out. He says similar things in many of his letters. He tells the Corinthians in his second letter (5:17) “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Or this, from the end of Galatians: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). The Galatians were concerned with outward conformity, they were seeking to be saved by doing good works. Circumcision was the first step in obedience to the Law, so for the Galatians, circumcision was central. But Paul says it’s not important in itself at all. What counts is this new nature, which is being renewed in the image of its Creator. Christian holiness is a transformation from the inside out.

This new nature that we’ve received is part of our citizenship in heaven. On that first morning in boot camp, we still had all of our individuality intact. We were dressed in civilian clothes, and some of us had long hair. The sign we were reading didn’t seem to fit us at the time: “Welcome Aboard. You are now men of the United States Navy.” But by the end of the day we were all clean shaven, dressed in Navy dungarees, and we all had short hair. All our civilian clothes had been boxed up and sent home. By the end of the day those words didn’t seem so strange. God hasn’t just told us to live as citizens of His kingdom. He’s given us a new nature to fit that kingdom. He’s given us the clothes we need to live as His people.

But having this new nature doesn’t automatically lead to holy living. God has made us citizens of His kingdom, and He’s outfitted us for living as His people, but there’s nothing automatic about the process. This leads to the third thing in this passage: we live as citizens of heaven by taking concrete steps of obedience, trusting in God’s power. Our assimilation to Navy life didn’t end with our new outward appearance. Over the next nine weeks, we were involved in daily training to turn us into functioning members of the U.S. Navy. God gives us a new nature, and then over the course of a lifetime He trains us to live as members of His kingdom.

I struggled for a considerable time after I became a Christian. I didn't grow up in a Christian home and was in boot camp within a month of my conversion, with almost no knowledge of the Bible or how to live as a Christian. I wanted to be faithful and I wanted to grow, but I didn't know what to do or where to turn for help. In those early months, I read through numerous pamphlets from various organizations, and it seemed that each one had a different solution to my dilemma. According to one, I just needed to let go and let Jesus do it all through me, but I couldn't tell exactly what that meant or how to do it. According to another, I simply needed to pray for, and believe that I had received, the filling of the Holy Spirit, so I prayed for this over and over again. Another person told me that what I needed was to receive the baptism with the Holy Spirit, and someone else told me that I needed to crucify the self. In the end, after trying all these solutions and more, I found myself still floundering.

It's not that all these suggestions were completely wrong. But they didn't tell me what I needed to know. I needed to know how to live as a Christian. I needed to know how to order my life to grow more into the likeness of Christ, and all the advice I received suggested that if I had the right experience, I would begin to live the Christian life more-or-less automatically. I remember several times walking back to my barracks, crying out to God, asking Him to take over my life, fully expecting Him to do so. But nothing ever happened, and I continued to flounder for more than a year.

Some years ago I learned that J.I. Packer had similar experiences in his early Christian life. Here’s part of his testimony: “What I seemed to be hearing... was a call to deny personal self, so that I could be taken over by Jesus Christ in such a way that my present experience of thinking and willing would become something different, an experience of Christ himself living in me, animating me, and doing the thinking and willing for me. Put like that, it sounds more like the formula of demon-possession than the ministry of the indwelling Christ according to the New Testament.... We used to sing this chorus: ‘O to be saved from myself, dear Lord, O to be lost in thee; O that it may be no more I But Christ who lives in me!” (Introduction to The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen, p. 9).

He goes on to describe how this was to work in practice: “Consecration meant total self-surrender, laying one’s all on the altar, handing over every part of one’s life to the lordship of Jesus. Through consecration one would be emptied of self, and the empty vessel would then automatically be filled with the Spirit so that Christ’s power within one would be ready for use. With consecration was to go faith, which was explained as looking to the indwelling Christ moment by moment, not only to do one’s thinking and choosing in and for one, but also to do one’s fighting and resisting of temptation.... At that time I did not know that Harry Ironside, sometime pastor of Moody Memorial Church, Chicago, once drove himself into a full-scale mental breakdown through trying to get into the higher life as I was trying to get into it; and I would not have dared to conclude, as I have concluded since, that this higher life as described is a will-o’-the-wisp, an unreality that no one has ever laid hold of at all, and that those who testify to their experience in these terms really, if unwittingly, distort what has happened to them. All I knew was that the expected experience was not coming. The technique was not working” (pp. 9-10). His experience was like mine: he cried out to God over and over, assuming that he was doing something wrong. But the experience never came.

The process is not automatic. We have a new nature, but at the same time we are given clear instruction on how to grow in Christlikeness. Much teaching on the subject of holiness, or the deeper life, is an attempt to find a shortcut, or a more-or-less automatic way to grow to Christian maturity. It’s based on the expectation that at some point God will take away our self-will and just live the Christian life through us, with no effort on our part. And these kinds of teachings always lead us down a dead end road. They lead us to pray and hope for something that God doesn’t choose to give. What I needed most as a new Christian was the very thing I was not finding.

We live as citizens of heaven by taking concrete steps of obedience. First, this includes the negative step of saying “no” to certain things. Look at verse 5: “Put to death... whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” Or verse 8: “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these.” “Do not lie to one another” (verse 9). The first step in discipleship is saying “no” to things that will lead us away from the Lord, things that are displeasing to Him, things that will undermine our relationship with God. How do we decide what these things are? Paul lists a few, but his list is not exhaustive. Notice his words “whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” and “all such things as these.” He’s just giving a few examples. He says, in Galatians 5, that “the acts of the sinful nature are obvious,” and then he gives a long list, which he concludes with the words, “and other kinds of sin” (New Living Translation). We don’t need to be in anguish over which particular things belong on the list. Most of them are obvious. But the right question is not, “am I allowed to do this?” We need to ask, instead, “where is this going to take me? Which direction is this headed? Will this lead me closer to the Lord, or is it taking me away from Him?”

This negative step is what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount, when He says: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29). Here is how this whole passage reads in The Message: “Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do. You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump” (Matthew 5:29-30). His point is not that we should literally maim ourselves, but that we need to be ruthless in removing things in our lives that lead us into sin. We need to “put to death,” or mortify, anything in our lives that has become a pathway to sin.

That’s the first step. We say “no” to those things that are inconsistent with our lives in Christ. Living as citizens of heaven means laying aside things that are in conflict with God’s sovereign rule in our lives. But Paul goes beyond this negative step. Look at verses 12-14: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive.... and over all these virtues put on love.” The whole point of saying “no” to the first list is to then say “yes” to these other qualities. It’s always tempting to begin defining our Christian lives by all the things we don’t do. The purpose of this first step, though, is to allow us to cultivate positive Christlikeness.

While I was living onboard the U.S.S. Piedmont, I had a friend who believed it was sinful to use musical instruments in worship. This, over time, became the defining idea in his Christian life. It was the thing he talked about when he talked at all about spiritual things. And he was very proud of his obedience in this area. But it got him into trouble. There weren’t a lot of choices for corporate worship on the ship, and all the available opportunities involved some use of musical instruments. This was so intolerable to him that he eventually cut himself off from corporate worship altogether. The interesting thing, though, is that he made very little attempt to live a consistent Christian life in any other area. But he considered himself superior to all the rest of us, because of this one area. When we define our Christian lives negatively, as he did, it often leads to some strange results and inconsistencies. He was perfectly comfortable listening to (and being influenced by) the music of Black Sabbath, but he couldn’t sing praise choruses with us, accompanied by a guitar.

This second step involves cultivating positive virtues. We don’t wait until we feel like acting in Christlike ways. We step out in obedience. We act in Christlike ways, whether we feel like it or not. Part of our trouble with the Christian life is that we so often overestimate the importance of our feelings. Our feelings are an important part of our humanity, but they are not at all reliable as indicators of what we should do. The interesting thing is that when we act in obedience, our feelings will follow eventually. Paul says we need to put on these Christlike characteristics; but he doesn’t say we need to feel these things all the time. We take these concrete steps of obedience, and over a lifetime we find ourselves cultivating godly habits. Eugene Peterson has wise counsel in this area: “Feelings are great liars. If Christians only worshiped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on. Feelings are important in many areas, but completely unreliable in matters of faith.... We live in what one writer has called the ‘age of sensation.’ We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different, namely, that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 50). We act in obedience, and eventually our feelings will follow along.

But we don’t do all this trusting in our own ability. We act in faith, trusting in God’s transforming power at work in us. We believe what Paul says in verses 1-4, that our true citizenship is in heaven, that God has made us part of His kingdom. We recognize our own powerlessness, our spiritual poverty. But God is at work in us, and He enables us to do the things He calls us to do. So we step out in obedience, trusting Him to carry on His work of transformation in us. There’s both an active and a passive side to this. We’re active, in the sense that we are taking concrete steps of obedience, in response to God’s Word. But we’re also passive, in the sense that we recognize our absolute need for God’s help and intervention.

The last thing we need to notice is this: all the virtues Paul lists here are ones which enable us to live together as a body of believers. He emphasizes that “Christ is all, and is in all” (v. 11). The false teachers were setting up artificial distinctions among the believers, so Paul wants to stress their oneness. “The new creation... is a society where the barriers that separate us from one another in this world are abolished.... Here there cannot be the deep divisions, national and traditional, tribal and geographical, social and cultural, that largely distinguish us from one another” (Lucas, p. 147).

They are to clothe themselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” all qualities which will reinforce their oneness as a body. They are to “bear with each other and forgive.” And above all else, they are to “put on love.” These aren’t the qualities we hear about in a political campaign. They’re not the sorts of things you’ll be taught in a business seminar. They’re not necessarily the qualities which will make us effective in accomplishing all our goals in this life. But as citizens of heaven, what we’re called to is Christlikeness. The positive qualities we’re to be cultivating over a lifetime are the attributes of our Lord Jesus Christ. We’re called to be like Him, and the more we become like Him, the more we’ll be enabled to experience unity in the church.

This is what it means to live as citizens of heaven. To persevere over a lifetime in cultivating Christlikeness; saying “no” to all those things that are displeasing to Him, taking concrete steps in obedience to His Word, and trusting only in the power of His Spirit to transform us into His image. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily hinders our progress. And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish. He was willing to die a shameful death on the cross because of the joy He knew would be His afterward. Now He is seated in the place of highest honor beside God’s throne in heaven. “Think about all he endured when sinful people did such terrible things to him, so that you don’t become weary and give up” (Hebrews 12:1-3, New Living Translation). May God enable us increasingly to model the life of His kingdom in this dark world.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Sufficiency of the Gospel, Galatians 1:1-10

Shiloh Lutheran Church, State College PA
May 29, 2016

Several years ago I met with a man who was hospitalized because of debilitating depression. He had been in the church all his life, but he was plagued by doubts about his salvation. He believed the gospel, and he knew that Jesus had paid the penalty for his sins, but when he was growing up in the church he had been taught that it was absolutely necessary to confess all his sins, and that any sins that hadn’t been confessed were unforgiven. Full, complete confession was a condition for salvation. So he was diligent about examining himself and confessing all his sins to God. He even confessed things that he wasn’t sure about, just in case. But he was plagued by the thought that maybe he had missed something; what if there were some unconfessed sins hidden somewhere? This man was genuinely concerned about his relationship with God, and the thought of being alienated from God by unconfessed sin filled him with horror. It finally reached the point where he was unable to function. He was in bondage.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about the gospel as a message of freedom. The Galatians were being influenced by false teachers who were bringing them into bondage, and this letter is Paul’s response to the situation. And it’s a message we need to hear today. The gospel is a message of freedom, but we too often spend our lives in a condition of bondage. Listen to these words by Eugene Peterson: “We live in a world awash in fantasies of freedom. We spend enormous sums of money and immense amounts of psychic energy on those fantasies. We fantasize a free life based variously on power, on sex, on fame, on leisure. Whole industries develop out of these fantasies. careers are shaped by them. But the world we live in is conspicuously and sadly lacking in the experience of freedom. The fantasies are barren: they give birth to nothing in word or deed. For all our elaborate and expensive fantasies, the actual lives that most people live are filled with impotence, boredom, obscurity, and hassle. Living in the land of the free has not made us free; we are a nation of addicts and complainers” (Traveling Light, p. 9).

Notice, first of all, that the gospel is primarily a message about what God has done for us. It’s not a message about what we’re supposed to do; it’s a message about what God has done. Paul has been sent to deliver this message. He’s an “apostle,” which means that he is one who has been sent out. That’s what the word “apostle” means. He’s a messenger, and he wants the Galatians to know where the message originated: “Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” The message itself, the gospel that Paul delivered to the Galatians, isn’t something he dreamed up. It’s not the product of his studies. It’s something he’s been given by God and sent out to deliver.

And the content of this message is that our Lord Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” Paul’s apostleship originates in God, and the message he’s been sent to deliver is about what God has done for us. The message is that God has done for us what we were powerless to do for ourselves. That’s the good news of the gospel, that all our debts before God have been paid in full.

The problem with this message, for many people, is that it humbles us. It treats us like spiritual beggars, people in need of a “handout.” It’s good news, but it begins with bad news about ourselves, the bad news that there is nothing we can do to free ourselves from bondage to sin and death. That’s part of the appeal of other “gospels.” They tell us: “It’s really not so bad. Deep down, you’re really a good person. You’ve just gotten off track, but if you make a sincere effort to follow this teaching, you’ll be fine.” The gospel is good news – that’s what the word “gospel” means – but it’s humbling to our pride, because it tells us that there is nothing in ourselves that we can contribute. It tells us that we are in bondage to sin and death and that there’s nothing we can do to free ourselves. That’s the bad news, the news that humbles us in our pride and self-sufficiency. But the good news is that although we can’t do anything to free ourselves, God “rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating” (Colossians 1:13-14, The Message).

Because of this, because the message is from God Himself and is about things He’s done for us (rather than things we can do for Him), any attempt to supplement the gospel amounts to a defection from it. When we seek to improve this message that God has given we end up turning away from it. We may think we’re just being conscientious, guarding the message against the possibility of being misinterpreted. Of course we still believe in salvation through Jesus Christ. But we want to make sure people obey the Law. The Galatians don’t think they’re turning away from the gospel; they’re just protecting it from people who would misuse it.

Here’s a good description of the process: “When men and women get their hands on religion, one of the first things they often do is turn it into an instrument for controlling others, either putting or keeping them ‘in their place.’ The history of such religious manipulation and coercion is long and tedious.... Paul of Tarsus was doing his diligent best to add yet another chapter to this dreary history when he was converted by Jesus to something radically and entirely different – a free life in God. Through Jesus, Paul learned that God was not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed ways, but a personal Savior who set us free to live a free life. God did not coerce us from without, but set us free from within” (Eugene Peterson, Introduction to Galatians in The Message). The Galatians had experienced this same freedom, but now some teachers were telling them this freedom wasn’t a good idea, that they really needed to supplement the gospel and start following the Old Testament Law.

The basic question is this: what is the foundation of our acceptance before God? Are we accepted on the basis of God’s mercy and grace displayed in Jesus Christ, or on the basis of our performance? Are we accepted by God because Jesus gave Himself for us to set us free, or because we’ve managed, for the present moment, to remember and confess every sin? Are we accepted because of what we do, or because of what God has done?

The problem with this message of freedom is that it will lead to abuse. If people begin thinking this way, they’ll just do whatever they want. If it’s true that “where sin has abounded, grace has abounded all the more,” people will begin thinking “let’s sin more, so that grace will abound more.” That’s what Paul was accused of teaching. But that’s a misunderstanding of the gospel. Christ died to set us free from this present evil age. If we’re living in bondage to sin, we haven’t been set free or we’ve not yet learned to live in the freedom that is ours in Christ. The freedom we receive in the gospel is not only a legal freedom. It includes that: we’re set free from the guilt of our sins. But the freedom of the gospel transforms every area of our lives and enables us to live in increasing freedom from the bondage of sin. And the foundation of our acceptance is not our success in learning to live as followers of Jesus Christ. The foundation of our acceptance is what God has already done for us.

We begin from a starting point of acceptance, and then, having been accepted, we learn to live in ways that please and honor Him. Here it is in Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access into this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (5:1-2). That’s our position: we’ve obtained access into grace, not through anything in ourselves, but “through our Lord Jesus Christ,” and now we are standing in grace. We’re not in the precarious position of wondering whether we’ve gotten it all right, whether we’ve missed something along the way which will plunge us into destruction. We’re standing in grace, boasting in the hope of sharing God’s glory.

That’s our position. We’re resting in the certainty of what God has done to free us from our bondage to sin and death. But when we lose sight of this, when our performance becomes the thing that makes us acceptable before God, we’re in the process of defecting from the gospel. We’re no longer resting in what God has done for us; we’re trying to find acceptance through what we can do for Him. We’re trying to save ourselves, rather than accepting God’s salvation. That’s what was happening in Galatia; that’s why Paul reacts with such horror: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” And that’s why he pronounces such a strong condemnation on the false teachers: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” This isn’t an issue where there’s room for disagreement. To tinker with the message of the gospel is to defect from the God of grace.

A good test of our spiritual condition is this: are we focused on ourselves – the things we’re doing for God – or are we focused on God and all He’s done for us in Christ? Are you constantly taking your spiritual pulse, wondering whether you’ve done enough, or whether you’ve neglected some area of duty. Are you weighted down with a sense of guilt, thinking maybe you’ve failed to confess all your sins or that maybe your “sinners prayer” didn’t “take?” You’ve gone through all the motions, but you’re not sure whether you’ve done it “right?” Or maybe these questions make you want to justify yourself: “of course I’ve done enough; what more does God want from me?”

Notice again Paul’s focus in these verses. Everything revolves around God. Paul’s apostleship wasn’t his idea. He had other plans for his life, then God intervened and set him apart to deliver a message. Paul had one of the most brilliant minds in the ancient world, but God sent him to deliver a message that wasn’t his own; God humbled him and said, “here’s what I want you to do with your life, and here’s the message I want you to deliver.” It’s all centered in God. But look, also, at verse 10: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people I would not be a servant of Christ.” We know, from reading the New Testament, that Paul displeased a lot of people. Eventually, in the early 60's under the emperor Nero, this led to his execution. Paul’s calling, his message, and even his death, were focused on God. Near the end of his life, when he was writing to Timothy, Paul referred to himself as the foremost of sinners: “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). Even at the end of his life, with all that he, as an apostle, had learned and accomplished, and with all his growth in holiness and obedience, the foundation of his hope was that Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.”

John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” was speaking from experience when he wrote “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” In his early life he was a sailor and a slave trader. He said this about himself: “I never met a man with a more vile mouth than mine. I wasn’t even content with the common oaths everyone knew. I invented new ones everyday – some so vivid that the captain, a blasphemer himself, would bawl me out” (quoted by Frank Boreham, When Scripture Changes Lives, p. 71). He was in such bondage to sin that unbelievers began to find him intolerable. But God showed him mercy, and until the end of his life Newton was overflowing with gratitude to God for His amazing grace. Near the end of his life, he met a friend in the street and said to him, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!” (P. 78). The Galatians had forgotten what great sinners they were and what great mercy and grace God had shown them. They were beginning to think that maybe they could contribute something to the process after all. And it was leading them into bondage.

When we’re focused on ourselves, we end up in bondage. This is true whether we’re absorbed with the things we want or the things we think we have to do to become acceptable in God’s sight. That’s why Paul is writing this letter to the Galatians. They had been set free by the gospel of grace, and now they’re coming again under the bondage of the Law. Self-absorption leads to bondage, but when we become absorbed with God and with the great things He’s done for us, we experience freedom. That’s why Paul, like John Newton, didn’t gloat at the end of his life about all the great things he’d accomplished. He was too absorbed with the great things God had done in showing him mercy and grace. He was aware that he didn’t deserve such mercy, and he never quite got over the wonder of it. Here’s what John Newton had written on his gravestone: “John Newton, Clerk, Once an Infidel and Libertine, A Servant of Slaves in Africa, was by the Mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Preserved, Restored, Pardoned, And Appointed to Preach the Faith he had so long labored to destroy” (p. 78). First he describes what he became on his own, then he says what Jesus did for him.

The Galatians were in the process of forgetting all this, so Paul begins by reminding them that the gospel is a message of deliverance, it’s the message that Jesus Christ “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” Writing to believers facing a similar temptation, the author of Hebrews writes, “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (2:2). We’re not in a position to add to this gospel; it’s been given to us. Our duty is to receive it gratefully and to hold to it firmly until the end of our lives.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Paul's Charge to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4:1-8

Several years ago, some friends of mine were at a training seminar for pastors. The leader was speaking on the importance of theological reflection, encouraging pastors to take theology seriously. During one of the discussions, a pastor stood up and said, “I’m not interested in all that stuff; I just want to love people.” In his view, pastoring has nothing to do with theology. Pastoring is about loving people. I’ve heard this man preach several times, and I’ve been in meetings with him, and the thing that is overwhelmingly clear is that his ministry is centered on people. As a preacher he wants to give people things that will help them live their lives; in leading worship, he seeks to give people music that makes them feel good. He’s a nice guy. But I’ve never sensed much of God about him, either in his preaching, his worship leadership, or private conversation. His ministry is human-centered, intentionally so. Whatever else we might say about this, it’s just the opposite of how Paul carried out his ministry and what he has in mind for Timothy. Think, for example, of his letters to the Romans and the Ephesians. Although Timothy is called to minister to people, Paul doesn’t want his ministry to be people-centered; in these verses Paul is calling Timothy to a God-centered life and ministry.

The first thing I want to point out is that Paul’s perspective is dominated by an intense awareness of God. Notice how he places this charge in the context of eternity: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom.” Here it is in The Message: “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. Christ himself is the Judge, with the final say on everyone, living and dead. He is about to break into the open with his rule, so proclaim the Message with intensity....” The primary focus here is not Paul’s vision for the church or the future of Timothy’s career. Paul urges Timothy to carry out his ministry with an awareness of God’s call and constant presence, knowing that he will one day give an account of his stewardship.

This is intensified by the fact that Paul himself is facing the end of his life. Immediately after this passage, Paul says: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.” He’s doing something more here than passing on information. He is handing the baton to Timothy; he’s saying, “I’ve finished what God has called me to do; it’s now time for you to carry on with the work.” This idea comes across well in The Message: “You take over. I’m about to die, my life an offering on God’s altar.” Paul, knowing that he is going to die soon, is able to say, “keep going; it’s worth it to get to the end and know that you’ve completed the work God called you to do. Don’t give up.”

Our culture idealizes youth, and our society is littered with the spectacle of middle-aged adults who wish they were still adolescents. But many of the greatest examples I’ve known of godly living have been people who’ve followed Jesus for a lifetime, who have sought him and experienced His grace through the whole spectrum of life experiences and are able to look back and testify, from experience, to God’s faithfulness. I spent two weeks with a 92-year old missionary in North India in 1978, and he so deeply impacted my life that I still think about him often. Being around him made me want to seek God. There is great value in walking with God for a lifetime. The ministry of the gospel takes place in the context of eternity, in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ. God is our focus in the Church; God is our starting point; He is what we are about when we gather together for worship. Paul is reminding Timothy that this is where his attention needs to be: “I charge you in the presence of God.”

The second thing is that the problems Timothy is confronting result from the Church losing its focus on God. Paul emphasizes this at the beginning of his first letter to Timothy: “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith” (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Some of the people have become distracted from the truth and are beginning to dabble in things that don’t promote the life of faith, things that occupy their attention and appeal to their sense of curiosity but don’t feed their souls by leading them into God’s presence. We see this concern continuing in 2 Timothy. Paul warns Timothy that a time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, or sound teaching. “They will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth.” Notice what the focus is here; it’s not on God, it’s on themselves. They don’t care about the truth; they don’t care about sound teaching; they want to be entertained, and if Timothy caters to them he will be guilty of unfaithfulness to his calling.

This is a great danger in our consumer-driven society, where people are increasingly programmed to see everything, including the church, in terms of buying and selling. People in America are used to getting what they want, and if we don’t give it to them they’ll go somewhere else to find it. And all too often they see ministers of the gospel as sellers of religious products, especially the religious product of a good feeling on Sunday morning, something to get them through the week that’s ahead. Many churches see this as an opportunity to draw people in, as in this advertisement from a church web site: “We’re a group of ordinary people who have discovered the benefits of an active Christian life-style....Our informal, upbeat meetings will give you the lift you need to face the coming week.... [Our pastor’s] practical, positive messages deal with the pressures and problems we all encounter. [He] shares biblical solutions that make life more fulfilling.” Here’s the question: is God at the center? What is the main concern of this church? Paul left Timothy behind in Ephesus because the church there was losing its focus on God; in trying to cater to people’s interests and desires, the church had gotten off track. And churches in America are in precisely the same position; their greatest need (even if it is not their greatest desire) is for ministers of the gospel who are willing, at all costs, to keep God in the center, to preach sound doctrine in His name and in His presence.

The third thing is this: Paul is reminding Timothy that his ministry is a stewardship. His calling is to preach God’s Word. The message he’s been entrusted with doesn’t belong to him; it’s not under his control. Paul is reminding Timothy that, as a minister of the gospel, he is not free to stand up and talk about whatever suits him at the moment or whatever he thinks people want to hear or will listen to. He’s bound by a sacred trust to preach the Word. One of the great things about expository preaching is that it forces a minister to talk about things that he wouldn’t choose to speak on, left to himself. But if it is there in the passage and he’s bound himself to preach the Word, he’s called to lay aside his own interests and desires and preach what has been handed to him.

Paul’s basic charge is “preach the Word,” and he expands on this in the following phrases: “be urgent in season and out of season, rebuke, warn and encourage, be unfailing in patience and in teaching.” Timothy isn’t being given a list of separate duties; he’s being told how to go about preaching the Word. He’s to preach it with conviction and urgency, whether or not it comes at a convenient time. The 4th century Church Father, John Chrysostom, said this in a sermon on 2 Timothy: “Therefore, let food, and bathing, and banqueting, and the other necessities of life have a definite time. But let instruction about the love of truth from above have no set hour – let all the time belong to it.” God doesn’t bow to our convenience. He often breaks through into our lives at the most inconvenient times, as Paul himself experienced on the way to Damascus, while he was zealously pursuing his career as a Pharisee.

Paul goes on: “rebuke, warn and encourage.” He is to rebuke those who have fallen into sin, like the prophets did over and over during the period of the Kings, when Israel fell into idolatry. He is to warn those who are in danger of turning away, as we see, for example, in the repeated warnings in the letter to the Hebrews. And he is to encourage those who are gripped with a sense of their own weakness and frailty, who wonder how they will ever make it to the end of the journey. Notice the proportions: two negative terms and one positive. Preaching the Word involves telling people things they don’t want to hear. Promises like the one I mentioned earlier, “Our pastor’s practical, positive messages deal with the pressures and problems we all encounter. [He] shares biblical solutions that make life more fulfilling,” are a commitment to unfaithfulness. A minister of the gospel does not have the freedom to preach only “practical, positive messages.” He’s bound by the Word of God to preach what he finds there and to apply it to people who are responding to God in different ways. To those who are persisting in disobedience, the message is not a positive one; it’s a message of rebuke, a call to repentance. Those who are facing temptation need to be warned of the danger of following through. But then, there also needs to be a message of comfort. God’s conviction of sin always leads to an invitation to grace.

All this is to be done with patience and careful instruction. Careful instruction is rooted in a knowledge of, an immersion in, God’s Word. Paul reminded Timothy of this in the passage immediately preceding this one: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the Sacred Writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Timothy has been instructed in the Scriptures, and Paul urges him to continue immersing himself in Scripture, equipping himself for the preaching of the Word.

But these things are not a prescription for instant success. Contrary to our American desire for instant results, the ministry of the gospel is a slow work that requires patience. We may get off to a good start with “40 Days of Purpose” or something of that sort, but that start needs to be followed by a lifetime of cultivating God’s presence, following Jesus in the way of the cross. However much we might wish otherwise, there are no shortcuts in the life of faith. One of the best illustrations I’ve heard of this is from Eugene Peterson: "About a month ago we were just home from vacation and refreshed, ready to go again. The telephone rang. It was about 10:00 at night and on the other end of the line was a woman to whom I have been pastor for 26 years. When I entered this parish, she was 12 years old. Now she is 38. I confirmed her, married her, went through her divorce with her, went through a couple of deaths, depression, attempted suicide, ordained her into the leadership of the church, stood by as she left the church one year, opened the door as she came back the next year, prayed with her, listened to her. This night listening to her on the telephone I thought, ‘I have been her pastor for 26 years and she is not any better.’ After I hung up my wife said, ‘Who was that?’ I said, ‘That was Regina. We are not very good at this, are we?’ And Jan said, ‘Remember the kingfisher?’ And I remembered the kingfisher. We had been sitting at the shoreline of a lake in Montana and watching the kingfisher fish. The kingfisher is the ‘king’ fisher, the best fisher, the bird that knows how to fish. This kingfisher was sitting on a dead limb out over the lake, preparing to fish. It is fun to watch a kingfisher fish. This kingfisher plummeted to the water and missed his fish 27 times. The kingfisher missed and missed and missed ‑ and then, on the 28th try, he got one, a little three inch fish. Jan said, ‘Remember the kingfisher?’ I said, ‘I remember ‑ and it has only been 26 years.’ That is the context for spiritual formation. If you are in a hurry, you probably should not do it, because it is messy and lengthy and marked by much failure ‑ burrowing into the soil of your place, your people, your congregation, your own life, sticking with it creatively, waiting for creation and covenant to form.” “Preach the Word... with great patience.”

So Paul gives his charge to Timothy, then warns him that a time is coming when people won’t tolerate sound doctrine, when they will gather to themselves teachers who will tell them what they want to hear, and he says, “but you....” “All these things are going to happen, but don’t go along with it; don’t be swayed by it; don’t cater to what these people want.” “But you – keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant” (The Message). Don’t panic; keep your head. Don’t scramble to fix every problem that comes along. Keep preaching the Word, even when people are pressuring you to do something that seems more effective. Endure hardship; don’t expect everything to work the way you want it to; don’t expect to have an easier road than Jesus did. Follow Him in the way of the cross. Do the work of an evangelist; preach the Gospel. Discharge all the duties of your ministry; the stress is on faithfulness in fulfilling his calling. The work of the ministry is not measurable; it can’t be judged by the world’s terms. It’s measured by faithfulness in following Jesus in the way of the cross.

Time is passing quickly. Some days and weeks seem to last forever, but our lives pass by sooner than we can believe. “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” live in the light of eternity, knowing that you are all stewards of God’s grace. May God enable us all to say on that day, with Paul, “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Fruit of Spiritual Blindness, Luke 4:21-30

Shiloh Lutheran Church            
January 31, 2016

Years ago I was supposed to run a slide show for the organization I was working with, but about a day before the meeting I was given another job and had to train another guy to do it. I was going through the slides with him and said, “the music is in 4/4 time, so just change the slide every two measures.” He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, so I played the song for him—the song had a very strong beat—and counted out the rhythm; I then said “just change the slide every eight beats.” He told me that made absolutely no sense, that he had no idea what I was talking about. In the end, we went through the song together and identified where to change the slides based on the song’s words because musical rhythm was incomprehensible to him.

I’ve often heard people testify that after turning to Christ their whole outlook has changed, that they’re able to see things that they couldn’t see before. They’ve heard the gospel preached numerous times but it has never made sense. They’ve tried reading the Bible but it’s been a closed book; they haven’t been able to get into it; it’s meant nothing to them. But then something happened and a whole new world opened up. John Newton refers to this in his hymn, Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” He was blind, but now he’s been enabled to see things he could never see before.

In this gospel reading we encounter people who are blind, who are utterly unable to see who Jesus is. With that in mind, listen to these words from 2 Corinthians 4: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (vv. 3-4). We need to know that spiritual blindness is connected with certain behaviors, with certain patterns in our lives. It’s not something that just happens to a person, like catching a virus. Our gospel reading gives us a graphic demonstration of how it works out in one particular case. 

Jesus is in His hometown of Nazareth. He visits the synagogue, reads from Isaiah, then announces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The people are impressed and startled. They’re “amazed at His gracious words.” Clearly they are confronted here with something they aren’t prepared to accept. They’ve heard reports about what Jesus has been doing, and hearing Him in person startles them: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The parallel account in Mark’s gospel goes into more detail in describing their reaction: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.” (Mark 6:3). They’re amazed, both by the reports they’ve heard and by the gracious words He is speaking, but they take offense at Him. Why? It all sounds so promising and positive. Why do they take offense, since He is doing and speaking such great things?

The first thing is that they are blinded by their familiarity with Jesus. They think they know Him; they think they know all they need to know about Him. He’s the carpenter, after all; they know His brothers and sisters. They’re in the presence of the Word made flesh, but they’re blinded by the fact that they know His family and knew Him as a child. They know His occupation: He’s a carpenter, for goodness sake; it’s not like He’s been trained in the rabbinical schools. How can He be doing and saying these great things? Who does He think He is?

Familiarity can blind us to mystery. We get to know something, or someone, and we think we know all there is to know. We reduce reality to our experience: “I’m not that impressed; obviously there’s not much here.” A friend of mine told me about talking to some neighbors of a well-known missionary who had spent his entire career in North Africa, a very difficult mission field. He had written a number of books and was someone we both looked up to. So my friend asked what he was like and they responded, “oh, he’s not very impressive.” He didn’t have a lot of natural charisma, so they wrote him off. “Obviously he doesn’t have anything to offer us.” What he had to offer wasn’t evident on the surface, but he had a lifetime of walking with God in very difficult circumstances; he had remained faithful over the long term despite many temptations to throw in the towel. But they missed it because they couldn’t see anything impressive at first glance.

There is more to people than what we see on the surface, more than what we perceive in our superficial dealings with one another. The people of Nazareth were blinded by the assumption that they knew all they needed to know about Jesus, and the same thing is often true in our own experience of one another. Opening our minds and our hearts to the reality of mystery around us can be the first step in allowing God to heal us of our blindness. Simply opening our minds to the thought that there might be something more than what we are aware of can be a step in the direction of allowing God to open our eyes. 

The second thing is that the people were blinded by a sense of entitlement: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum” (v. 23). This, together with His words in vv. 24-27, is what leads them to react with violence. Jesus is saying that Gentiles have received God’s blessing in the past at times when Israel has rejected it. He’s saying that being part of a certain group doesn’t entitle them to anything from God.

God’s promises are intended for the whole world, and this is certainly illustrated in these two stories. We could legitimately see them as a foretaste of the book of Acts, in which the gospel goes out into all the world. But this does not mean that there are no outsiders, that everyone is now accepted, that all we need to do now is open the doors and extend our boundaries. The call of the Church is to preach the gospel to every creature and welcome all who respond with faith. And the reason we need to preach the gospel is because we are all outsiders by nature. The gospel begins with bad news, not with a general statement that God now accepts us as we are and doesn’t care much how we order our lives. The gospel is good news because we all, by nature, are in desperate need.  

Paul reminds the Ephesians, “remember that you were... without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). They weren’t people in need of acceptance, they were people in need of redemption. They were people in need of rescue. They were outsiders to the kingdom of God. That’s the truth about us, apart from the promises of the gospel. The gospel comes to us as good news, because we, in our natural state, are “without hope and without God in the world.” And the consistent message of Scripture is that those who reject God’s promises remain outsiders because they refuse to bow before God’s lordship. Jesus, after all, talks about separating the sheep from the goats, and the goats are those who will remain, throughout all eternity, outsiders.

God’s call to Abraham was intended to bring salvation to the world. God said to him, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). But the people of Nazareth have narrowed everything down. They think God’s promises belong to them alone and that if Jesus is doing great things He should be doing them in their town for their benefit. It angers them to hear that others, Gentiles even, might receive something that belongs to them. Here’s the problem: God is gracious and merciful, but we are entitled to nothing from Him. When we think we deserve something from God, we become blind to His grace and mercy. We become blind to our own sin and unworthiness, and we begin to think that God is obligated to bless us. And the further we go down this path, the more we become hardened. 

The third thing is that their familiarity and sense of entitlement lead them to react violently to Jesus’ words. They become angry and seek to destroy Him. “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” For some reason, several commentators insist that this is not a miracle, that Jesus simply manages to escape in the confusion of the moment. I’m not sure why this is so important to them, but it seems like an unlikely explanation. It’s not like the crowd doesn’t know what He looks like. He grew up in their town and He’s been speaking to them publicly. They don’t succeed in killing Him, because His time has not yet come. Their attempt to kill Him is unsuccessful, because God, in His sovereign purposes, intervenes; Jesus is going to die, but not yet and not in their town.

This is not primarily a story about accepting one another; it’s a story about God’s sovereignty. The emphasis is on God and what He is doing. Unfortunately, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is often surrounded by confusion and controversy. It’s the sort of thing people tend to argue about but get no further than that. What does God’s sovereignty mean, primarily? It means that He is the Sovereign, that He is the King. It means that He is in charge and we are not. When we think we’re entitled to something from God we’re forgetting who we are. We’re seeking to “be like God.” God’s sovereignty also means that He is free to act according to His own wisdom and purposes without consulting us. The two Old Testament examples Jesus uses are about God acting in ways that don’t fit their expectations of Him, and they respond with rage. Why are they so angry? Because they want to be like God. They want to have control over Him. They want Him to act according to their expectations. Everything within them cries out against what Jesus is saying and they attack Him, seeking to kill Him. They reject Him completely and finally. We don’t know that He ever visited Nazareth again. They close the door on Him and on His words.

Let’s remind ourselves of what Jesus read which led to all this, the prophecy which Jesus said “is fulfilled in your hearing.” He read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He’s come with a message of hope for the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. The gospel is addressed to people in need who recognize their neediness, who come to Him with empty hands. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Those who think they’re entitled to claim anything from God are blind. They’re thinking they can demand something that God only gives as a sheer gift. As long as they hold onto their sense of entitlement, they will be blind to the reality of who they are and who God is. The gospel is only for those who are willing to let go of their sense of entitlement and come to Jesus with empty hands. “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling.”

So what about us? Have we allowed our familiarity with Scripture, hearing these things over and over, to blind us? Do we encounter the Bible as a word from God or as just one more thing to get out of the way, so that we can move on to what we really want to do? If familiarity is blinding you to the wonder of the gospel, cry out to God for healing and mercy. Ask Him to heal your blindness and enable you to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Do you feel entitled? I spoke with a man some years ago who was angry at God. He had been raised in the church and had done the things he thought he was supposed to do; he’d attended church and read his Bible. But his life hadn’t gone the way he wanted it to. He said, “I did what I was supposed to do, but God hasn’t held up His end of the bargain.” He was embittered against God, because he felt entitled to a different life than the one God had given him. His spiritual life had shriveled to nothing; he had been blinded by a sense of entitlement. If you struggle with this sort of thing, look again at Jesus on the cross, paying the price for our sins. We are, by nature, children of wrath, Paul tells the Ephesians. The only reason we have for hope is that Jesus paid in full the debt for our sins. We’re entitled to nothing. What we deserve, what we’re entitled to, is eternal separation from God. Our only hope is in the sheer mercy and grace of God.  

God is God, and we are not. He is sovereign; He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Our most fundamental temptation is the one the serpent used on Eve: “you will be like God.” It comes to us over and over again in a variety of ways. If you’ve lost sight of God’s sovereignty, if you have begun thinking that God should do things the way you want, take some time this afternoon and meditate on the last three chapters of Job. Job, remember, suffers horribly at the beginning of the book. He responds well, but as time goes on he begins to doubt God’s goodness; he begins to think that God is treating him unfairly. So in chapters 40 and 41, God asks Job a series of questions which remind him of who he is. Read and meditate on those questions in God’s presence. After God questions him, Job respond: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). Humble yourselves before God and ask Him to open your eyes anew to the wonder of His gospel. We need, over and over again, to remind ourselves of who we are and who God is. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” May He open our eyes and enable us to receive the good news of the gospel with empty hands. “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).