‘The Flesh, The Spirit, And The Kingdom Of God’ – Gal. 5:16-26 – November 17th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 5, verses 16 through 26.

I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance—as I told you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. 26 We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Let’s pray.

*

There’s a handful of terms Paul uses in today’s passage that we need to clearly define. And by the time we’ve finished defining them, it’ll be about time to head out so we can all beat the Methodists to lunch.

We need to define what Paul means when he says, “flesh.” And we need to define what Paul means when he says, “Spirit.” And we need to define what Paul means when he says, “Kingdom of God.”

Now, your translation might say something very different than mine. When Paul says the term, “flesh,” your translation might say “sinful flesh,” instead. Or it might say “sinful desires.” Probably the best translation would be “sin nature.”

You could translate verse 21 as “Nobody walking intentionally in sin will inherit the Kingdom of God.” Or you could translate verse 17 as “The Spirit desires different things than your sinful nature desires.” That would be a less literal translation, but it captures what it means better than the term, “flesh.”

Because flesh sounds like Paul’s talking about your “body,” right? Ever heard a sermon where somebody got up in the pulpit and said, “Your soul’s good, but your body’s sinful. So what you really need to do is get rid of that body.” Right?

One time, I heard a guy say that “One day, God will take your soul up to heaven and you won’t struggle with sin anymore, because your unclean and sinful body will be a thing of the past.”

And that sounds real nice, and it’s pretty simple and easy to understand but it’s just not biblical.

Because when Paul says that the “desires of the flesh” are against the “desires of the Spirit” he’s not saying that your body’s bad but your soul is good. He’s using a “figure of speech.”

We use a lot of figures of speech. We use so many that we usually don’t realize that we’re using them, right? 500 years from now, some archaeologist is going to be combing through whatever written documents are left from our civilization and if they don’t have a solid grasp on how people use figures of speech in everyday conversations they’re going to think that, for whatever reason, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries cats and dogs regularly fell from the sky in the Americas.

They’re going to read some journal entry from somebody living in Spokane, WA, that says it was “raining cats and dogs” today, and they’ll say, “OK, so that’s what it was like before the ice caps melted.”

Paul’s using a figure of speech.

Because the term that is frequently translated as “flesh” has nothing to do with literal, actual, flesh, and has everything to do with the way that your sin nature clings so tightly to you that it’s like the skin on your bones, except it’s tighter than your skin and deeper than your bones.

Doesn’t that ring true? Like, I don’t know about you, but there’s something in me that just sabotages everything I do. It’s like there’s a little terrorist just living inside my brain or something, and he bends everything toward selfishness. He bends everything towards bitterness. He regularly tries to destroy relationships and wreck my marriage and so on and so forth – he bends everything in me towards brokenness.

But there’s no point talking about him in the 3rd person. He doesn’t live in my brain. He’s not a tiny little terrorist sabotaging me. He’s just me.

The person sabotaging my life is me, right? I can run from my problems, but I am my problems.

(Slow): That’s my sin nature. And people would use the term “flesh” back in the day to describe that phenomenon because you can’t take your sin nature off any easier than you could take off your own skin.

So that’s the first term we needed to define: “Flesh.”

But there’s another term. Because he also uses the term “Holy Spirit.” And what I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t just assume that people know what you’re talking about when you say that.

Paul says that we have the “Holy Spirit.” But what is the Holy Spirit?

The short version is that the Holy Spirit what you get when you get God. I need to clarify that sentence, too. Because the Holy Spirit is not some kind of weird force that flows through things. It’s not a feeling that you have when we dim the lights in church and play a song by Chris Tomlin. The Holy Spirit is a person.

The Holy Spirit is God, every bit as much as Jesus is God, every bit as much as the Father is God. The Holy Spirit is the 3rd person of the Trinity, and I don’t know how that works.

What I do know is that we see the Holy Spirit all throughout the Old Testament: In Genesis chapter one, God’s Spirit is hovering over the waters of nothingness like a dove before God creates everything. So the Holy Spirit helps create everything.

And throughout the Old Testament, we see the Holy Spirit “descending on” important people in Israel – the Spirit rests on Joshua and empowers him to lead Israel through the wilderness after the death of Moses.

The Spirit descends on the prophets and empowers them to speak God’s truth into the lives of others. The Spirit descends on the priests and empowers them to guide God’s people as spiritual leaders. The Spirit descends on David and empowers him to govern God’s people as a godly king. So there’s a pattern.

But something changes after Jesus arrives.

In the early chapters of Matthew, we see Jesus visiting John the Baptist out in the wilderness, and John sees a dove – the same dove that hovered over the waters of creation in Genesis – he sees that dove, God’s Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus, just like he descended on the prophets, and the priests, and the kings in the old days – and so John knows that Jesus is somebody with an important role in God’s mission.

But he also knows that Jesus is more than Joshua, and he’s more than David, and he’s more than just a prophet or a priest, or a king. Because something in John cries out with joy and we see him pointing towards Jesus and saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

That’s quite the sentence. That’s high praise. But it’s not just “high praise.”

Because when John says that, what he’s saying is that Jesus is the person who’s gonna fix that bridge we broke when we abandoned God in the Garden of Eden. Jesus is the one who’s gonna bring us back to God.

And he does.

One of my favorite passages of scripture is 1 Peter ____. And it says that Christ “suffered once for all,” the “righteous one” for the “unrighteous many,” to “bring us to God,” after being “put to death in the fleshly realm” and “made alive in the Spiritual realm.”

That’s a weird sentence. There’s a lot of those, here. But it says a lot.

It says that Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” and he brings us to God by suffering for our sin. It says that Jesus doesn’t just get punished for our sin so that we are no longer counted as sinners, although that’s certainly there. There’s more.

It says that what we get in the death of Jesus is we get God. It says that Jesus brings us to God, and Jesus brings God to us. It says that what you get in redemption is you Get God in a way you could not have him beforehand.

It’s like Ezekiel where God promises that, “I will pour out my Holy Spirit on you.” He says, I will give you myself. It says that we were separated from God when we abandoned him in the garden and we could not go back, but God says I will make a way to give myself to you.

So when Acts chapter 1 rolls around, Jesus ascends into heaven, but he says “I will send a counselor to you.” Your translation might just go straight for the jugular and say, “I will send my Spirit to you.” And what he’s saying is that the Holy Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation, and who descended on the prophets, priests and kings in the old testament, and who descended on Jesus when he visited John the Baptist now descends on you.

That Holy Spirit now lives in you. Jesus brings us to God, and in something I can’t really explain or understand, he brings God to us.

And what that means is that you are citizens of God’s kingdom again. You are a citizen of God’s kingdom. Christ has brought you back you back to God so closely that he says in Luke 17 that the Kingdom of God is within you. That the Kingdom you were banished from in the Garden isn’t closed off to you anymore. And it’s so not closed that it’s quite literally inside you. It says “the Kingdom of God is within you” because Christ has placed it within you, because he has sent his Holy Spirit to live in you and transform you.

So that’s the third term that we need to define: “God’s kingdom.”

Because reading through the gospels, it eventually becomes clear that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he isn’t talking about “heaven.” He’s not talking about a place you go when you die. And he’s not even really talking about a place. Even in translations where it says “kingdom of heaven” instead of kingdom of God,” it becomes clear soon enough that Jesus isn’t talking about someplace you go when you kick the bucket. The “Kingdom of God” is not a place, because soon enough, it’ll be every place, everywhere.

Instead, reading through the New Testament, eventually it becomes clear that the kingdom of God is what happens when God gets ahold of us and transforms us by grace so that we abandon the “desires of the flesh” and instead submit to the Holy Spirit’s good work in transforming us.

(Shift gears): So I like the way 2 Timothy describes it. It says we are “given repentance.” That’s a good sentence. We are “given repentance” from the outside. We are transformed from the outside. We are transformed from people who are not repentant into people who are desperately and joyfully repentant. God makes us desperately and joyfully repentant.

Now, when I say “joyfully repentant,” what I mean is joyfully repentant. Repentance is joyful. Right? More than that, repentance is joy.

Because here’s what repentance is not: Repentance is not a call to feel bad all the time. You know what I’m talking about? Like, most of the time when we hear about repentance what people mean is walking around with your head hung low, sorry that you exist.

Like, 90 percent of the messages I’ve heard throughout my life about repentance boiled down to, “You don’t hate yourself enough, you need to hate yourself more.” Right? And in a weird way, that becomes its own kind of “works-righteousness.” It become an arms-race to see who can hate themselves the most deeply and trash-talk themselves the most aggressively, as though God takes special favor on you the more you pile on yourself.

Like, you know that old Ben Franklin quote that says “God Helps those who help themselves”? It kinda mutates into “God helps those who hate themselves.” Right? So you get people walking around, diving headlong into the same sinful patterns week in and week out, year in and year out, mumbling to themselves that they’re worthless and terrible and no-good-very-bad Christians and “why-can’t-I-do-better,” “woe-is-me” and they’ll quote that Psalm that says “I-am-a-worm-and-not-a-man” and self-flagellate but change absolutely nothing about their lives because they’re convinced that they can’t. They’re convinced that there’s absolutely no hope. That they can’t change or improve or be free from the sin that’s plagued them since they were children.

And when you walk around like that, people call it repentance, but it’s not repentance.

Listen closely: It’s just a form of self-abuse. It’s cruelty to yourself. It doesn’t please or honor God and it doesn’t motivate you to change your behavior. It just poisons everything else about your experience, right? It just feeds into your neurosis by dressing it up in religious language.

(Slow): But that is the opposite of repentance.

Church, repentance has nothing to do with hating yourself. It’s the other way around.

Because repentance is absolutely “turning from your sin,” but real repentance  happens when your trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ to justify you before God. Because when you trust in the gospel of Jesus to justify you before God, it allows you to rest in the knowledge that God has redeemed you and will restore you, so you can be confident in God’s love for you and turn from your sin out of gratitude for that love.

Because God’s love for you is a love that reaches back to the time before there was time. It reaches back to the time before there was a “you.” Like, God loved you before you were anything. And then he loved you into existence. And then he loved you back into his family on the cross of Jesus Christ. He “brought you near” when you were “far off.”

And if you will allow yourself to believe in this love that God has for you, then slowly, over the sprawling period between today and eternity, God turns your heart of stone into a heart of flesh, says Ezekiel, and his deep, abiding love for you seeps into your heart and becomes your own deep, abiding love for yourself.

I mean that. It sounds strange saying it, but listen: God wants you to love yourself. God created you to love yourself. I’m not just parroting Oprah, here. This is literally the Bible. There is no 11th commandment that says thou shalt not love yourself . It’s the opposite: When Jesus says to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he means it. “Love your neighbor” as you love yourself. You love your neighbors with that same deep, abiding love that God gives you for yourself. God enables you to love other people with that same kind of love that you also need because God has given you that love.

And that becomes the first step in repentance. It’s strange to think about, but repentance is about love. It’s about loving yourself and others with the love of God, that he pours out onto you so it overflows out to everyone else. Repentance is very much a process of “learning not to hate yourself.”

And what we see is that as God trades out our old natures, from when we “walked according to the flesh” and replaces it with a new nature, and new desires, and a new will, we start to look more, and more, and more like citizens of God’s kingdom. (Slowly): We start to “bear” what Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit”: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Instead of “walking according to the flesh,” we start to “walk by the Spirit,” verse 16.

And anywhere God’s people gather to submit to the Spirit’s transforming process to make us loving, and make us joyful, and peaceable, and patient, and kind, and good, and faithful, and gentle, and self-controlled, God’s kingdom is visible.

All of this is either very encouraging or very discouraging. Because if you’ve been walking with God for years and can’t see any evidence that the Spirit is at work in you, every line of today’s passage might feel like another knife to the gut.

Because the metric Paul gives us to measure our godliness pulls the rug out from underneath us by refusing to let us lie to ourselves about what holiness looks like. Right? It says “Am I more loving than I was one year ago?” Am I more peaceable than I was one year ago? Am I growing more patient as the years go by? Am I growing kinder? Am I growing gentler? Am I more faithful than I was? Am I more self-controlled? That’s the metric Paul gives us.

I feel like a lot of times when we hear about holiness, what we’re hearing about is these grandiose gestures that people do. We hear about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor who eventually got executed for conspiring in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. If the 20th century had any “heroes of the faith,” he’s almost certainly on the list.

Or you hear about William Wilberforce, the 18th century politician who helped lead the charge to end the slave trade in Britain. If the 18th century had any great “heroes of the faith” he is very definitely on the list.

But most of us aren’t going to assassinate Hitler – right? – and most of us aren’t members of the British parliament (I think), so we’ll never be in a Wilberforce position. It’s absolutely true that faithfulness will sometimes require gigantic things from us, but the reality is that 99% of the time holiness looks like obedience in the small and seemingly inconsequential details of our lives.

Like, look at the things Paul actually mentions in this passage. In verse 26, he doesn’t say “Go fight the Nazis,” although you should. He says, “Do not become conceited.” He says, “Do not provoke one another.” “Do not envy each other.”

That’s the holiness you rarely hear about. It’s mundane holiness. It’s boring. But that’s the bulk of what happens in the Christian life.

That’s what people rarely tell you. “Spiritual warfare” is boring. “Growing in godliness” is boring. Most of the time, “growing in godliness” looks like becoming a kinder, gentler, more patient and understanding person. That doesn’t sell. It doesn’t make your heart race. It will not gratify that part of you that’s looking for a new adventure every week. If that’s what you’re looking for, you will find genuine Godliness to be excruciatingly boring.

And yet it’s also satisfying. Godliness is satisfying. That’s the other thing nobody really tells you. Godliness is satisfying. It’s boring and it’s satisfying. And if you’ll bear with me, I want to make the argument that it’s the only thing that’s satisfying.

Like, ask yourself: How satisfying – and I mean genuinely satisfying, over the long-term, not momentarily satisfying or exciting or enjoyable – but how genuinely, deeply satisfying can you actually say your favorite sins are? Like, those things you know you shouldn’t do but you’re gonna do anyway because you just wanna be happy – level with yourself, here – when’s the last time any those things actually made you happy?

They can’t. Of course they can’t. Trying to satisfy yourself by disobeying God’s will is like eating bricks for dinner. There’s no nutritional value. It cuts your throat on the way down. It’ll give you a full stomach but you still starve to death because there’s nothing in it that gives you life. Nothing that’ll nourish you.

Because, like the book of Ecclesiastes says, God has “placed eternity in our hearts” and nothing that isn’t eternal can fill that vacuum. So if you’re tired – if you are desperately tired, if you’ve done everything you can think of to satisfy yourself and absolutely nothing has done it – you should ask yourself, why you wouldn’t be tired. Why wouldn’t you be tired? Sooner or later, even “the desires of flesh,” to use Paul’s phrase from today’s passage, will let us down.

You’ll keep reaching back for it in the hope that this time it’ll fill you, and it won’t. Nothing in the world will thrill you forever.

And yet: Pursuing godliness is satisfying. Of course it’s satisfying. It’s satisfying because God made it to be satisfying. God created us to relate to each other a certain way, and when we relate to each other in the way that God created us to, it’s like pouring water on your flower-bed instead of gasoline. It actually waters it. It actually feeds it.

Pursuing godliness actually waters you. It actually nourishes you. Chasing after God’s will actually gives the you rest you need rather than robbing it from you because that’s what you were created to do. That’s what you were made for.

So one of the things that we will invite you to do this morning is to seek out your satisfaction, not in whatever the world is currently trying to sell you, but in following Jesus.

Seek out your satisfaction in following Jesus. Because you’ve seen what the “works of the flesh” have to offer you, and I doubt I have to convince you that it’s all come to nothing. Run toward the “desires of the Spirit” instead.

So we’ve transitioned into the part of the service that we refer to as the altar call. What that means is that as we respond by worshiping the Lord through song in just a moment, I’ll be standing awkwardly here at the altar. Like 1 Peter says, Christ suffered for your sins to bring you to God, to give you himself. To invite you into his Kingdom. Like he says in John 14, Christ has made a place for you when there was no place for you. And if you would like to come and claim that place that Christ has made for you by throwing yourself on his mercy, I would like to walk you through that – we would like to walk with you through that. So come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

‘The Only Freedom That Actually Exists’ – Gal. 5:1-15 – November 10th, 2019

If you have your bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 5, verses 1 through 15.

Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.

You were running well. Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from the One who called you. A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough. 10 I have confidence in the Lord you will not accept any other view. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11 Now brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated!

13 For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.

Let’s pray.

*

Today’s passage reminds a guy I knew back when I lived in Oklahoma. Most of my weirdest stories are about when I lived in Oklahoma, because, uh, it was Oklahoma. I worked at a tech repair shop called Digital Doc – “Doc” was short for “Doctor,” and it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to figure that out.

I was an Assistant Manager, which meant that I was a low-level grunt who made a quarter more than the other low-level grunts but also had to risk getting robbed after my shift each night when I walked to the bank next door to make an after-hours money drop.

These are the kinds of edgy and relatable stories you come to Mount Zion for, I know.

But, anyways, there was this one guy who would come in on about a weekly basis and buy a used smart-phone. He’d say, “What’s the highest end Apple Phone you’ve got?” And I would be like, “We have this iPhone 5S. You know it’s fancy because it has “S” in the title.” And he’d be like, “I want that one.” And I’d be like, “Excellent choice, sir.” And he’d be like, “Nothing but the best for my sweetheart.”

The first time I assumed it was for his wife. Maybe his daughter. But he would do the same thing again the next week. And then the next week. And I thought, “This guy’s got a lot of daughters.”

He did not have a lot of daughters.

Which I figured out because, uh, eventually, I started seeing those phones again, because young women would come in to get some kind of repair, or a screen protector, or something like that, and I would recognize that it was one of the phones that I had sold to this man. And one time I made the mistake of saying, “How’s your dad doing?” And she said, “My dad’s been dead for 7 years. My boyfriend gave this to me.”

This particular elderly customer was what some people refer to as a “sugar daddy.”

I’m not talking about the candy. This is a different thing. He was financially very well off, and he used his financially-well-off-ness to get, like, 17 girlfriends.

You would date him, and in return for dating him he would buy you phones and pay your rent (and help you with your taxes, probably, ’cause you’re 19 and clueless).

And this particular Oklahoman sugar daddy has everything in the world to do with our text because the heresy that Paul was facing off against in today’s passage essentially reduces the God of the Bible to a sugar daddy. You do certain things in exchange for certain rewards. You follow this or that rule in exchange for God’s blessings.

A couple weeks ago we used the analogy that most of us, deep down, don’t particularly want God, we want God’s stuff, and that’s exactly what’s at work, here. Most of us are much more comfortable trying to earn God’s favor than we are resting in the mercy that God has poured out onto us in Jesus Christ because we’d rather have God as our “Sugar Daddy” than our Heavenly Father.

This story is admittedly designed to shock you, but if you’ve ever left a Christian TV station on for a couple hours, you could probably recognize exactly what I’m talking about.

One of the oddest stories my mom ever told me was about a work friend of hers whose husband had cancer, and who – by pure happenstance – ended up in Houston, TX for an event, and just so happened to be in the same room as a certain very high profile pastor from Houston, and who just so happened to be able to corner him and ask him for prayer.

At this particular time, she didn’t know a whole lot about this particular pastor, so she didn’t quite recognize the hornets’ nest she was stepping into, so she told him the situation, and she asked him why God would let this happen. And he took her by the hand, asked her to bow her head, and prayed:

“Father, we ask that you would reveal whatever hidden sin is in her husband’s life that has brought this ailment on to him.”

And then he said:

“We ask that you would show him what he needs to do to obtain your blessings again.”

There is a large swath of people teaching, essentially, that you can corner God into blessing you by doing all the right things. That you can get into God’s good graces if you just carry out your end of the agreement. That if you’ll spend 5 years or so “dating God” he’ll buy you a iPhone 5S at the Digital Doc in Shawnee, Oklahoma and he’ll pay your rent (and he’ll help you with your taxes ’cause you’re 19 and clueless), but the problem is that none of this particularly jives with the Bible.

The God described in the scriptures is not your “sugar daddy.” There is no quid pro quo, there is no put-a-token-in-the-machine-and-receive-your-blessing-for-the-day, there is no “I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.” There is only God’s glorious mercy – God’s plan, from the beginning of time, to redeem us in Jesus Christ. There is only God’s overwhelming love for you, the kind of love that drives him to leave heaven, come to earth, and give himself over to be crucified in your place. There is only the God who runs out to meet you while you’re on your way, embraces you, and says, “Welcome home, my child.” That’s the whole thing.

*

But that’s the opposite of what Paul’s opponents in Galatia have been teaching.

Now, I have to say a certain word. I’m sorry. I learned, like, two weeks ago that it was controversial. But it’s literally in the text. Here it goes: Paul’s opponents were teaching that you had to get “circumcised” in order to be saved. If you don’t know what “circumcision” is, don’t look it up, unless you can take the rest of the day off work to recover, or something.  But they’d say, “If you are not circumcised, you are not God’s people.” They said, “If you don’t follow all 613 of those Laws from the Old Testament, God will not be your Father.

Paul’s opponents taught that your relationship with God was basically a contract, you held up your end and God held up his. You follow the rules like a champ and God takes you off to heaven on the Magic School Bus.

It’s very much like how, a few months back, pastor Dustin Mace told us the story of the two lost sons. The Prodigal son abandoned his father and wasted his inheritance but ultimately came home with his head hung low, asking to be made a servant instead of a son – we call that repentance. And his father brought him back with open arms, not as a servant or a hired hand but as his beloved son, like nothing had ever happened – we call that forgiveness.

But on the other side of the tracks, his older son had obeyed his every command from the time he was a kid to the present day. And he’s out working in the field, and when he sees that his younger brother is home, and that his dad threw a celebration, he gets so furious that his father would show mercy that he refuses to go inside. He says, “The grace you’ve shown that wayward son makes all of my obedience worthless.”

But his dad says, “Son, everything I have is yours. Come celebrate.” But he won’t. Because all those years of honoring his father with his obedience actually had nothing to do with honoring his father. He wasn’t obeying his father because he loved him. He wasn’t even obeying his father because he respected him. He spent his life obeying his father as a way of obligating his father to accept him. He wanted to be able to say, “I’ve been good my whole life, now you owe me honor and gratitude and warmth and acceptance.”

I think there’s a principle in that: When your goal is to earn your way into God’s good graces you will not react well when you learn that they were always yours for the taking. That God already accepted you. That God already wanted you. If your goal is to earn your way into God’s favor, discovering that God has already poured out his favor onto you in Jesus Christ will push you away rather than drawing you near.

And eventually it’ll turn you away from the gospel. Why wouldn’t it? If your endgame is to get leverage on God so he’s obligated to bless you, the most upsetting this I could ever tell you would be that God has already paid your debt on his own dime. You will take profound offense at the message that God has taken every ounce of your inadequacy, nailed it to the cross, and invited you to sit at his table with no strings attached.

Because nobody likes it when you kick the legs out of their “superiority complex.” You know what I’m talking about? The gospel robs you of any sense of superiority you might’ve had over other people beforehand. Like, if you’re in the habit of measuring your sin compared to other people’s sin that you find more repellant, the cross will shatter your self-image once you finally get it. If you’re able to quiet your conscience by whispering that at least you’re not such-and-such, the gospel will ruin your day. Because the cross accuses you. The cross measures your sin by the fact that it necessitated the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem you. The cross says that your sin was serious enough that it required the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem you. The cross takes a bat to your superiority complex by reminding you that you killed Jesus.

So if your goal is to see yourself as better than everybody else, the cross will offend you because it shines a blacklight on your heart and shows how righteous you aren’t. The cross testifies that your only comfort in life and death is that you are not your own, that you’ve been bought with the blood of Jesus and invited into his family by grace and grace alone.

*

But if you can stomach the way the gospel jacks with your superiority complex, what you’ll find is that it also makes you free.

You are free from trying to be good enough. Until recently, I didn’t get how important it was to bring that up.

Last semester I spent a couple days poring through the material in the SEBTS library that was aimed at lay people in the church – devotionals, bible studies and so on – and the one thing that almost none of them ever got around to suggesting was resting in the mercy of Jesus. There was no “Obey Jesus with everything in you and cling to his radical grace as you fall short,” it was all “I’m so terrible and I’ll try harder tomorrow.” There was no, “Become a student of the Holy Spirit by reading your Bible regularly,” it was all “I don’t read my Bible enough and I feel bad.” You know what I’m talking about?

Don’t misunderstand, I want you to read your Bible, and I want you to pray, and I want you to throw yourself, heart and soul, into obeying the good commands God gives us throughout the scriptures but all of that takes place within a relationship with God in which you are wholly loved, wholly cared for, wholly accepted. You will fall radically short every day until the Lord brings you home and turns every crooked corner in you straight again, but from your first breath as a redeemed person to your last, God has treated you as though you were already perfectly holy. God loves you like you’re Jesus. You are free from the demand to be “good enough.”

But that’s just one of the ways that we indenture ourselves to “being good enough.” Because – unless you’re a robot, or something – knowing that God loves you doesn’t solve your anxieties. Like, when Tax Season rolls around and you don’t have the money in the bank to make your payments, if somebody says, “Don’t worry, God loves you!” You’re like, “Thanks. Not the issue.” You can know that God loves you and still feel wildly inadequate.

Like, if I did a survey, I’d be willing to bet that more than a few folks are horrified that they’re not good enough for their kids; they’re not good enough for their spouse; they’re not good enough for friends or their employers or their communities.

For the parents in here, don’t verbally answer, but how many of you constantly feel like you’re screwing up your kids? How often do you feel out of nowhere that your kids need a stability you can’t quite provide them; they need a degree of affection that is beyond your capacity to dole out; they need the kind of moral consistency that you have no idea how to maintain; they need a safe place to lay their heads but your finances are perpetually in flux.

I have met more people than I can count who blame themselves for the fact that their children have been in and out of jail. They blame themselves for the fact that their children have never held a marriage together. They blame themselves for the fact that their children embody all of their own worst qualities, magnified and pressed to the limit. And to those folks I desperately want to say; Show yourself some mercy.

For the love of God, literally, show yourself the grace that Christ has purchased for you. You are fallible. You are fragile, and so are your kids. Today it’s common to make fun of people by calling them snowflakes because they “melt” easily, right? Which is pretty funny. But that’s everyone. That’s you. You melt under minimal pressure. Everyone is remarkably breakable and unstable and fragile.

Nobody is as well-adjusted as they seem and so everybody, all the time, everywhere needs a mercy that presses past the masks we put up and the identities we project and forgives us for the limitations we’re subject to and can’t think past and rarely overcome. Show yourself the same radical mercy the gospel demands you show to others. Forgive yourself for the ways you’ve let yourself and others down. Accept the fact that you couldn’t raise your children perfectly. Rest in the grace that God has poured out onto you in Jesus Christ and pour that same mercy out onto yourself. You are free from the chains of being good enough.

*

But Paul has a very different definition of freedom than the one our culture has indoctrinated us into.

Because Paul is very clear about what “freedom” does not mean: “Freedom in Christ” absolutely does not mean “freedom to sin.” Not a very sophisticated sermon point: “Don’t sin.” But there is exactly one thing that “freedom” looks like, and that’s “serving one another through love.”

Whatever you’ve heard about “freedom” in the past, this is what it actually means. Freedom means “serving one another through love.” Freedom does not mean doing whatever you want, it does not mean being whatever and whoever you want, it means serving one another through love and absolutely nothing else.

So, freedom, in my life, has looked like having less options, not more. I don’t have a Big, Sensational Conversion Story with a Well-Developed Conflict and a Hyper-Emotional Resolution – the short version is that a guy named Brad just kind of annoyed me into the faith – but that very unspectacular conversion story changed quite literally everything about my life.

Most of you have heard the stories by now, but before my conversion I was a misogynist dirtbag. The best thing anybody could have done for me would have been shoving me in a locker, or something. I treated the people in my life horribly because of who I was as a person, and that particular character trait was getting more deeply embedded as I got older, not less. I was not “growing out of it.” Nothing about that was going to change on its own, but suddenly, when Christ got ahold of my heart and my mind and my conscience, he started changing me from the inside.

And as Christ started changing me from the inside – the way Ezekiel puts it, he started “Changing my heart of stone into a heart of flesh” – what happened was that I started giving myself less options than I used to give myself. “Emotional manipulation” stopped being an option that I had when relating to a girl that I was dating. Wearing down people’s self-confidence and subtly chipping away at their self-esteem stopped being an option that I had. Other people stopped being objects that I could use for my own advantage to make myself feel bigger because using people slowly stopped being an option for me.

But that didn’t mean I was less free. I was freer than I’d ever been. When you are tangled up in some lingering and soul-killing sin, freedom looks like no longer giving yourself the option to indulge in it. Because there’s no such thing as being “free to manipulate.” There is no such thing as being “free to neglect the emotional needs of others.” There is no such thing as being “free to indulge in your vices.” There is no such thing as being “free to underpay your employees” or “rip off your employer” or “cheat on your taxes” or “abandon your children with your former significant other.”

You cannot be free to sin because you cannot be free in sin. You can only be enslaved to it or free from it. But those are your options. Giving yourself over to sin will never make you free, no matter how it makes you feel. It’ll just bury you in nothingness and make you more alone than alone.

We will never be free so long as we “bite and devour each other,” to use Paul’s term in verse 15. Freedom in Christ is freedom from sin, and it’s the only freedom that actually exists.

And we would like very much for you to chase after that freedom alongside us. So we’ve transitioned into the part of the service that we refer to as the altar call. What that means is that as we respond by worshiping the Lord through song in just a moment, I’ll be standing here at the altar. Christ has come to make you free with the only freedom that actually exists. And if you would like to come and claim that freedom by throwing yourself on his mercy, I would like to walk you through that – we would like to walk with you through that. So come talk to me.

‘Children of the Promise’ – Gal. 4:21-31 – November 3rd, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians, chapter 4, verses 21 through 31. Paul says:

Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and the other by a free woman. 23 But the one by the slave was born according to the impulse of the flesh, while the one by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. 24 These things are illustrations, for the women represent the two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai and bears children into slavery—this is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:

Rejoice, childless woman,
who does not give birth.
Burst into song and shout,
you who are not in labor,
for the children of the desolate are many,
more numerous than those
of the woman who has a husband.

28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as then the child born according to the flesh persecuted the one born according to the Spirit, so also now. 30 But what does the Scripture say?

Drive out the slave and her son, for the son of the slave will never be a coheir with the son of the free woman.

31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

Let’s pray.

*

So in today’s passage, Paul is giving us very good news. But you wouldn’t know it just from glancing at it, right? Paul communicates his good news to us by telling us a story that doesn’t seem uplifting at all.

So, Bible story time: If you remember Sunday School, or you remember sitting on Grandma’s knee and listening to her stories and so on, you’re probably familiar with the story of Sarah and Hagar. I’m gonna tell the short version so this sermon isn’t an hour long, but you’ll remember that Abraham was a married man with no children when God called him out of Ur and told him head out towards a land he would give to him. So far, so familiar, right?

When God commands him to leave his homeland, he also gives him a promise in Genesis 12, which you’re probably tired of hearing about by now. God says to Abraham:

“Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt,
and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

So not only does he promise to bring him to a new land, but also to bless him, not in the kinda meaningless sense that we usually say “Bless you,” when you sneeze (or when somebody cuts you off on the road, if you’re a much godlier person than I am),but in the old sense – God has promised to turn everything that has happened and will happen to Abraham towards his favor. God will bend the universe for his good.

God commits himself in Genesis 12 to “bless all the peoples of the earth” through Abraham’s children. But there’s a record scratch right there.

Because God is promising to give Abraham “more descendants than anybody could count,” but that creates a problem because Abraham is old and his wife, Sarah, is old – and it’s a good thing to be old; ignore our culture’s ageism and take pride in your elderliness – but even if people lived longer back then, they weren’t having babies at 100.

So a few years after God has promised to “make a great people” out of Abraham, no children have come. So Abraham and Sarah do that thing that people do, you know, where we convince ourselves that God wants us to do whatever it is that we already wanted to do. You know what I’m talking about? Human beings are pros at convincing ourselves that God wants us to do whatever it is we already wanted to do. They say, “God promised Abraham more children than anybody can count, and if Sarah hasn’t conceived in all these years, clearly God wants Abraham to conceive with somebody else.” You see where this story’s going?

So Abraham takes Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, as a concubine – that’s an old-timey word people used back in the day for “Woman you’re technically allowed to cheat on your wife with.” That’s not the formal definition, but that’s the bottom line. Not a good look.

When the child God had promised Abraham hadn’t come about the right way in a timely manner, Abraham got it in his head that he could maybe make it happen by cheating on Sarah, because that’s the way the people thought back then – even Sarah herself.

But that shouldn’t surprise us. Because that’s very much how we operate. We will always be tempted to put the sanctity of marriage on the chopping block the moment it gets in the way of our sense of freedom and satisfaction. You know what I’m talking about? We will always be tempted to put the sanctity of marriage on the chopping block the moment it gets in the way of our sense of freedom and satisfaction. I’m not just talking about the “Sanctity of Marriage” as a political buzzword like you’ve been hearing about for the last 10 years. I’m talking about the sanctity of your marriage. You will always be tempted to put the sanctity of your marriage on the chopping block the moment it gets in the way of your sense of freedom and satisfaction. Right?

And so I think the way we preach that story tends to give people the wrong idea. I remember one time I heard a preacher get up and say – (I’m gonna imitate him, it’s gonna be horrifying) – He said, “Now, Abraham was a man, so he got to looking over at Hagar, and ‘Boys will be boys,’ and before long Hagar was carrying his child.” Ever heard something like that? Hopefully a little less grimy. But that’s a pretty common take in this day and age.

As a rather horrifying example, I remember a few years back, a woman called into Pat Robertson’s show and said that her husband had cheated on her and she wanted advice on how to forgive him for the hurt he had caused her – and that might be the pinnacle of Christian maturity, the willingness to forgive and reconcile with somebody who’s done you all kinds of wrong.

But without missing a beat, Pat Robertson said, “Wear more makeup and put more effort into your looks. Men have a tendency to wander and it’s on you to be so alluring and satisfying that they don’t.”

And then the show just went on as usual and next to nobody said anything to contradict him, because that’s just how people tend to think. That’s what you’re raised to believe in the United States. You’re raised to believe that men are robots with bad programming, or something. That men are wild animals with no control over our urges who can’t be held responsible when we do you wrong. That’s conventional wisdom.

But this is one of those instances where conventional wisdom is wrong. The problem here, in the Abraham-Hagar-Incident is not that Abraham was a man. Paul spells out precisely what his problem was: The Abraham-Hagar-Incident had nothing to do with his maleness and everything to do with his faithlessness. Verse 23 says, in very-Bibley-terms, that Abraham’s first son, Ishmael, was born “according to the impulse of the flesh.” Your translation might say, “According to his sinfulness,” “according to his weakness,” and those are both correct: Abraham didn’t have a Y-Chromosome problem, he had a worship problem.

That’s, maybe, the most important thing that very few “relationship experts” tell you: That whatever our differences, men are exactly like women in the sense that we become like what we worship. Men become like what we worship. Women become like what we worship.

So if you worship pleasure, you will probably cheat on your spouse. That’s eventually gonna happen if you worship pleasure because no one person can ever satisfy you the way you want them to.

If you worship admiration – if you are desperate to be admired by some woman, somewhere, then once your wife gets to know you too well to fawn over you with big puppy dog eyes, you will find somebody who is young enough and dumb enough and subservient enough to admire you the way you want her to and you will betray your wife time and time again for it.

Or, if you’re like the bulk of men who worship admiration but never do find somebody simple enough to admire them, you’ll just live out the rest of your life stewing in bitterness that your wife doesn’t look up to you the way you wish she did. Your household will become poisonous as you grow in resentment towards each other.

Or if, like Abraham, you worship the idea of having a child, what’s gonna happen when it turns out the person you married is infertile?

You will become like what you worship. You will follow what you worship to the ends of the earth in the hope that it will give you the satisfaction you desire – but, listen to me, it will not. None of the things that you worship will deliver on their promises because the only thing that’s worthy of our worship is the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

And we see exactly this thing playing out in Abraham and Sarah. God promises Abraham a child, and instead of worshipping God out of gratefulness, Abraham worships the idea of having a child. And since Abraham’s affections have been taken up in worship at the thought of having the child God’s promised to him, he is willing to cheat on his wife Sarah to get it.

*

So today’s passage is rough. Paul dives straight into a story about Abraham’s idolatry leading into Abraham’s adultery. But Abraham’s adultery is actually the least shocking thing about what Paul tells the Galatians here. So now you’re groaning inwardly, like, “Oh, that was the less rough section?”

Because after telling the story of how Abraham gives up waiting on God and betrays Sarah just to have a kid, Paul tells us that the Law of Moses is like that. Abraham’s son Ishmael was born out of Abraham’s sinfulness, verse 23, and Paul says the Law is like that.

If you’re sitting in the pews and you have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s fine. When Paul says “The Law” he’s not talking about Tax Law, or Real Estate Law, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He’s usually talking about those 613 commands we find in those first 5 books of the Bible. They called that the capital-L “Law.”

So as a recap: If you read the Bible cover to cover, eventually – about halfway through Exodus, God just starts dropping commands on the Israelites, and it’s almost like a comedy of errors, it’s like a Three Stooges episode:

The Israelites do something dumb, and God is like, “Ok, here are some new laws to make you not do that again.” And then they do something even more dumb, and God’s like, “Ok, here are some more laws to make you never do that again.” And then the Israelites do something even dumber than that, and God’s like, “Ok, here are even more laws to make sure that if nothing else you will not be that kind of dumb the next time opportunity knocks.” And by the end of the process there’s almost as many laws as there are Israelites. You know what I’m talking about?

Like, I don’t have kids, but what I’ve been told by friends and family is that, up front, you think you’re gonna be a cool parent. Right?

You have almost no rules. Just the basic stuff: “Don’t put your sister in the oven,” typed stuff. But then over the next five years or so your list of rules goes from, like ten, to like 610: “Don’t eat grass.” “Don’t stick a fork in the power outlet.” Don’t order 7 years worth of back-issues of Sports Illustrated – how did you even do that? How did you fill out the subscription card? You’re two-and-a-half-feet-tall-how-did-you-reach-the-mailbox? How did send it to the Sports Illustrated headquarters and get 7 years worth of back-issues sent to our house? Your list of rules starts small and then just mutates till there’s more than you could ever remember off the top of your head. Right?

The Law is like that.

The Law is not a list of rules that make you good enough for God’s kingdom, it’s a straight-jacket God puts on you ‘cause you compulsively damage yourself.

Now, here’s what Paul is not saying: Paul’s not saying that the Law is bad. Paul is not saying that you shouldn’t read the Old Testament.

What he is saying is that the Law cannot make us free.

In Psalm 51, David begs God to “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin,” The Law cannot do that. The Law cannot “create in you a clean heart.” In Ezekiel 36, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean, I will cleanse you from all your iniquity.” The Law cannot do that. In Zechariah 13:1, God promises to “open a fountain” to wash away our “sin and impurity.” The Law cannot do that.

It cannot make us free, and it cannot heal us from of what’s wrong with us, and that means that the Law cannot “bring us home.” Rules might make us act a little better, but they cannot give us rest. It can’t make us not tired.

Are you tired? I’m tired.

I’m not talking about the normal kind of tired – like, if you ran a marathon, you’d be the normal kind of tired. Or if I ran up, like, a medium-sized staircase, I’d be the normal kind of tired. But that’s not the kind of “tired” I’m talking about.

There is a tiredness that goes beyond tiredness. There’s a tiredness in our souls. It’s the kind of tiredness you wake up with. It’s the kind of tiredness you carry with you everywhere. Everything seems heavy and hopeless and dreary. Even if you’ve got short work hours and supportive friends and a family that is miraculously not dysfunctional, even if the deck is stacked in your favor in practically every way, the fact remains that existing at all is exhausting.

The happiest people in the world are still nauseatingly tired. Aren’t you?

And of course we’re tired. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Because that deep tiredness that you feel isn’t just because of your individual personal problems, although I would never want to downplay or discount those. That deep rooted exhaustion that you feel has everything in the world to do with the fact that you have lived out your life up to this point separated from your true home – what Paul calls the “Jerusalem above.” You’re not just exhausted, you’re homesick.

Ever spent the night at a friend’s house when you were a kid and got homesick? However much fun you were having, there came a point where you wanted to go home and you wanted your mom and you wanted your bed and you wanted to be alone. It had nothing to do with your friend or her house or her parents or her anything, but you’d been away from home too long. You were homesick, and you could feel the pull back towards where you belonged.

That’s part of your tiredness. You are homesick for a place you’ve never been. You are homesick for God’s presence. You are homesick with a homesickness that goes deeper than home and deeper than sickness. Your soul wants to be reunited with the God who created you. We are every bit as homesick as Ishamel was homesick after Abraham banished him from his household.

And the Problem Paul points us toward is that the Law cannot cure our cosmic homesickness. It cannot heal us the way we need it to.

Don’t get me wrong. I need rules. I am what scientists refer to as a fool. I am like Abraham. Jeremiah 17 says that “the heart is deceitful above all things” and that’s me. Proverbs 19 says that a fool’s “folly will bring his way to ruin,” and if that’s not describing me, I don’t know who it’s describing. Proverbs 26 says that a fool “returns to his folly” like “a dog returns to its own vomit,” and that’s, like, the story of my life.

I am dumb like Abraham was dumb, like Pat Robertson was dumb, like everybody’s dumb when we’re walking in our own wisdom, Proverbs 28, and I need a good Law that I didn’t invent myself to guide me. Making your own rules is a game only fools play, and, not coincidentally, it’s a game nobody wins.

And so Paul never tells us that the Law is bad. The Law is very good. The problem is that it’s not good enough.

Because in my foolishness I need more than just good advice. I need more than good moral guidance. Putting a straight-jacket on somebody with self-destructive tendencies is a good temporary-fix, but it doesn’t solve my problem.

Because so long as I need the straight jacket I’m stuck in the asylum. I can’t go home till I’m not self-destructive anymore. What I need is to be not foolish. I need a heart that is not deceitful. I need to be washed of my iniquity and cleansed of my sin. I need the Lord to “open up a fount” to wash away “my sin and impurity.”

I will never not be homesick until I’m no longer sin-sick. That’s a dumb slogan, but I’m gonna say it again. You will never not be homesick until you’re no longer sin-sick.

*

So, like I said, Paul is giving us very good news, but the way he presents it sounds almost like bad news.

But this is exactly where the good news comes in. Because Paul tells us, in verse 28, that we are “children of the promise.” We were all Abraham, diving headlong into sin because we were desperate to get our hands around something we thought would make us happy, but Christ has grabbed us by the back of our jackets and pulled from the edge of the cliff.

I think Paul puts I best in the second chapter of Ephesians, where he says that “Now, in Christ, you who were far off have been brought near by the blood of Jesus.” Jesus went to the cross for us, not simply to be punished for our sin but to “bring us near.” We were dead but Christ has made us alive. We were enslaved but Christ has made us free. We were under the just wrath of a righteous God but now we are children of God, beloved in Jesus Christ. We were far off, but now we’ve been brought near.

So you’ve been homesick your whole life, and of course you were. But “Now, in Christ Jesus, you who were far off” and homesick “have been brought near by the blood of Jesus.” Christ is here to bring you home, no longer as “children of wrath,” like Ephesians 2:3 says, but as “children of the promise,” Galatians 4:28. So now, instead of “casting us out” like Abraham cast out Ishmael, John 14 says that Christ “prepares a place for us.” Christ has made a place for you.

So we’ve transitioned into the part of the service that we refer to as the altar call. What that means is that as we respond by worshipping the Lord through song in just a moment, I’ll be standing here at the altar. Christ has made a place for you – in his home, in his family, in his love. And if you would like to come and claim that place by throwing yourself on his mercy, I would like to walk you through that – we would like to walk with you through that. So come talk to me.

‘That Christ Would Be Formed In You’ – Gal. 4:12-20 – October 20th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 4, verses 12 through 20.

I beg you, brothers: Become like me, for I also became like you. You have not wronged me; 13 you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a physical illness. 14 You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.

15 What happened to this sense of being blessed you had? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?17 They are enthusiastic about you, but not for any good. Instead, they want to isolate you so you will be enthusiastic about them. 18 Now it is always good to be enthusiastic about good—and not just when I am with you. 19 My children, I am again suffering labor pains for you until Christ is formed in you. 20 I would like to be with you right now and change my tone of voice, because I don’t know what to do about you.

Let’s pray.

*

Today there’s kind of a weird thing where churches mostly focus on planting churches, like, nine states away among people they don’t know at all – like, a while back, I learned about a church in Raleigh, which I will not name, that was planted by a group of believers from Seattle, Washington. They moved to North Carolina from Seattle, Washington, they moved from the heart of secular America deep into the buckle of the Bible Belt and planted yet another church in a town like Raleigh that has nearly as many churches as it has humans. I have nothing bad to say about them, they might be doing great work, but it’s an odd strategy, right?

In fact, it’s the opposite of Paul’s strategy.

As far as we know, Paul spent most of his time traveling throughout the Roman empire, evangelizing in port cities and elsewhere. He would plant churches in large cities that were ideal for planting more churches in smaller cities in the surrounding area. He would plant the seed in the population centers, and as the years went on, they could expand their operations out into increasingly remote areas.

It would be a bit like planting a church in Wake Forest, and then after a few years, helping the folks from the churches in Wake Forest plant another church in Rolesville, or Youngsville, and then helping the folks in the church in Youngsville plant a church in Franklinton, and then after a few years helping the church in Franklinton plant a church in Louisburg. Paul would guide the process as, kind of, a “Spiritual father,” like he says in 2 Timothy, but the bulk of the work of evangelizing the region was on the Christians who already lived there. Paul is demonstrating with his life, what the old, dead Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon used to tell his congregation every week: “Every Christian is a missionary or an imposter.”

And as Paul was carrying out his missionary work, Acts 16 says something very strange – it says that “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in Asia.” Luke doesn’t spell out what that means, but Paul tells us in today’s passage that he initially preached to the Galatians because of a physical illness, or ailment. It could mean he got sick, or it could mean he got injured, or it could mean that he temporarily lost his sight again.

One of the things we see throughout the letters of Paul is that he had a major issue with his eyes. He never spells it out, but there is a reason that most of Paul’s letters are co-written with somebody else. He’s usually writing alongside Timothy or Silas, or Luke, or somebody else because he can barely see what he’s writing most of the time, and when that’s not the case, he’s usually in prison for preaching illegally. But whatever the case, Paul was prevented by some major physical ailment from being able to move on into Asia at that point, so he settled down in Galatia for a while and preached the gospel to them.

And Paul says in verse 14 that they responded eagerly to the gospel that he preached to them. In fact, they were so eager to receive and be transformed by the gospel that Paul was preaching that they welcomed him into their fold even though Paul’s physical ailment meant that welcoming him into their community meant bringing on an additional dependent. You know what I’m talking about?

We live in an anti-dependence age. Everywhere you look, on television, on the nightly news, in dumb op-eds written in the local newspaper, you see people shaming anyone who has needs. If you have some unique emotional need as a result of past abuse, or some unique physical need as a result of some previous injury, or even if you have some unique need as a result of a developmental disorder, there are vultures waiting to shame you for it, and there are hordes of otherwise decent folks who are extremely susceptible to their rhetoric, right? The world serves a cult-of-self-reliance, and so if somebody like Paul showed up at our door-step we’d probably brush aside his gospel because we didn’t want to deal with his disability. Right?

But Paul says that the Galatians – so, a bunch of pagans from a rather horrifying group of religions that revolved primarily around bizarre sacrifices and weird sex stuff – these Galatians welcomed Paul into their fold in spite of his disability, in spite of the fact that bringing him in would be burdensome by most of our definitions, because they were eager to hear and accept and be transformed by his gospel.

That shouldn’t surprise us, because that’s how the gospel works.

Think back to your own conversion: I’m sure plenty of you were essentially Christian-from-the-cradle, and that’s a wonderful testimony to have, but for those who weren’t – consider how weird your conversion was; it’s weird that you didn’t care about the things of God, and then you did. That’s not normal. I was 16 and I didn’t want much of anything to do with my grandma’s religion, and then, for no reason, I wanted everything to do with my grandmother’s religion. That’s weird.

Because, as a general rule, “the heart is deceitful above all things,” and our hearts do not care about God’s glory, and we do not respond to his call to redemption, and we do not gravitate toward that desire he’s placed in us to be reconciled with him and restored in relationship until something happens that we really can’t explain – the Holy Spirit grips us somehow and draws us to our Father in heaven through the Son who gave himself for us and out of absolutely nowhere we can’t not care. Out of nowhere we can’t not come to the foot of the cross and lay ourselves down in submission to the Jesus who called us.

And when that happens, when our relationship with God is turned right-side up, our relationship with others begins to capsize and turn right-side up again, as well.

So, when I was a teenager, I was what sociologists refer to as a “misogynist dirtbag.” I was a straightforwardly bad person, and if I was dating your daughter, your daughter had a problem. I treated the women in my life horribly because that’s just who I was, and then, out of nowhere, I got gripped by the gospel, drawn out of my sin and into reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, and I began to develop new desires. I began to grow a conscience in a way that I did not and could not beforehand.

And it changed the way I treated the people around me because Christ will not tolerate co-existing with your misogyny. Christ will not co-exist with your cruelty. Christ will not co-exist with any of the pet-sins that you nurse in secret or in the open, because Christ isn’t simply calling you to stop not believing and start believing, he is calling you to submit yourself to his Lordship, to pull yourself out of the shape you’ve come to take as a resident of this present, evil age, like Paul says in the opening of the letter, and instead allow the Holy Spirit to shape you into the image of Jesus.

He’s calling you to submit yourself to the Spirit’s work to make you every bit as kind and compassionate and holy and gentle and honest and welcoming and sober-minded as the Jesus who created you in the beginning and redeemed you in the cross. Like Paul says in verse 19, Christ’s mission is “that Christ would be formed in you.” And as a result of that, the Galatians respond very differently to Paul’s disability than you’d expect.

They brush aside the cult-of-self-reliance at work in both their culture and ours, and they say, “We want this man in our midst no matter what adjustments we have to make to our own lifestyles to support him.” “We want to integrate this man into our community and welcome him completely, no matter what we have to do to make our community accessible to him.” They welcome him with open arms rather than turning him away as a burden because the gospel has already begun its work in them, very much like it will do its work with us.

*

So they received him, verse 14, as though he were Christ himself, and they received his gospel as though it came directly from Christ.

There’s a good principle in that. Because notice what Paul does not say: Paul does not say that they accepted his words as “God’s words.” Ever heard somebody get up in a pulpit and say something along the lines of, “Listen up, God’s speaking to you!” That’s usually well-intentioned, but it’s not quite accurate. 

The Galatians received Paul’s gospel as though it were from Christ himself, and that’s exactly how we should “receive” teaching. You hear from God by hearing the gospel. Not by hearing my views and opinions. You hear from God by hearing from the Bible. That’s the way God speaks to us, and it’s almost accurate to say that it’s the only way God speaks to us.

That means that anybody who occupies this pulpit has two jobs, the first is to proclaim the gospel, and the second is to exposit, or explain, the passage that we’re walking through. But it also means that anybody sitting in these pews has a job of their own: You need to measure anything that I, and any preacher ever, says according to how well it matches up with the scriptures.

Because I might explain the passage wrong, because I might read the passage wrong, because I am human and fallible, because although the Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures also indwells us and guides us into all truth, he does that over the course of a lifetime and beyond. There’s no upgrade we can purchase from heaven that we just plug into the USB port in our brains that uploads, kind of, exhaustive knowledge of the scriptures into our mainframe, right? That’s not how it works.

Even a seminary degree doesn’t guard you from all errors, or even most errors. There’s no panacea for doctrinal error, so it’s important to recognize that Paul is not commending the Galatians for accepting his words uncritically as God’s words, because they didn’t accept his words as God’s words. What they did was recognize that the gospel that Paul preached didn’t come from Paul.

Paul wasn’t preaching himself. He wasn’t selling a brand. He wasn’t selling Paul. He was preaching Christ Crucified, he was preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, to reconcile you to God for eternity starting now, and they recognized that this was not a product of Paul’s creativity, it was simply Paul’s response to having encountered the risen Jesus in Damascus and then reading the scriptures backwards and recognizing the fingerprints of Jesus there from the beginning.

They accepted Paul’s gospel as though it came from Christ himself, and that’s exactly how you should approach anything that comes out of this pulpit. My opinions are not from Christ himself. My interpretation of the Bible is not from Christ itself. My style of delivery and mannerisms and personality are not from Christ himself, but the gospel is. And that means that if you haven’t heard the gospel on a given morning you’ve heard nothing from God in the sermon.

If the person preaching to you hasn’t reminded you of the good news of God’s gracious gift of redemption – if the person in the pulpit hasn’t preached that to you on a given Sunday morning, all they’ve given you is their homework. They’ve shown their work, line by line, but they’re not giving you anything that you can receive as though it were from Christ himself.

It might encourage you, but what it will not do is “form Christ in you.” “7 Steps to having a healthier marriage” might seriously benefit you, but if those 7 steps to having a healthier marriage don’t make their way to Ephesians 5, that our marriages are a symbol of the gospel – that our marriages to each other are shadows of our mutual marriage to the Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us to reconcile us to God and raise us from our deadness in sin – then they’re not giving you anything that you can receive as though it were from Christ himself.

Because what we desperately need is not simply an action plan that’ll “get us from point A to point B,” “into greener pastures.” We need the gospel that Paul has preached to us. We need “the faith once delivered.” I don’t just need to taught how to “do better.” I need to be reminded constantly and fervently of how I went from being deader than dead to being alive in Christ. I don’t just need to be encouraged toward the finished line, I need to be woken up and carried to the starting line. I need to hear the gospel every single day and receive it as though it were from Christ himself, because it is. Anything else is like giving me saline water when I’m desperately thirsty.

*

And yet, as we see in Galatians, there is something in us that reaches out for poor substitutes to the gospel. Paul says in verse 16 that after the “circumcision party” showed up and started, kind of, counter-evangelizing them, the Galatians started to turn their back on Paul and the gospel that he’d preached to them. So much so that Paul becomes exasperated and says, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

They began treating Paul like an enemy for pushing back against the false gospel that the folks from the circumcision party were peddling, because there is something in us that revolts against the good news of Christ crucified for us, right? There’s something in us that presses back against the good rest that God offers us in Jesus Christ and instead reaches out for things that are exhausting but enticing.

Like, think about your own experience. How often do threats to your faith actually come from the outside? I know that the Christian Broadcasting Company and Christian radio and so on and so forth have built an entire cottage industry on making us feel perpetually persecuted but when you step back and take stock, the actual threats you face in your walk with Christ come from you. You know what I’m talking about?

When I waver in my faith it’s rarely out of fear of what non-Christians are going to think of me, it’s almost always because I’ve swan-dived into a weird stupor where I reach for counterfeit gospels that are enticing but exhausting. I’ll read a new book by some popular author and it’ll be filled with dumbfoundingly specific prescriptions for how to have a Great Christian WalkTM. You know what I’m talking about? How to have a Great Spiritual Life. How to be Happy In Jesus. How to Pass Your Faith On To Your Children.

And the list goes on, and on, and on, and you read the newest hip, Christian book and instead of coming away edified and encouraged in your relationship with Jesus you’re downcast because you’ve just spent a few hundred pages getting waterboarded about “Why You Aren’t Happier and Why You Aren’t More Spiritual and Why You Don’t Feel The Right Emotions When You Pray And Read Your Bible And Sing In Church from throwaway books written by people who look like they went to a plastic surgeon and got a horrifyingly large smile permanently branded into their face. You feel me?

The draw towards “Do More” “Be Better” is enticing and it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but it’s exhausting, and, in some cases it’s a counterfeit gospel.

But counterfeit gospels are addictive, right?

Once Paula White has convinced you that God will miraculously heal your illness if your faith is pure enough and your tithe check is thick enough, the good news of Christ crucified for your sin and raised up to reconcile you to God will never satisfy your appetite for novelty. Once you’ve got it in your head that you can “Do More” “Be Better” if you’ll just follow this or that set of rigidly delineated spiritual practices then the rest that God offers you in Jesus Christ becomes “old hat,” it feels dry and arid and unconnected to your immediate emotional needs. Counterfeit gospels are addictive.

But they will not “form Christ in us,” verse 19.

That’s what Paul comes back to constantly, so it’s what we will come back to constantly. Nothing but the gospel will form Christ in us. Yelling at you week in and week out about why you’re not better or why you’re not more spiritual or why you’re not nicer or wiser or cooler makes you feel like you’ve heard something “deep” and “challenging” but it does absolutely nothing to make you holier. It does absolutely nothing to change your heart.

That’s why Paul has zero interest in making us feel bad about ourselves by whipping us for our insufficiency: Because absolutely nothing I can tell you will form Christ in you except the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for your sin.

And that’s counterintuitive. That is completely counter to what you hear on Doctor Phil or what you you read in pop psychology books that you buy at the airport, right? When Paul says that the message of Christ crucified is foolishness to the folks who don’t believe it, he’s not kidding. It sounds like foolishness. Because in what universe does telling someone that they are fully, and freely forgiven for everything they’ve ever done and everything they’ll ever do get them to do anything for you?

Conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to hold things over people and motivate them with rewards and punishments and so on and so forth, you know what I’m talking about? If you ever been into a coffee shop or a Bojangles, you’ve probably heard a handful of older men complain about how kids are so bad today cuz they don’t have to go “pick their switch” and get beat when they act up against their parents. And yet this is very much like that but on a cosmic scale. The gospel sounds like foolishness, but Paul is convinced that it’s the only thing that isn’t foolishness.

Because threatening you with “hellfire” might temporarily change your behavior, but it will not change your heart. I might scare you into being a little less rebellious than you would have been, but it cannot make you want to love your neighbor. It cannot make you love the Lord and want to obey him out of that love, because bribing you with the thought of going to heaven or scaring you with the thought of going to hell cannot make you a new person. It cannot make you a new creation. Only the gospel can.

But it will. The gospel will change you. The gospel will turn you into something very different than you were. The gospel will melt you down into absolutely nothing and then form you into something that looks like the Jesus that we read about in the Bible. The gospel will form Christ in you. Over against everything you’ve heard about how to change yourself, or how to change your kids, or how to change your friends or change your spouse or change your anybody, the gospel changes you by clearing away every last bit of debt and every last bit of punishment and every last bit of fear and trading it for God’s unconditional love and acceptance and safety.

The gospel reassures you that you are already perfectly loved in Jesus Christ. You are already wholy accepted in Jesus Christ. You don’t have to earn your way into God’s good graces because God’s good graces are already on you. God has fully embraced you in Jesus Christ and there is absolutely nothing you can do to overthrow that.

And as God embraces you, it changes you. Sitting at God’s table, enveloped in his unconditional love, you become a new creation. The old you, with all your bitterness and all your hate and all your self-pity and your stubbornness melt away and the you that God replaces it with looks very much like Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. That is our great hope.

‘Enslaved To Those Who Are By Nature Not God’ – Gal. 4:1-11 – Oct. 13th, 2019

If you would, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 4, verses 1 through 11.

Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. Instead, he is under guardians and stewards until the time set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elemental forces of the world. When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

But in the past, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things that by nature are not gods. But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You observe special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted

Let’s pray.

*

If you remember the book of Hosea, you’ll remember that God calls a prophet from Northern Israel to go and “marry a promiscuous woman” – he marries a prostitute named Gomer (which, I guess Hosea was written before The Andy Griffith Show so nobody would have thought “Gomer Pyle” when they heard that name). Hosea marries a sex-worker named Gomer and God tells him to bear with her as she betrays him in one form after another. So how’s that for a calling? – You go and  “marry a promiscuous woman,” and your calling is to just “bear with her as she finds one way after another to betray you.”   

And that’s something God does throughout the scriptures: He’ll call somebody to do something that serves as, kind of, a “walking metaphor” for the way that God relates to us. Most of them are really gross – especially once you get to Ezekiel, a lot of what happens in the Old Testament sounds like something out of a raunchy comedy movie that you would go see during church on a Sunday morning so nobody would know you went, you know what I mean?

This is like that. God is calling Hosea to marry a “promiscuous woman” as a symbol of God’s relentless faithfulness to us. And so what we see throughout the Book of Hosea is that Gomer has all of the love and warmth and security she could possibly need or want or find in Hosea’s house, but she constantly runs away and sells herself into slavery. She constantly abandons everything that there is to have because she is desperate to get her arms around a satisfaction that doesn’t exist.

She wants to enjoy a pleasure that doesn’t exist: She wants the happiness that comes with sharing God’s Kingdom without having to submit to God in the process. To quote my old Pastor from Oklahoma: She didn’t want God, she wanted God’s stuff.

And in that sense, Gomer is very much a walking metaphor for you and I and everyone. Because in our natural state, most of us do not want God, we just want God’s stuff. That’s hard-wired into us. And that will drive us to “enslave ourselves” to one thing after another, whether it’s the pursuit of money or sex or power or affection or anything, right?

Like, nobody is that well-adjusted. If you’ve ever, well, existed, I probably don’t have to convince you that. There are periods where you can convince yourself that you are stable and reasonable and smart and everyone should just listen to you and their lives would go better kind of like yours has, right? But anytime that happens,  it’s a good idea to brace yourself, because you’re probably a stone’s throw away from just falling to pieces. The bow is about to break.

You’re going to collapse, because no matter what we tell ourselves, the reality is that we are all remarkably fragile. We are all, always on the verge of falling apart. There’s a profound emptiness in everybody, because – to quote Ecclesiastes – God has “placed eternity in our hearts,” so we will chase after anything that feels like “eternity.” We are desperate to worship something to serve something, so – like Gomer – we will enslave ourselves to nearly anything that promises to make us happy or rich or strong or whole.

I want to quote from an author named David Foster Wallace at length. You might have heard this speech before, it’s pretty well-known. Wallace is not a Christian and he’s not much of anything, really, but he was invited to speak to the graduating class at a college in 2005 and this is what he told them: 

“Everybody worships. There is no such thing as not worshipping. The only choice we get is what we worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type-thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

“If you worship money, and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in your life, then you will never have enough. If you worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

“But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

End quote.

So, David Foster Wallace could very easily be preaching a sermon on Galatians 4, here, where Paul says that “When we did not know God, we were enslaved things that were by nature not gods” – literally, enslaved “to the elements of the world.” Paul says that before we knew God, we had enslaved ourselves to something he calls  the “elements of the world.” Even without knowing exactly what “the elements of the world” are yet, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that we were enslaved to them. Right?

Because that’s what humans do. We enslave ourselves to things.

Because like David Foster Wallace said a moment ago, we are worshippers. That’s hard-wired into us. You will worship something, and that means that you will “enslave yourself” to something.

I don’t know what it is. Maybe you don’t know what it is. But it’s there. You worship something or somebody and that something or that someone will eat you alive if you continue to give yourself to them in a way that only the God who created you could ever possibly merit or deserve or reciprocate.

That’s why Paul says that we were “enslaved to the elements of the world.”

Your translation might say the “gods of this world,” or the “principalities of this world,” but however you translate that, the point is the same: You are enslaved to what you worship, and our default mode is not to worship our Creator, but to worship the things he created. Our default mode is not to reach out for freedom from the God Who created us to share in his freedom, it’s to enslave ourselves to the things we think will make us happy.

Like, there’s this one conversation I’ve been having on repeat with countless people for the last seven years or so. Somebody wants to do something they know they shouldn’t do. So in the middle of the conversation they’ll say something along the lines of “I don’t care what the Bible says about _____, I just wanna be happy.” And I’ll say, “How’s that going for ya?” And they’ll say, “Good. I’m not happy. But good.” You know what I’m talking about? That’s a common occurrence, because everybody has a certain something that they’re so determined to do or to have that nothing in the world will stop you from chasing after it with everything in you.

Everyone on planet earth has a point where, in your sinful nature, you decide that God’s not allowed to tell you how to run your sex life, or God’s not allowed to tell you what to do with your money, or God’s not allowed to tell you who to have compassion on, or who to forgive, or who to invite to your house. You might be really passionate about other people’s sins, but eventually the spotlight is gonna turn on your own idols, your own pet sins, and you’re gonna clutch them like somebody clutches her purse in an elevator because – listen to me – that’s your actual God.

Whatever you’re willing to draw the line and purposefully disobey God’s commands for, that’s what you actually worship. In Paul’s language, those are the elements of the world, and they are constantly vying for your worship. Like, if you refuse to share the gospel with people because you’re afraid of how they’ll react, then that’s what you actually worship. If you have enough to get by, but you still refuse to take a single day off work that you don’t absolutely have to, then money is the thing you actually worship. As Paul says, we compulsively enslave ourselves to “things that are by nature not God.”

*

That’s why the Law was not enough. We’ve seen throughout the scriptures that God gifted us with the Law to protect us from our slavery to sin, but Paul says in today’s passage that even “when we were under the law,” we were still “no different from slaves.” Because with or without God’s Law, you are enslaved to what you worship, and our default mode is to enslave ourselves to the things we think will make us happy.

And when you think about “sin” like that, it brings a lot of clarity to how we understand Jesus. Paul says that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the Law,” and that’s a very Bible-y way of saying that Jesus became like you and me: If you are “born of a woman,” you are human. And if you are a human, you are “under the Law.”  

So what we see in the Gospels is that God himself comes to Earth and lives out a life as a human being. Now, we’re so used to that idea that it seems perfectly normal to us, but that’s weird, right? If you’d never heard of Christianity and you opened the Bible for the first time and read it through, start-to-finish, God himself coming to Earth and living as a human would be a plot twist. It would surprise you.

And it would probably send you into kind of a weird spiral trying to find ways to explain it that didn’t grate against the limits of your imagination quite so much, right? That’s why all through history we’ve seen people saying Jesus was, maybe, 60% human and 40% God – ever heard something like that? Ever heard anybody say that Jesus was just a “human body” that God “possessed” or “took control of.” On a different occasion, I heard somebody say from the pulpit that Jesus wasn’t actually human at all; this preacher said that when people saw Jesus and when they touched him they thought they were touching actual human flesh, but it was a trick. It was kind of like a “hologram” – like, if you’ve ever seen Star Wars, when they’ll talk to somebody on a “hologram machine.” That’s a dumb analogy, I know.

But all through history we’ve found ways to try to re-interpret what happens in the gospels so that it makes more sense, but the New Testament is extremely clear: Jesus Christ is God the Son, taking on the same kind of humanity as you and I, living out a life of perfect obedience to his own good Law, and then dying in our place on the cross. Jesus is every bit as human as you are. In Jesus Christ, God comes to earth and shows us what it means to be human. Jesus lives a human life but refuses to worship the things that we think will make us happy. He resists the idols that we are susceptible to in our place. Jesus has encountered every temptation we experience, and he was obedient in all the ways we should have been but weren’t.

And Romans tells us that when you “believe in Jesus Christ,” all of his obedience is “credited” to you. Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” God treats you like you were obedient like Jesus was obedient.

That’s why Hebrews chapter 2 tells us that Christ is “a sympathetic high priest.” The God of the universe isn’t a crotchety old man with a long, like, Gandalf beard who is constantly angry at you for not “living up to his unrealistic expectations,” right? Like, every time you see a TV show where God shows up and does something, he always just seems like the world’s worst grandpa, but with superpowers, or something. You know what I mean?

But that’s the opposite of what the scriptures actually show us. Hebrews chapter 2 says that the God of the universe – the God who “knit you together in the womb,” Psalm 139, who “formed your inward parts,” who “holds your life in his hands,” Job chapter 12, is a “sympathetic high priest.”

To put that into normal people language, God is infinitely patient with you. God feels the weight that you feel. God feels the struggle that you feel. God knows and understands and sympathizes with your weakness because he came to Earth and lived a human life and took on every one of your weaknesses and struggles and sufferings.

When you are working desperately and insufficiently to try and obey God’s will, and every step feels harder than the last one, Christ knows exactly how you feel and he sympathizes with you and identifies with you. He is not a “harsh taskmaster” standing in a pulpit with his arms crossed and his face twisted into a perpetual frown. It’s the opposite.

Christ is, quite literally, “batting in your corner.” He is, quite literally, “advocating for you,” 1 John chapter 2. Christ is literally your “advocate,” your “intercessor,” Hebrews 7:25, he is more patient with you than you are with you; he is more tender with you than you are with you; Christ is gentler towards you than you are towards yourself. Christ treasures you in ways that you do not treasure yourself, and have never treasured yourself, and will only come to treasure yourself once you have washed up onto heaven’s shores and been greeted by Christ with open arms and a gentle smile, saying, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”

And that is true because Jesus has taken on our humanity. Christ did not reject us because of our “slavery to the elements.” Instead – like Hosea, who emptied out his savings and purchased his wife Gomer out of the sex-trade – Christ came to Earth (Paul says, in Philippians, he “took the form of a slave,” he “emptied himself for us”) and he gave his own life to “purchase us” out of our “slavery to the elements.” You have been purchased in Jesus Christ.

But he hasn’t purchased you the way that one master might purchase a slave off the Auction Block and then take him back to his own Plantation to be a slave somewhere else instead. Christ has purchased you off the Auction Block, taken you home, draped a coat over your shoulders and put a ring on your finger, and sat you down at his table as a son and a brother and a friend. Christ has adopted you as a daughter, a sister, a friend.

The result is that, Hebrews chapter 4, you can “come before the throne of grace with boldness and confidence.” We belong in God’s presence, because Christ has made us belong there. We no longer approach God simply as slaves approaching their master, we approach him like beloved children approaching their indulgent father.

We were “slaves to the elements,” but now we are the infinitely and eternally safe children of a wise and benevolent father. We were under subjection to the things we think will make us happy but now we’re the perfectly secure children of a kind and attentive father. We’ve been delivered from our slavery into the glorious freedom that comes with being the children of God./

*

And so what Paul says, as application to that, is that now, “since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces?”

He says, “Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again?”

Now that you have “become known by God,” now that you are “children of God,” that he’s bought you off the auction block and sat you at his table, do not go back to the things that enslaved you.

I don’t know about you, but that is exactly the pattern that my life follows. I am Hosea’s wife, Gomer, running away from everything for no reason to find a satisfaction that does not exist outside of the God who made me and loves me and rescued me and wants me.

I am the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai, melting down my jewelry and carving them into idols. Whatever I seem like when I’m dressed up in my nicest clothes and I’m yelling the Bible at you from a pulpit, the reality is that it takes .03 seconds for me to collapse back into 12 year old boy mode. Even after being “made alive with Jesus Christ,” like Ephesians 2 says, we will always feel the pull towards the old slaveries that God has rescued us from.

You’ll feel the ghosts of your old ways stalking you day in and day out, because that’s what they do. It’s your nature to be drawn to the sin that used to thrill you. It’s our nature to enslave ourselves to anything that promises to make us happy without making us holy, to make us whole without making us good.

And my extremely sophisticated sermon point, here, is: Don’t. Now that God has bought you off the auction block and sat you at his table, do not go back to the things that enslaved you. None of your pet sins are going to make you happy. None of your idols are going to make you whole. They will not deliver on their promises.

To be extremely specific for whoever needs to hear this: A new wife, or a new husband, or a new job, or a new anything is not going to satisfy you any more than what you already have will satisfy you because they can’t, because they’re not supposed to, because God has “placed Eternity in your heart” and so the only thing on planet earth that can make you whole and complete and satisfied is the God who created you out of love and then adopted you as his child.

But he will. Do not get up from the table and go back to the plantation. You have been rescued from your slavery to the things you think will make you happy and sat down at God’s table, as God’s beloved child, and your job for the rest of your life and the rest of forever is just to sit.

Sit down at God’s table and enjoy him. Just enjoy the God who rescued you. Just enjoy him by searching through the scriptures, and enjoy him by gathering together as a people who’ve been rescued by him, and enjoy him in your marriage, and enjoy him in your friendships, and enjoy him in your work, and enjoy him in the way that you rest, and the way that you can rest, now, because he has made you able to rest. Go before the throne of grace with boldness and confidence because Christ has made you belong there. Look for wholeness there, because you will not find it with the things you used to worship.

‘Inheriting The Promises Of God Through Jesus’ – Gal. 3:15-29 – Oct. 6th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 3, verses 15 through 29. Paul says,

Brothers, I’m using a human illustration. No one sets aside or makes additions to even a human covenant that has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say “and to seeds,” as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed, who is Christ. 17 And I say this: The law, which came 430 years later, does not revoke a covenant that was previously ratified by God and cancel the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is from the law, it is no longer from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise.

19 Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come. The law was put into effect through angels by means of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not for just one person, but God is one. 21 Is the law therefore contrary to God’s promises? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly be by the law. 22 But the Scripture has imprisoned everything under sin’s power, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. 24 The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith.

 25 But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. 28 There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Let’s pray.

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If you’re like most folks, you’re probably kind of a cynic. You don’t expect much of anything out of anybody because you’ve played that game before and it didn’t really work out. You’ve been let down by more people than you’ve got fingers to count. Next week we’re talking in depth about the fact that God becomes our Father in Jesus Christ – he adopts us, and we become his children and he ceases simply to be our creator and our ruler but becomes our Father, with everything that comes along with it.

And that’s a glorious reality, and an indescribable blessing, but a lot of us will have trouble seeing it that way. To paraphrase the author Donald Miller, calling God our “Father” has become a real PR problem, because getting compared to your father might draw all the wrong connections. Statistically, somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five percent of Americans hear the phrase, “God is our Father” and, because of their life experiences, what they’re actually hearing is “God is that guy who knocked up my mom and then left when it got hard.”

They hear “God is the guy who spent my youth making me feel ugly and small and worthless.” They hear, “God is the guy who taught me I can’t trust men no matter what they seem like up front.” You know what I’m talking about? If you’ve existed for any length of time in this world, you’ve probably come to distrust nearly everyone and everything because you’ve been let down or victimized by most of the folks you’ve given the chance to, and especially the ones who were supposed to love and protect you.

You hear that Christ is your “friend” in John 15, and, because of your life experiences, what you’re actually hearing is that “Christ is that person who’ll use you for what you can give them and then leave you when it turns out you have needs.”

You hear in Hosea 13 that God is like a “Mother bear,” or that Christ is like a “Mother hen,” in Matthew 23, and, rather than hearing that God is deeply nurturing and fiercely protective over you, because of your life experiences what you actually hear is that God is like the mom who found every insecurity lurking in the back of your mind and then picked at them until you couldn’t stand her anymore and you couldn’t stand yourself, and you couldn’t stand the sight of your own body or the sound of your voice and you couldn’t fathom that anybody with any sense could ever love you because your mom and your friends and your dad and your everyone drilled it into you that you’re unlovable and worthless and disposable and more a liability than a human so when I or the Bible or anyone says that God is your Father or brother or friend or guardian you can’t bring yourself to hear it as good news because it’s never been good news to have those things beforehand and that voice in your head carries over to now and says, “God will leave you like everybody else,” “God will grow tired of you like everybody else,” and “God will rough you up like everybody else,” because that’s what everybody does, at least to you, and God’ll be like that, but bigger, and worse, and forever.

So there might be a quiet, nagging voice in your head that refuses to believe that God will ever actually be faithful to the promises he’s made to you. And if any of what I’ve just said describes you, it’s unlikely that I can “talk you into” believing anything otherwise – that’s deeply ingrained, and it’s not something you just snap out of – but I want to open by saying it out loud: God will be faithful to the promises he’s made to you in Jesus Christ.

And as complex as today’s passage looks up front, that is exactly what Paul is getting at, here.

*

As you might remember from earlier in Galatians, Paul is facing off with a group of early “segregationists” in the churches in Galatia. In Galatians 2:12, Paul refers to them unaffectionately as the “circumcision party.” Paul goes out of his way in Galatians 2:4 to demonstrate that they are not just “Christians who are wrong about some stuff,” they are agitators. Their goal is not to correct our theology, their goal is to confuse it.

They didn’t love Jesus, they just hated Gentiles, and when they saw that Jewish believers and Gentile believers were congregating together in the churches in Galatia, they put their heads together and started, essentially, a “fake news” campaign designed to convince the Jewish Christians in Galatia that all Gentile Christians needed to submit to the Mosaic Law or go home.

That’s a lot of info, so I’m gonna run back through it: Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians to try and bring the churches in Galatia back to a place of relative sanity after some heretics from a group called the “circumcision party” convinced them to kick out any Gentiles who wouldn’t get circumcised, cut non-kosher foods out of their diets, and take up the entirety of the Mosaic Law that we find in the first five books of the Bible.

That might sound kind of extreme from our vantage point, today, but – do not raise your hands – how many of the men, here, would keep coming to Mount Zion if the rest of the church locked arms and said, “If you want to come back next week, you’d better call the doctor and schedule a circumcision?”

It’s very similar to the way that in New York City in the 1960s, the civil engineer Robert Moses rebelled against the mandatory integration of public facilities by researching what sorts of things would generally drive African Americans from using them. So after formal segregation had been outlawed, he tried to maintain, kind of, a de facto segregation by driving African Americans away from using the public facilities they were now entitled by law to use.

Very much the same thing is at work here: The “circumcision party” wants to “Robert Moses” the churches in Galatia. They wanna get rid of as many Gentiles as they can, so they hatch up a plan to convince the Galatians that they’ve got to obey every last line of the Mosaic Law, right down to getting circumcised as adult men. Paul’s opponents say that if you want to be one of God’s people, the way to get there is through obedience to the Law.

But, for Paul, that would mean that God had abandoned his promises to us. Paul tells us that if we are still “under the Law,” then God has abandoned his promises to us, and if God has abandoned his promises to us, then God has abandoned us.

His thought-process is kind of all over the place, but it makes perfect sense when you step back and get a wide angle view: Paul points out in verse 17 that God’s promise to redeem us came 430 years before the Law. God promised Abraham that he would redeem his people, and there was no written Law to obey when God made that promise. God’s promise to redeem us was exactly that – it was a promise.

It wasn’t a “deal,” it wasn’t a “negotiation,” there was no “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine,” it was a one-sided promise by God for us, that God would redeem us from our Fallenness. It was like a contract where God took on all of the responsibility, and all of the risk, and all of the costly sacrifice that goes into it, and so God’s promised rescue comes entirely by God’s glorious mercy and there’s no hint throughout the Old Testament that anything else would ever be the case.

But that leads to a pretty obvious question: Paul says in verse 19 “Why then was the Law given?” If God promised to save us back in the days of Abraham, and the Law had nothing to do with saving us, then what’s the point of Leviticus? Right? I had a guy tell me exactly that one time – we were talking through the book of Deuteronomy, and he interrupted and said, “If none of this stuff saves me what’s the point of learning about it?”

But Paul tells us exactly what the Law was for: He says the Law was meant to “guard us” until the salvation God had promised could come. If you look at verse 19, the Law was given, quote, “because of transgressions.” The laws you see in those first five books of the Bible weren’t given to the “unsaved” so they could “get saved,” they were given to the “already-saved” because of the depths of our sin. Paul says that God gave us the Law because he was faithful to his promises.

Like, if you remember the story of the Exodus, the Israelites settle at the base of Mt. Sinai, and while Moses is up on the mountain with God they melt down their jewelry and make an idol to worship. That’s a red flag. Israel is free from their physical slavery to Egypt, but they’re very much still embroiled in their slavery to sin, and so God lovingly gave them a Law that would restrain their sin, verse 24, kind of like a babysitter.

Your translation might say “guardian,” or “caretaker,” or any number of things, and all of those are correct. The Law was given, 1) to restrain our sinful tendencies, and 2)to, kind of, reeducate us. Like we said back in our Ruth series, God’s Law is kind of like a “reeducation camp.”

That’s a weird comparison, let me explain: We live in a Fallen world, and our Fallen world distorts everything that’s good, and right, and holy – you know what I’m talking about? And if you live in this world, you will pick up the world’s tendencies, and so while God created us for peaceableness, the world distorts our tendencies toward violence. God created us for faithfulness, but the world distorts our tendencies toward deception or manipulation, or greed, and so on and so forth. The Law is like a teacher, or a pedagogue, or a guardian, because it restrains our old sinful tendencies and teaches us new tendencies, verse 24. God’s Law is like a “reeducation camp.”

But he also says that the Law has “imprisoned everything under sin’s power,” verse 22. The Law has shackled everybody in. The Law has knee-capped you. By giving us the Law at Mount. Sinai, God has forced us to reckon with our own sinfulness by showing us a vision of God’s design for humanity. You know what I’m talking about?

A lot of people carry on the destructive patterns that their parents exhibit for them. A lot of people grow up hating their dad for the way he treated their mom but proceed to treat their future wives or girlfriends the same way. Right? There’s a cognitive dissonance that goes undealt with. And a lot of times when you meet somebody who broke that cycle of destructiveness and abusiveness, what they tell you is that they saw somebody else who shattered their illusions about what’s normal and acceptable.

They saw a marriage that was genuinely self-giving, genuinely mutually-submissive, genuinely loving and kind and Christlike. And that was the first step toward breaking their illusions, breaking the cycle that the world has bestowed on them. To quote an author named David Dark, something has to “exorcise” us. Something has to “wake up the human inside the robot.”

It’s not enough just to “see” a healthy alternative, but it’s often the first step that instigates getting the help they need, and the Law is like that.

Verse 22, it “imprisons everything under sin,” if you can look past Paul’s endlessly abstract prose, here, the Law forces us to reckon with the sheer depths of our own brokenness, it forces us to recognize how self-evidently destructive and unacceptable our tendencies and patterns are by showing us, through a glass dimly, a faint vision of God’s good design for us.

That was a lot of info, but the short version is that the Law doesn’t replace God’s promises to us, it “ushers us into them.” God’s Law is a “Guardian.” And as our “guardian,” it carries us safely to the foot of the cross.

*

But Paul also tells us in verse 25, that we are “no longer under [that] guardian,” we are no longer “under” the Law, because we are all now sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the point of verses 16 through 18, we “inherit” the promises of God through Jesus. We become sons and daughters of God through Jesus. God gave us the Law to serve as a “guardian” until Christ came, and now Christ has come, and we are no longer under that guardian – because God has been faithful to his promises to us in Jesus Christ. Because Christ is the salvation that was promised in the Old Testament.

Christ is what saved Abraham, Christ is what saved Moses, and David, and Christ is what saved Ruth and Naomi, and Elijah, and Jeremiah, and he is your salvation – if, as Paul spells out, you recognize your brokenness as you fall short of God’s good Law and you throw yourself on his mercy in faith.

Because when you throw yourself on Christ’s mercy in faith, verse 27, you are “baptized into Christ,” and when you are baptized into Christ, Paul says you “put on Christ like a garment.” And when you put on Christ like a garment, you aren’t just you. When you “put on” Christ, God treats you like you’re the faithful Son that Jesus was; He deals with you like you’re the faithful “Law-keeper” that Jesus was.

If you had a killer Sunday School teacher growing up, you probably heard that when you’re “justified” by Jesus, it’s “just as if you’d never sinned,” in God’s eyes, and that’s true, but to be even more specific: It’s not just that you’re treated “just as if you’d never sinned”; when you “put on Christ,” God treats you “just as though you’d always obeyed.” He treats you just as though you’d always lived in perfect obedience to his good design, from your first breath to your last. When you “put on Jesus,” God deals with you like the 15th Psalm is about you: It says,

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
    Who may live on your holy mountain?

The one whose walk is blameless,
    who does what is righteous,
    who speaks the truth from their heart;
whose tongue utters no slander,
    who does no wrong to a neighbor,
    and casts no slur on others;
who despises a vile person
    but honors those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
    and does not change their mind;
who lends money to the poor without interest;
    who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things
    will never be shaken.

Like Abraham, God “credits you” with the righteousness of Jesus, and you inherit all the promises of God along with him. God has been and will be faithful to his promises to you in Jesus Christ. No matter how you’ve been let down in the past and will be let down in the future by the people who are supposed to love and protect you, God will be faithful to his promises to you in Jesus Christ, and his promises are staggering. He will not abandon you. He will make you “dwell in his sacred tent.” You will “live on God’s holy mountain.” Your “walk will be blameless.” God will make you “righteous,” and truthful, and generous, and trustworthy. You will be everything God has promised to make you in Jesus Christ.

So as we worship the Lord through song in a moment, I will be standing at the altar. If you would like to talk through what it would mean to put your faith in Jesus Christ, to become sons or daughters of the God we’ve been lifting up this morning, I’ll be available to talk, or pray, or listen.

‘Christ Has Taken Our Curse’ – Gal. 3:10-14 – September 8th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 3, verses 10 through 14.

Paul says:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written: Everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed. 11 Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. 12 But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. 13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. 14 The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Let’s pray.

*

It seems very much like the standard job description of a pastor is to find clever ways to downplay the gravity of our condition, right? Like, each week, we stumble into a difficult passage in the Bible and most of the time, it seems like the general expectation for a pastor is that we’ll find some way to talk in circles until the passage no longer means what it seems like it means. You know what I’m talking about?

There’s a whole cottage industry in Christian radio and Christian movies and Christian talk shows and so on and so forth of turning everything as upbeat as possible and flattening out the actual words and phrases and sentences in the Bible to make sure God never says anything we wouldn’t write ourselves, right?

But passage like today’s make that very difficult. Paul says that we are “cursed” by the Law. That’s intense. When Paul says that we are “cursed” under the Law, he’s quoting Deuteronomy 27, in which Moses has preached a series of sermons where he applies the Ten Commandments to all kinds of every-day situations that the Israelites would’ve faced back in the wilderness period, and after he finishes, all of God’s people covenant themselves to obeying the Law as it applies in every situation in their lives. They covenant themselves with the God who has given us this Law, and they say, in verse 26, “Cursed is anyone who does not uphold this Law by carrying it out.”

That’s kind of like a “social contract” – like the “social contracts” we make when we decide to live somewhere, right? When Paul says that we are “cursed” by God’s Law, what he’s describing is like the social contracts we all learned about in our high school Civics classes. Like, if you’re in this room this morning, you and I have an unspoken social contract with each other that I’m not gonna kill you unless you force me, and you’re not gonna kill me unless I force you. No matter how angry we get with each other, nobody’s gonna draw their guns and start shooting. Unless you break into my apartment in the middle of the night with ill intent, nothing’s gonna happen to you as a result of any argument we might have.

That’s an unspoken social contract. You don’t have to go around seeking confirmation from each new person that you meet that they don’t mean you any harm – like, each time you meet somebody at a party you’re not like, “Quick question: Do you have murderous intent?” We can trust that we are not in danger in most situations with most people because we have that basic social contract and that social contract is enforced by a government made up predominately of elected officials.

There are significant limits to the extent to which the government can prevent you from killing me, breaking the social contract, but what they can do is enforce the consequences that come from breaking it.

Like, 2020’s coming up, that’s election season, and in a group of 30 to 50 people, there’s bound to be significant disagreement over the issues that are up for debate this election cycle, but if, say, Eula Smith gets into an argument with James Powell over immigration policy, and she gets so mad about his policy proposals that she pulls out a glock and puts him six feet under, the government is going to hold her accountable for breaking her end of the social contract. She’s gonna go to prison for a long time.

That’s good. The social contract is good. The social contract is a blessing – but it becomes a curse when you’re on the wrong side of it. If you haven’t been murdered in cold blood over a property dispute, you’re the beneficiary of a social contract, it’s been a blessing to you. But if you’re serving a life sentence for strangling seven prostitutes in New York City in the 1980s, then you’re a victim of the social contract. It’s become a curse to you. The social contract is not your friend, it’s a ghost that haunts you.

It has ceased to be a blessing and become a curse instead, but the problem is you. Right? If you’re punished for crimes against humanity, the problem is not the social contract, it’s you. If you get punished for strangling seven prostitutes, you’re not the helpless victim of an unjust law, you are a plague upon the earth and the social contract remains a blessing to the community by becoming a curse upon you. Right? This might seem like a strange direction to take this passage, but it’s important to keep these things in mind as Paul explains how the good Law that God gave us through Moses because a curse instead of a blessing to us.

Because I don’t know how many sermons I’ve heard where somebody got up to the pulpit and spent a half hour saying, “The Law is a curse, but God’s grace is a blessing!” You know what I’m talking about? “The Law is your enemy, but Jesus is your friend!” They’ll say, “The Old Testament is all about how God is angry at you, but the New Testament is all about how Jesus loved you so much that he died on a cross to redeem you!” It’s very rare to hear somebody say that the Law is good, and right, and holy but that’s exactly what the Old and New Testaments say about it.

Part of it probably just comes down to the fact that we live in a very anti-authoritarian age, right? People hate rules. People hate the idea that there is a “correct” way of doing things – that there’s a correct way of treating people, that there’s a correct way to engage in your own existence. Like when is the last time you saw a movie where the hero didn’t learn at the end that the answers they were looking for were in their hearts all along? Family movies are the worst about it – some hero goes on a long quest, and at the end they discover that the whole point of the quest was for the universe to show them that they’ve got to create their own meaning. That they’ve got to decide for themselves what they want their lives to be about.

And that affects the way we think about ourselves. Today we think of ourselves as solitary individuals whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment, and when you see yourself as a solitary individual whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment you will value different things than you would’ve otherwise.

You will value your sense of happiness over the commitments you’ve made to the person you’ve married, right? You will value your sense of satisfaction over the safety of your kids. You know what I’m talking about? But more than anything, seeing yourself as a solitary individual whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment will cause you to react differently to what you read in the Bible. Especially when you get Mount Sinai and God starts handing down his good commands to Moses to report back to the people in the wilderness.

We touched on this nearly every week when we were walking through Ruth, but the Law that God gave through Moses was a blessing to everyone except the folks who were determined to gratify themselves at the expense of others. So in the story of Ruth, we see a foreign widow who has lost everything after going through tragedy after tragedy, who comes to Israel, and finds herself wrapped up in God’s loving care, because the Law that God has given to his people through Moses provided for her in every capacity.

 The Law required the folks around her to do whatever was necessary to ensure that she was fed generously, housed comfortably, and then invited into the community. God’s Law made Israel her home. It made God’s people a refuge for pagans from the surrounding nations who’d been battered by the darkness of the world, and that’s something we desperately need to be, because it’s something that we all desperately need, right?

Like, Ephesians chapter two, we were once “dead in our trespasses and sins” to such a radical degree that we only really had one hand on the wheel – we were wrapped up in the sins that plagued us and they were in charge, they were running our lives, and running them into the ground because you can’t keep your sin contained. You can’t make your peace with your pet sins and carry on with your life, because sin eats everything. It conquers everything. It’s not content to co-exist with the rest of your qualities, it’s gotta become the deepest parts of you.

So we were all once radically enslaved to our sin, we were co-opted by the brokenness that we were addicted to, and God became our refuge. Ephesians 2 says that he “made us alive together with Christ.” We were “dead in sin” and God made us “alive” with Christ. And in Ruth’s situation, it was God’s Law that created the pathway for her to find her refuge among God’s people. So God’s Law was the blessing, but when we see ourselves as solitary individuals whose primary purpose is to find personal fulfillment, we will inevitably see that same Law as a curse.

So let me be as clear as possible: God’s Law is not a curse. It’s the opposite of a curse. In a world smashed to bits by the Fall, where every good thing God’s made has been distorted and we’ve been turned cruel like the idols we gravitate towards, God’s Law is just about the only thing that isn’t a curse. But like we said before, the Law becomes a curse when we become a curse. You know what I’m talking about? The Law becomes a curse on us when we perpetuate the brokenness of the world.

When Paul talks about “this present, evil age” in chapter one, he’s not talking about the year of our Lord 2019, and he wasn’t even talking about the first century AD, he’s talking about this age that we’ve all lived in since we rebelled against God in the garden and were rightfully banished. Like, I probably don’t have to convince you that the world is “broken,” but you might be surprised at just how extremely broken it really is, right?

There’s a, kind of, famous set of lines in Isaiah chapter 11, where God looks forward to a day in which the world is restored to his original created design, and Isaiah records what God says:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the goat.
The calf, the young lion, and the yearling will be together,
and a child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze,
their young ones will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
An infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
None will harm or destroy another
on My entire holy mountain,
for the land will be as full
of the knowledge of the Lord
as the sea is filled with water.” (11:6-9)

If you go to a coffee shop around eleven in the morning on a weekday, you’re bound to hear a handful of retirees thumbing through newspapers and complaining about how things have “gone to hell in a handbasket,” right? But what they usually mean is that things have gotten worse since their childhood. They remember their youth through rose-tinted glasses, but they can see “right now” pretty clearly so the 1950s seem like the Garden of Eden in comparison and 2019 seems very much like the gates of hell, but no matter how seemingly stable and benign your childhood days were, your toddler couldn’t, just, like, hang out with a wild snake. Right? Wolves and lambs weren’t going to the supermarket together.

But a day is coming when “no one will harm or destroy one another” because that’s God’s created design. Later, in Isaiah 25, God says that he will “remove our disgrace from us,” he will “wipe away every tear.” Literally, every tear from our faces. He will heal everything that broken about us. He will make us complete again. You will no longer be lacking, you will no longer be miserable, you will be every bit as whole as God created you to be, because he loves you even more deeply than you love yourself. God will restore you.

And yet that’s only actually possible if we submit to him. God created everything to embody that vision that he puts forward in Isaiah 11, but every one of us is born into rebellion against it. The world doesn’t look like Isaiah 11 because we are constantly working against it. We’re all locked in, arm in arm, in rebellion against God’s “peaceable kingdom,” against God’s good design. And so long as we continue in our rebellion, God’s created design for the world will never be a reality.

So if God is going to wipe away the tears of the world, he has to do something more than just say, “There, there,” right? Like, when you are suffering immensely, and you’re just miserable, the last thing you want is for somebody to to say, “Hey! Don’t be sad. God is still on his throne!” Right? We do not need God to stand on the sidelines and say “There, there.” If God is going to wipe away the tears of the world, at a certain point that means he’s got to put an end to the thing causing everyone’s tears in the first place. If God is going to make Isaiah 11 a reality, he’s got to purge the world of the darkness that’s preventing it.

And that’s either very good news for us or it’s very bad news, because we are the source. The tears that God will one day wipe away from everyone have their source in the sin we inflict on each other. We are the reason that the “wolf cannot lie down with the lamb,” we are the reason that the “kid cannot play with the cobra,” and so on and so forth. The world is broken, and it’s broken because we’re broken. And that will never end until we’re not broken anymore or we don’t exist anymore, which means that those are God’s two options. He can heal us or he can annihilate us.

And when you bear this in mind, it becomes much clearer how the Law can be a blessing rather than a curse: Each of us is “cursed by the Law,” but the reason that we’re cursed is that we are a curse. The reason that we’re cursed by the law is that we’ve broken it. When the Law curses us, it’s not unfairly condemning us to some terrible fate, it’s pointing at us and sounding the alarm that if we keep up the way we’re going we will continue to be a plague upon the earth and that a loving God would never allow us to continue in the sins we’ve come to love and walk in.

We are under the curse of the Law because we participate in keeping the world broken. So the Law thrusts a mirror in our face and enables us to see ourselves clearly in a way we couldn’t beforehand. We look at our reflection and see how warped we’ve become. God’s Law is a blacklight, and our hearts are an old couch.

So the law curses you – because it should – and that’s bad news for you, but the good news of the gospel is that Jesus has taken your curse. Romans chapter 8 verse 1 says that “there no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” because Christ has taken on every last drop of his own just fury towards your crookedness. Think about that: The one who wrote the law that curses you also takes the curse of the law onto himself and nails it to the cross with him. The punishment you rightly deserve as a result of your sin has been poured out on Jesus. The righteous wrath of God has been satisfied in Christ so there is absolutely no wrath directed towards you. God has no wrath toward you. God isn’t angry at you.

So, we hear a lot about the “love” of God, but it’s important to be specific. God loves you and he knows you. You ever feel like nobody would love you if they really knew your thoughts, and your feelings, and your desires? Like your kids won’t love you once they’re old enough to understand you? Like your friends won’t love you once they get to know you better. Like your spouse is bound to leave you once you show them what you’re really like? I get that.

But God loves you and he knows you. God knows you better than you know you. God remembers grave sins that you’ve already forgotten about. Like, God is intimately familiar with the things you carry around that make you deeply ashamed – and should – God is every bit as aware of your warts spots as you are and he is painfully aware of the things that your sinful nature has allowed you to forget and move on from; and yet, knowing all of those things, God wants you. God deeply wants you. God will not turn you over to your own brokenness, God wants to be reconciled to you, and he wants so deeply to be reconciled to you that he came to Earth, took on the fullness of our humanity, and gave himself over to us to be crucified for our sin. Those are the depths of God’s love for you.

God gave himself over to be punished for our sin. Jesus Christ came to Earth to take on the curse that comes with our sin so that we would no longer be cursed but instead be blessed and invited into relationship with him. God took on the breadth and width and depth of our curse so that we could be blessed in him.

And so Jesus calls us to be reconciled to God. He calls us, to quote Hebrews chapter 4, to “come before the throne of grace” with “boldness and access,” not to shrink back and hide from God in shame but to throw ourselves before him on the basis of the mercy we’ve been given in Jesus Christ to taste and see that the Lord is good because we are invited to. We are beckoned to come before the Lord by throwing ourselves on the mercy of Jesus. You are invited into relationship with the God who created you through Jesus Christ. So come. Don’t not come. Take hold of the mercy God has held out to you.

We would like to invite you to enter a relationship with the God who knows you and still wants you. As we respond in worship through song in a moment, I’ll be standing at the altar. You are welcome to come to the front, and we can talk through what it would mean to throw yourself on the mercy of the God who loves you so deeply that came to earth and gave himself over to be crucified instead of you. To bring you into relationship with himself, to adopt you into his family.

Let’s pray.

‘Becoming Abraham’s Children’ – Gal. 3:6-9 – September 1st, 2019

If you would, please turn with me in your Bibles to Galatians, chapter 3, verses 6 through 9.

Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith.

Let’s pray.

*

Like most things, today’s passage reminds me of a, kind of, weird story: Back when I lived in Oklahoma, we were doing apartment ministry. We would knock on doors and share the gospel until somebody invited us to come back and teach them more. So I met a guy named John, and we started going to his house every week or two. And one time we were headed to a Firelake grocery store to get a tub of ice cream for his birthday party – because doing apartment is weird – and he said, “I don’t believe all that Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit stuff y’all are always talking about, but I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t like all the Muslims I’m seeing these days, I’m not a Muslim, I’m a Christian, so I don’t like seeing them pouring into my community.”

And I tried to decide which horrifying statement to address first.

And I said, “Well, John, I’m very happy that you want to be a Christian, but if you don’t believe all that Father-Son-Holy-Spirit stuff, I’m not sure ‘Christian’ is the right word to describe you.” And he got kind of offended, the way people do when you tell them that aren’t a Christian, and he said, and I quote, “I’m as Christian as apple pie!” and I said, “Well, John, I believe the term is, ‘American as apple pie’.” And he said, and I quote, “What’s the difference?”  I think that’s pretty illustrative of the culture of the United States today. Right?

It reminds me of a story in Matthew, chapter 3, where John the Baptist is out “open-air preaching” in the wilderness, or something, he’s just baptizing people and saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” That’s old-timey talk for, “God is coming, make sure you’re ready.”

So one day some religious leaders from the synagogue show up and start challenging John the Baptist. They say, essentially, “I’m not sure what your point is, John. We have Abraham as our father. We are Israelites. We are God’s children. We are children of the light. God made a promise to Abraham that his descendants would be blessed and adopted by him, and we are his descendants.” They’re like my Oklahoma friend, John. They think they’re “God’s folks” because they’ve got the right national identity.

And rather than laughing it off and saying, “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” John responds by saying, “God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.” In other words, “God can graft in whoever God wants,” “God can dole out the blessings he’s promised to Abraham to anybody he wants to dole them out to,” whether they are Gentiles, or prostitutes, or tax collectors – anyone who is repentant and throws themselves on the mercy of God can be a child of Abraham, because God’s deep, abiding pleasure is rescuing people from the darkness they’ve been born into.

That’s why Paul says that when we have faith in Jesus we become “sons of Abraham.” He’s “echoing” John the Baptist. We actually see Paul borrowing the language John the Baptist uses in Matthew chapter 3 and applying it to a very similar situation in Galatia. We “become sons of Abraham” through faith in Jesus, verse 7. That seems like the most obvious thing in the world when Paul says it, but it’s not something you hear very often. And it did not sit well with the religious leaders that John the Baptist was facing down in the wilderness.

But before they get a chance to argue with him about it, he follows it up by saying, “But even now, the axe is laying at the root of the tree.” A day is coming when God will separate the “wheat from the chaff,” the “good fruit from the rotten fruit,” the “sheep from the goats.”

If you were standing in the crowd that day, his point couldn’t be clearer. John the Baptist is telling the religious leaders that quite a few people who can trace their “family tree” back to “father Abraham” have absolutely no business calling Abraham their “father” because they don’t have the faith that Abraham has. John the Baptist says that God adopted Abraham because Abraham put his faith in him, and nobody has Abraham as their father who doesn’t also have God as their Father, and nobody has God as their father who doesn’t have Abraham’s faith as their own faith. They’re the same “nationality” as Abraham, but they are nothing like him.

So John the Baptist is pretty ruthless. He’s telling the religious leaders who come to interrogate him in the desert that God has made great promises to us, but they won’t see it. The faithless religious leaders will never enjoy God’s presence or inhabit God’s Kingdom because when God comes to Earth and dwells among us in Jesus Christ they will reject him because he doesn’t match the image they’ve built up in their minds. So the title of John’s sermon that day might have been “Father Abraham Has Many Sons And You’re Not One Of Them.”

Because you enter into a relationship with the God of Abraham through Jesus Christ and absolutely nothing else – not your family tree, not your bloodline, not your accomplishments, and not your nationality. You enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible through Jesus Christ and nothing else.

That should be good news. But it was very bad news for these religious leaders, it was very bad news for the agitators that Paul was facing off against in today’s passage, and it pains me to say that it’s currently very bad news for an awful lot of red-blooded Americans – like my friend John from the story at the beginning. Right?

Because kind of like when John the Baptist said that more Hebrew people than anybody had fingers to count assumed that being Jewish was the same as being saved,” one of America’s “sacred cows” is the notion that we are Christian-by-default. You know what I’m talking about? Like John, who I talked about earlier, Americans tend to think of themselves as Christian by default.

If I conducted a poll all across our county, I’d be willing to bet that somewhere between 70 and 80% of the people would identify as Christian. But if you pressed them to explain what they mean by that, they’d get vague – they wouldn’t be able to tell you why they identify as Christian rather than Jehovah’s Witness, why they identify as Christian rather than Latter-Day Saints, why they identify as Christian rather than Spiritual, But Not Religious, you know what I’m talking about?

The truth is that when you push the average person from our particular part of the world, at a certain point you hit a dead end where you realize that most folks think they’re Christian because they were born in America. For more than a few folks, being “Christian” has more to do with their national identity, or a kind of vague sense of patriotism, or a completely undefined reaction against the fact that more and more people from other religions have shown up and it makes them uncomfortable in ways they can’t explain but are not happy about – most folks that you meet in the USA identify as Christian primarily because of that, and not because they have any meaningful devotion to Jesus.

And that’s the peril of trying to fulfill the Great Commission in our particular part of the world: Far more that facing outright opposition to the faith, we face the opposite – everybody here thinks they’re already Christian. The average American thinks they’re Christian because they’re American, because they vaguely identify Jesus with America, so they say in their hearts that they’re “Servants of Jesus” because they’re “loyal to their country,” but you can be as loyal as all get-out until the day you die and that will not make you right with God.

In a very real sense, we are like the religious leaders that were facing off with John in Matthew. They kept clapping back at John the Baptist, reminding him that they were ethnically Jewish, that they were members of “the nation of Israel,” and that as a result they were “special in the eyes of God.” Either subtly or explicitly, they believed that when Judgment Day rolled around, God was going to have to “let them in” because they had the right national identity.

But John the Baptist tells them that the only “Israel” that matters is the Israel that God draws to himself from every nation of the Earth; that God has one Kingdom, that God has one “country,” and it’s got nothing to do with geography; that God has one “holy nation” and it’s not Israel, and it’s not America, it wasn’t the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, it wasn’t Russia during the years when the Russian Orthodox Church essentially ran the nation – there is no geographical nation that can claim Jesus as its national deity. There is no group that can claim Jesus as their property. Because Jesus is nobody’s property. Jesus is nobody’s “territorial spirit.” Jesus is nobody’s golden calf. Jesus is nobody’s belonging. We are his belongings.

1 Peter, chapter 2, says we are “a people of his own possession,” and John the Baptist says that there is only one pathway towards enjoying the sweetness of being a “people of God’s own possession,” and that is to “repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Like Paul says in verse 7, it’s by putting your faith in the same God as Abraham. To use the phrase that I prefer, it’s by throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus.

You become a citizen of the only nation God has by repenting and believing the gospel. By submitting yourself to Jesus as his subject. Paul says in Romans chapter 10 that “if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord,” that he is just to “forgive your sins” and adopt you as his own.

That term, “Lord,” means a handful of things. I’m not going to dive into Greek, but the Greek term, here, is often used to refer to the “God of the universe.” Throughout the Old Testament it’s usually the noun they would use to refer to Yahweh when he would talk to humans.

And it often refers to the “ruler” of a given territory. It refers to the king, the governor – the guy running this place.

When you “believe in your heart” and “confess with your mouth” that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” you’re not just acknowledging that he’s God. You’re acknowledging that he’s King. You are acknowledging Jesus as the Lord who rules you. You’re throwing yourself at the feet of Jesus as the one who governs your life. You’re making yourself his subject. You could say that we are saved by “transferring our citizenship” to Christ’s kingdom and becoming the people he rules over.

So John the Baptist pulls the rug out from under the feet of the religious leaders by telling them that they aren’t Israel. They aren’t even part of Israel. They are not “God’s people” and they are not “God’s anything” but they’re about to become God’s enemies. Because they refuse to “put their faith in Jesus Christ” and crucify him instead.

That sounds intense, but that’s the same choice that faces you and me. We have a choice between crucifying Jesus or throwing ourselves on his mercy. We are either going to “submit to him as our king” or we are going to “crucify him out of our lives.” There is no neutral. There’s no third option. We’re either going to “transfer our citizenship” to Christ’s kingdom, or wage war against it.

*

So, today’s passage is Paul at his most Aggressively Baptist. And it’s about to get even worse: Paul says in verse 6 that “Abraham “believed God” and as a result he was “credited with righteousness.” That’s very different than what most of us are probably used to hearing. Like, I grew up believing that you earned your way into heaven by “picking the right religion.” You know what I’m talking about? It sounds silly when you put it that way, but that’s what quite a few of us probably grew up assuming.

So as a kid, based on what I was hearing, I got the sense it was kind of like God set us out into the world, and he gave us a whole slew of options – kind of like one of those games where you’ve got a quarter and you put a cup over it and then you shift the cups all around and say, “Okay which cup is the quarter in?” Right? If you pick the cup with the quarter in it, you get to keep the quarter. Anybody’s Grandpa play that game with them? – and so God puts all these religions out into the world and we’ve got to pick one, and if you pick the right one – Christianity – you’re going to heaven. If you pick the wrong one, you go to hell.

That seemed like a pretty extreme response to “picking the wrong religion” when I was six, but I didn’t make the rules – I didn’t follow them either, but I was going to do whatever I needed to to “game the system” so that I could “go to heaven” instead of “going to hell,” because I don’t even like the summer-time heat, let alone the “eternal heat” that I was told would come with condemnation.

And so I grew up very self-assured that I was “locked in” because I had earned my salvation by “picking the correct religion.” If that seems frighteningly close to what you currently believe right now, don’t worry, there’ll be an altar call. I had some friends who were Hindu, and I thought, “Too bad for them, they picked wrong.” I knew a Buddhist in middle school, and I figured, “Too bad for that guy, he picked wrong,” but it was “Good news for me,” because “I picked right,” so by the time I reached High School, I knew that either there was no God and none of this mattered much anyway – which seemed like the more likely scenario to me – or this all came down to “picking the right religion” like a quarter in a cup and I assumed for no particularly good reason that the religion that I picked, and my parents had picked, and my grandparents had picked, and so on and so forth must be the right one.

As I said before, it sounds dumb when you say it bluntly without dressing it up in eloquent language, but that’s very much what I grew up believing and I think it’s what quite a few folks in our neck of the woods grow up believing. I believed that you earn your way into heaven by picking the right religion.

But you’ll notice that Paul does not say that “Abraham guessed correctly and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It does not say that “Abraham did a thorough investigation into the religions of the world, found the one that seemed the most reasonable, then got a book deal with Zondervan where he wrote about his experience and then it was credited to him as righteousness.” It says that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.

Literally. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. God called on Abraham to believe him, and he did. End of story. Abraham was “credited” with a “righteousness” that did not come from himself by believing the God who had approached him. That’s what saved Abraham.

But if you follow Paul’s train of thought here, that’s what saves us as well. We “believe God,” and it is “credited to us as righteousness.” God approaches us in Jesus Christ and he calls on us to “believe him,” and we either believe God or we crucify him. We either believe “the testimony of the Holy Spirit” as he calls us to “repent and put our faith in Jesus” or we reject him like the religious leaders that John the Baptist was heckling out in the wilderness. That is the choice that every person in this room has today. You can believe the God who has approached you in Jesus Christ, who gave himself to be nailed to the cross for your sins, or you can reject him.

What you can’t do is opt out. What you can’t do is trust in your American-ness to get your foot in the door in God’s Kingdom. At the end of the day you either believe God and are credited with the righteousness of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins or you reject him and you walk away with your head hung low like the Pharisees in the wilderness. Those are your options.

And if you’ve been counting on self-identifying vaguely as Christian rather than Muslim, vaguely as Christian rather than Hindu, Christian rather than Jehovah’s Witness and so on and so forth, you are walking away from Jesus. That’s what you’re doing. You are not a Christian and since I don’t hate you, I cannot allow you to walk out of this room believing that you are. Just like John the Baptist told the religious leaders that if you think you’re children of Abraham you’re fooling yourself, I have to tell you that checking off the “Christian box” on the census has nothing to do with whether you are held by Jesus.

You are held by Jesus if you have believed God like Abraham and have been credited with righteousness. You are held by Jesus if you have the faith that Abraham had. You are held by Jesus if, like verse 7 says, God has justified you by faith. Nothing else on planet earth will justify you.

So as we worship the Lord through song in a few minutes, I’ll be waiting at the altar. If you’ve lived out your life believing that you were Christian-by-default, if you’ve been trusting in the fact that you check off the “Christian box” on the census form, or if you’ve been trusting in the fact that you shared that Facebook post that said “Share if you love Jesus, ignore if you love Satan,” if you’ve been trusting in yourself to “earn your salvation” by “picking the right religion,” we’d love to invite you to lay down all those things you used to lean on to justify you before God and throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus instead. If you would like to pray together, or talk through whatever’s on your heart, I’ll be available.

Let’s pray.

‘Did You Suffer So Much For Nothing?’ – Gal. 3:1-5 – August 25th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 3, verses 1 through 5. Paul says:

You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?

Let’s pray.

*

I was at a restaurant in Louisburg a while back, and I asked the manager how I could be praying for her, and she sat down and told me, like, a 45 minute story about her life. It was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel – she’d suffered more than anybody, anywhere, has any good reason to. When she was done with her story, she asked me what she could possibly have done for God to bring all of this on her.

I am not one of those people who has a clever and convincing response to everything, so I try to just shoot straight and hope the Good Lord does something with it. So we talked about how the book of Job deals with exactly her question:

Job is a good man who does nothing wrong, and the devil seeks out God’s permission to bring all kinds of ruin on him. So for no reason whatsoever, Job’s crops die, and then a storm comes and knocks his house over with his kids inside it, and then his body turns on him so he breaks out in boils and worse, and his wife starts grieving in a way that makes it harder for him, not easier – she curses God for everything that’s happened and grabs him by the collar and gets real pushy about why he hasn’t gotten around to cursing God, too.

Job’s friends are no better. They say, “Job, clearly God is punishing you. Confess your sin. If you’ll just come back to God all of this will end.” They say, “Job, you’ve asked God to leave, and God’s a gentleman. If you’ll just repent and do what God says, your suffering will end.” But Job keeps pushing back, “I did not bring this on myself.” He says, “I am not suffering for my sin. I’m just suffering, and I want to know why.”

And it goes on for, like, forty chapters, Job’s friends keep gaslighting him because they, apparently, just need for themselves to believe that if they follow all the rules they’ll be spared what Job has gone through. But they won’t. And you won’t. Because it doesn’t work like that. You will suffer, because you exist. Period.

Because we live in a fallen world that runs on suffering, and when you live in a world that runs on suffering, you will suffer. Paul never points us toward an escape hatch. He never even hints at the possibility of avoiding the tremendous suffering that comes from living out our lives in a world that’s been alienated from the God who created it. The only thing Paul gives us is that we can suffer with Christ, or – verse 4 – we can “suffer for nothing.”

And you won’t just suffer because you exist. Like Job, you will suffer for your faith.  You will suffer because of your faith in ways that you might not suffer if you were faithless. You know what I’m talking about?

In the gospels, the thing Jesus talks the most consistently about is our suffering because of him. Jesus specifically and constantly tells us that we will suffer because we follow him, and that choosing to follow him amounts to choosing suffering over non-suffering. Instead of saying, “Follow me and I will show you how to escape your sufferings,” he says, “Follow me and I’ll send you out as sheep among wolves.” “Follow me and in this world you will have trouble.” “Come follow me and we’ll go get crucified together.”

So do not be taken in by the falsehoods propagated by Jobs friends – y’know, that God will spare the upright from suffering, and so if you’re suffering, the problem must be that you weren’t upright enough. Don’t be fooled by the folks who try to sell you on some formula that can spare you from suffering for your faith – the folks who say that “If you really have enough faith, God will protect you from harm.” Because at no point in the Bible does God offer to prevent our sufferings, so much so that when he finally shows up about forty chapters into Job, all he does is say, “My servant Job is correct, and his friends need to go repent.” And Job says, “Please tell me why I’ve suffered like this,” and God says, “No.” And that’s that. That’s the story.

God’s word never tries to explain away our suffering. It never gives us a complicated philosophy that we could use to put “our suffering in perspective.” Because there is only one answer to our suffering, and that is the cross of Jesus Christ. Which is what I told the restaurant manager in Louisburg. Which is a very annoying response. It sounds trite to say that “God’s answer to our suffering is the cross.” But Paul’s convinced, and I’m convinced that this is the only answer that isn’t trite.

*

Equally annoying is the fact that God hasn’t snapped his fingers and made all the evil in the world disappear. Right? Which is annoying, but understandable. Because if God snapped his fingers and made all the evil in the world disappear overnight, it would mean making all of us disappear overnight. We’d disappear along with all the things we wanna be rid of, right? We rightly call upon God to bring our suffering to an end, but there’s a serious hitch, and that is that we are our suffering. I am largely responsible not only for my own suffering but for the suffering of countless other people in ways I only halfway recognize on a good day.

In the past I’ve talked about a book by a British journalist named G.K. Chesterton called “What’s Wrong With The World,” and the book originated as a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, in which the editor posed exactly that question, What’s Wrong With The World. And Chesterton’s original letter was exactly two words long, not counting the salutations at the beginning and the end. Because in response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world,” Chesterton wrote, “I am.”

I’m what’s wrong with the world. I’m what’s wrong with my marriage, I’m what’s wrong with my family, I’m what’s wrong with my neighborhood, and my city. I am what’s wrong with America. The world is broken because it’s filled with people who are basically like me.

And I am not unique. I’m not trashing myself, here. I am what’s wrong with the world because you are what’s wrong with the world. You and I, everybody in this room are very much cut from the same cloth as Adam and Eve, we are every bit as rebellious, every bit as shamelessly-self-interested, every bit as eager to rob God of his rightful glory as our first parents were. And as a result, we keep “repeating” humanity’s “original sin.”

We repeat humanity’s original sin every time we place our own selfish desires over the well being of others. We repeat humanity’s original sin every time we place our own comfort over the security of others. We repeat humanity’s original sin every time we use each other for our own gratification, every time we manipulate each other, because in all of this we are rebelling against God’s good design and God’s gracious rule over us and instead usurping his throne for our own crooked ends.

So we’ve been rightly banished from the Garden, rightly cast out of God’s presence. But there’s more. We are all rightful recipients of a death sentence. And you can only pay a ‘death sentence” by dying, right? It’s like God is the French Revolution and we are the French Royalty that got guillotined. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death, and Romans 3:23 says that applies to every single one of us, and that means that you and I have a debt of death that needs to be payed and can only be payed by you and I – or by the God we’re in rebellion against. God is going to bring all of the suffering of the world to an end, which means that in a world that you or I created, God’s response to our suffering would be to annihilate us. We’d go the way of Marie Antoinette.

But we don’t live in a world that you or I created. We live in God’s world. We live in a world that was created in and through Jesus Christ, Colossians chapter 1. We live in a story scripted by the God we meet in Jesus Christ, and so God’s response to our suffering is not to annihilate us. It’s to suffer with us. It’s to suffer for us.

God’s response to your suffering was to come to earth – to be born from a virgin named Mary, to live out a life that perfectly meets his own good commands, and then give himself over to be crucified for us. The God who actually exists doesn’t glibly frown at our suffering. He shares our suffering with us. And what we ultimately learn as we read the New Testament is that by sharing our suffering on the cross Jesus begins the process that will one day end our suffering entirely.

*

That means that today, we live in, kind of, “the middle” of that process. And this is where Paul gets sort of technical.

Paul says that we have “received the Spirit” by “hearing with faith.” It’s like in Ephesians chapter 1, or Romans chapter 2 – you decide – when Paul says that the Holy Spirit is a “seal” of the promise that God has made to us. Your translation might say it’s a “sign,” or a “mark” of God’s gift of salvation – but no matter which way you translate it, the point’s fairly clear: The Holy Spirit testifies to the reality that we’ve been redeemed by God. If you have received the Holy Spirit you have been adopted by God, and if you’ve been adopted by God you have received the Holy Spirit.

Because when God rescues us, he doesn’t just forgive us and then, kind of, set us back down and say, “I’ll see you in heaven,” right? To use the language that a bunch of old, dead Baptists would use, you could say that after “justifying” us on the cross, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, to “sanctify” us on the ground. We are our suffering, but one day, we won’t be.  We are the brokenness of the world, but one day we won’t be. And with each passing day, it is God’s abiding pleasure to purge you of the sin and darkness that lives within you and causes you to contribute to the brokenness of the world.

You following me? If your sins have been forgiven through the Son of God, your sins will also be destroyed through the Spirit of God. It’s like Paul says in Philippians chapter 1, that “He who began a good work in you will see it to completion,” right? God will not abandon you to your sin. He will not take back his promises.

And we can be confident of that because he has given us the Holy Spirit as a counselor – as a “Physician”: He “heals” our nature from the warts and disease that’s consumed us since our Fall from the Garden. The Spirit is a seal that testifies that we’ve been rescued with a rescue that begins with God, is actively carried out by God, and which God will see through to the end.

But it’s really important to catch the specific point that Paul is making, here. He says that we received the Spirit, not by works of the Law – not through our obedience – but through “hearing with faith.” That means you received the Spirit by giving up – by coming to the end of yourself.

Hearing the message of the cross with faith is kind of like how every once in a while, you’ll be at the grocery store and somebody in front of you’ll swipe their card and the cashier’ll say it declined, and they’ll fight back tears and start removing items from their bag, then swipe again, still declined, remove some more items, swipe again, still declined, remove some more items, swipe again – and so you’ll step forward and tell them the to put the items back in their bag, keep whatever money’s still on the card, and you’ll pay for their groceries.

And they won’t know how to respond. They’ll be a mix of grateful and embarrassed and suspicious and scared it’s all a ruse and grateful again – and that’s very much what it’s like to receive the Spirit by hearing with faith. You suddenly believe because it’s thrust before you that you’re wildly inadequate in yourself, that your account is overdrawn and you cannot pay the debt that you owe and out of nowhere a good Samaritan appears and tells you to put you items back in your cart, and go home, and eat, and lay down, and it’s gonna be okay, and it’s gonna be more than okay because they’re gonna make it okay.

Hearing with faith isn’t just a choice you make, it’s a response to having your illusions shattered and being confronted with the reality of the gospel that Jesus has paid your debt, that he’s brought you back to life, that he’s making you alive in the Spirit and that the Spirit that he’s given us will carry us home even if it means that we’re kicking and screaming and giving up and  fighting all the way home.

*

All of this grates against our desire to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. I talked to a guy a few weeks back, and he told me that he’d thrown himself on the mercy of Jesus but he was still worried he’d go to hell because he wasn’t sure he’d done it right. We’re so determined to save ourselves by working our fingers down to the bone that we can turn even something like the sinner’s prayer into a work that we do to try to earn our salvation. Right? But here’s the reality: the sinner’s prayer is nothing.

It’s a handful of words that you say that communicate what’s already true in your heart. If you are praying the sinner’s prayer, you are verbally asking God to rescue you from your sin, and if you are verbally asking God to rescue you from your sin, you have already thrown yourself on his mercy. Right? When your card declines at the grocery store and the person behind you steps in to pay for you, there’s not a magic ritual you go through that transfers the money from her card to you. They’re giving you a gift. And the only way to receive it is to step aside so they can put their card in the card machine. You receive it by accepting it. That’s the whole thing.

We desperately want to earn our redemption by saying the right words or believing the right doctrines or attending the right church or performing the right task or cleaning up our behavior but Paul says that we receive the Spirit by hearing with faith. That’s it. Jesus shows up and pays our debts, and then they’re paid. To quote an old, dead revivalist named Jonathon Edwards, “We bring nothing to our redemption except the sin that made it necessary.”

And that’s very good news because it means that voice in your head that constantly doubts whether you’re truly redeemed is an unreliable narrator. You know what I’m talking about? I don’t know about you, but my “inner monologue” is a jerk. There are no days where I don’t sin, so each time I mess up, my inner monologue comes in with some version of, “Is this how a redeemed person acts?” “If you were really redeemed, would you be falling into this same pattern again?” There is a voice in our heads whose sole job is apparently to convince us that after being saved by grace, through faith – after “receiving the Spirit” by “hearing with faith” – it’s up to us to “finish what God started” by being good enough from this point forward. Right?

You’ll fall into that same sin you’ve been wrestling with for ten years, and that voice’ll come in while you’re praying and say, “That’s the last one.” “There’s no way God’s gonna keep forgiving you for the same stuff over, and over, and over again.” You know? But over against that voice in you head, Paul says, “After beginning with the Spirit,” you are not “now going to be made complete by the flesh.” After being purchased by the blood of Jesus, you will not now be “made complete” by your obedience. We’ve been rescued with a rescue that begins with God, is actively carried out by God, and which God will see through to the end.

The God who purchased you will keep you. He will not abandon you. He doesn’t just “forgive” your sinful actions, he begins to “heal” your sinful nature. Jesus didn’t just die to “exonerate” you, he rose up from the grave to “rehabilitate” you, and that means that the Spirit that you received by “hearing with faith” will turn straight every crooked thing about you, no matter how deep and discouraging that crookedness is today.

So much so that Paul says that God’ll use even our suffering to heal us from our brokenness. In Romans chapter 5, he says, “We rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” If you cling to Christ, your suffering will not have been for nothing.

Because by sharing our suffering on the cross Jesus begins the process that will one day end our suffering entirely. So Paul tells the Galatians not to succumb to the folks trying to turn them away from the gospel. Rather than allowing your suffering chase you away from the cross, allow the crucified God to carry you through your suffering.

As we worship through song in a few moments, I’d love to invite you to come down to the altar and pray, or talk, or sit, or cry, or anything. If you have never really known the God we’ve been talking about this morning, I’d love to talk through what it means to throw yourself on his mercy, to be redeemed from your sin and adopted into the family of God.

Let’s pray.

‘Christ Reconciles Us To Each Other’ – Gal. 2:11-21 – August 18th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Galatians chapter 2, verses 11 through 21. Paul says:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. 12 For he regularly ate with the Gentiles before certain men came from James. However, when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, because he feared those from the circumcision party. 13 Then the rest of the Jews joined his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the gospel, I told Cephas in front of everyone, “If you, who are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?”

15 We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” 16 know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. 17 But if we ourselves are also found to be “sinners” while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild the system I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I have died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ 20 and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Let’s pray.

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I went to high school with a dude who got circumcised at 22, because he fell in with a bizarre cult of perpetually underemployed doofuses who lit their social security cards on fire and refused to do anything that involved money printed by the United States Federal Reserve because they believed that the U.S. is embroiled in a plot to trick people into blaspheming the most high God by trading money with secret pagan imagery on it. So, uh, I’m friends with a tin-foil hat dude, and he got circumcised – I don’t think through a bona fide doctor, either – in his early twenties because his tin-foil hat buddies convinced him that God still wants us to follow all 613 of the ritual Laws listed out in the Old Testament.

It’s pretty easy to spot sketchy theology when it’s obviously off-the-rails, like my high school buddy. But it’s not always that obvious, right?

Like, if you’ve grown up in a church setting in the United States of America, most likely what you have heard throughout your life is that “In the Old Testament, you saved yourself by obeying the law, but in the New Testament, you get saved by turning yourself over to Jesus.” Anybody heard that? That’s what I heard growing up.

The problem, though, is that the more you read through the Old Testament itself, the more you realize that there was never a point in the history of God’s people in which you saved yourself by doing anything: God created us in the beginning by his good mercy, and then we broke the world when we abandoned him in the Garden; and then God reached out and rescued Abraham by his good mercy, and told him in Genesis chapter 12 that he was going to create a people for himself out of Abraham’s bloodline; then God rescued that people he’d created for himself from Egypt by his good mercy, and then gave them a law that turned Israel into a place that would reflect that good mercy by which God saves us.

So it shouldn’t surprise us, in verse 15, when Paul says, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus.” There was a purpose behind the law, and that purpose was never to “justify us.”

Instead, Paul says in Romans chapter 7, quote, “I would not have known sin if it weren’t for the law.” He’s not saying that the Law made him sin, he’s saying that the Law defined it for him. The Law gives us an idea of what God loves and what God hates. The Law doesn’t tell us “how to be saved” from our brokenness, it shows us that we need to be saved from our brokenness. The Law shatters our illusions by showing us beyond any shadow of a doubt that we really are exactly as broken as that very quiet voice in our souls has always been telling us. What you get from the Law is not a “ladder to heaven,” what you get from the Law is in ominous warning about the way you’re going.

So we see throughout the Old Testament not that God gave us the Law as a way that we could “work our way into his good graces,” but instead very simply that God gave us his Law during the days of Moses so that we would reflect his glory, and that as God’s people tried and failed to reflect his glory by keeping his Law, we came to realize that we were broken sinners in need of a savior.

There’s an overused quote by an old, dead theologian named Thomas Watson that says, “Until sin is bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” Until we see our sin clearly enough to hate it, we will not see Christ clearly enough to submit to him with gladness. There’s another quote by a somewhat-less-old but very-equally-dead philosopher named C.S. Lewis, that says, “No man really knows that he is bad until he has tried very hard to be good.”

The Law beckons us to try very hard to be good and learn in the process that we are bad. It beckons us to experience for ourselves that Christ is sweet by experiencing for ourselves that sin is bitter.

So God’s Law had a purpose, and that purpose was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The point of the law was very simply to govern God’s people during the time when they were a nation and demonstrate our need for Jesus Christ in the ages before he came. And he has come, and so the Law has been fulfilled. So you don’t need to get circumcised at 22, right?

That’s why Paul says that “We have died to the Law, so that we might live for God.” The law rightly sentenced us to death for our sin, but we’ve been “crucified with Christ,” verse 20, and “it’s no longer” you and I who live, but “Christ who lives in us.” So “the life” that we now live, “we live by faith in the Son of God who loves us and gave himself for us.”

That’s interesting. We’ve been, essentially, trained to read past sentences like that. Right? But that’s got staggering consequences. You’ve been crucified with Christ, so that it’s “no longer” you who lives, but Christ, who “lives in you.” Christ lives in you.

I wanna break that down: Everybody in this room who is a believer in Jesus has been rightly put to death with Jesus and now you aren’t just you, Christ lives in you. And because Christ lives in you, you’ve only got one hand on the wheel. You know what I’m talking about?

You aren’t just yourself, you are part of “the body of Christ.” Right? You hear the term “body of Christ” a whole lot, we’ll refer to the church – the church all across the world – as the “body of Christ,” but we hear it so often that most of the time we miss the point of the metaphor. It’s one of those things that you hear so often that you never think about it, right?

But if you have been put to death with Jesus and raised up with Jesus you are part of the body of Christ, and who owns Christ’s body? Christ owns Christ’s body. Who runs Christ’s body? Christ runs Christ’s “body.” You aren’t yours. You are not your own. You are Christ’s “hands” and Christ’s “feet.” Christ will cause you to see with his “eyes” and hear with his “ears,” and like Paul mentions in first Corinthians, you will begin to think with the “mind of Christ,” because we weren’t just resurrected as our old selves, we weren’t resurrected as the same people who were crucified, we were resurrected as members of Christ’s body.” When you went into the grave with Jesus, somebody else came back.

And that’s a metaphor, obviously, but it’s a powerful metaphor. You’ve been raised up out of the grave as a member of Christ’s body, and as a member of Christ’s body you’ve been “knit together” with every other member of Christ’s body on planet Earth. You follow? That’s big. That’s also annoying. Because that means you’ve been knit together with that person you hate.

You’ve been knit together with every other believer on the face of the earth, meaning that there are literally billions of people on every continent, in every corner of the world you are irrevocably bound to. You’ve been raised up out of the grave with every Coptic Christian in the Middle East, every Russian Orthodox Christian throughout Eastern Europe, every Latin American Pentecostal. But that’s the easy part, right? The difficult part is that you’ve been raised up out of the grave with Jesus alongside every Christian in your hometown that you never want to talk to again. You’re a member of the body of Christ alongside your obnoxious neighbor. You’re gonna spend eternity with them. But step #1 of spending eternity with your obnoxious neighbor is spending right now with your obnoxious neighbor.

Because Christ will not tolerate avoidable discord among the members of his body. Like, if one of your hands is working against the other hand, you have a problem that you cannot afford to not settle. You’ve gotta go to the doctor. You’ve gotta figure something out. When your body turns against itself, you unravel. Christ will not tolerate avoidable discord among the members of his body.

And that’s why Paul reacts so violently when Peter drops the ball in Antioch by segregating himself from the Gentile Christians and sequestering himself with other Jews.

Because up to this point in Paul’s argument, we’ve seen that the Good News ought to bring us together rather than drive us apart, right? As we strive to be good enough, we realize that we need something more than behavior modification. We realize that we need to be rescued from the outside.

And the rescue that we need comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God the son, coming to earth, living out the life that we should have lived, and then giving himself over to be crucified in our place so that you and I are crucified with Christ, our old selves are put to death with Christ and we are raised up out of the grave with him not as our old selves but as new selves, as members of Christ’s body.

And as members of Christ’s body, we are bound to each other for the rest of forever, and as people who are bound to each other for the rest of forever, we have an unqualified obligation to seek reconciliation with each other at all costs.

And because that’s the case, if we look at verse 11, Paul says that “When Peter came to Antioch, he opposed him to his face because he stood condemned.” That’s a really strong statement. It’s not something you expect Paul to say about his friend Peter.

Most of the time your relationships are more important than your arguments, and so the fact that Paul stiff-arms Peter on this occasion tells us that this is as important as it could possibly be. This is not Paul and Peter arguing about politics, this is not the color of the carpet, this is none of those things. This is not an agree-to-disagree issue. For Paul, this is a litmus test over whether we believe the Gospel or we don’t.

He says Peter “regularly ate with the Gentiles” up until “certain men came to him from James.” So, Peter is Jewish, and a Gentile is anybody who isn’t Jewish, and up until this point, Peter used to fellowship with Gentiles – across racial lines, across ideological lines, across cultural and traditional lines – because the Gospel of Jesus Christ obliterates those distinctions, right?

Later in the book of Galatians, in Galatians chapter 3, Paul comes to the climax of his argument and he says that “In Christ there is no male and female, there is no Jew and Gentile, there is no circumsised and uncircumsised, there is no barbarian or Scythian, and so on and so forth. Right?

The distinctions that we artificially draw between ourselves in order to justify separating ourselves from each other and putting other people under our feet do not exist. We invented them. The divisions that we cling to are made in our image, not in God’s image, you know what I’m talking about? And by dying on the cross and raising us up together with him, Jesus has abolished all of those distinctions. There’s a reason that throughout the 1950s and 60s the book of Galatians developed a reputation as St. Paul’s great anti-segregation manifesto, and when the Civil Rights Movement came in full swing, a good deal of their arguments came almost verbatim out of the book of Galatians.

Because we’ll learn that when Paul wrote Galatians, he was facing down a pretty rabid group of segregationists who were plaguing the church nearly 2000 years before they plagued our churches in the first half of the 20th century. Peter used to minister to and minister with Gentiles across cultural lines, but whatever the men from James had told Peter caused him to withdraw, separate himself from the Gentiles and exclusively do fellowship with other Jews. Paul has a good idea why: He says Peter did this “because he feared those from the circumcision party.”

It’s a very long story, to explain what the “circumcision party” is, but the short version is that the circumcision party was a group of agitators pretending to be Brothers and Sisters in Christ who wanted to tear the earliest churches apart at the seams by stirring up discord between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

So they would go into churches all throughout the Empire and present arguments that seemed convincing if you weren’t real familiar with the Bible, and they would say, “These Gentiles refuse to obey God’s law, and if you keep sharing your fellowship with them, you’re not going to help them – they’re not going to become law-abiding Jews – they’re just going to drag you down. They’re just going to pollute you.”

 And they would say, “If you don’t deal with this infestation now, then 20 years from now, this neighborhood is going to be overrun with Gentiles who bring ham sandwiches to your potlucks.” You know what I’m talking about? Human beings are remarkably susceptible to that kind of rhetoric. And the segregationists from the circumcision party took full advantage of that.

And instead of standing firm against the circumcision party as a leader in the church, Peter buckled and made concession after concession after concession after concession. He tried to appease the circumcision party by separating himself from the Gentiles and only fellowshipping with other Jews.

He said, “Okay, let’s not let this turn into a big thing – I’ll fellowship with other Jews and we’ll have Jewish churches and Gentiles can fellowship with other Gentiles and have Gentile churches, and it’ll be fine, and tensions won’t erupt, and the circumcision party’ll be satisfied and sit back down, it’ll be fine.” Peter tries to appease the circumcision party by segregating himself from the Gentiles that God has placed him over as a shepherd.

And so Paul says in verse 14, “When I saw that they were deviating from the truth of the Gospel, I confronted Peter in front of everyone.” Because Peter has no excuse. Peter knows better. Peter knows plenty well that “Christ came to fulfill the Law,” like Jesus says in the gospels. There was a purpose behind the law, and that purpose has been fulfilled. The time in which the law was a factor in how God governs us came and went, and it’s over.

But the circumcision party isn’t done with the Law yet. They refused to be done with it. But it’s not because the circumcision party loves God. It’s not even because the circumcision party has some misplaced love for the Law of God. It’s because the circumcision party hates Gentiles. The circumcision party is trying to tear the church apart at the seams by throwing us into discord against one another by stirring up resentment between Jews and Gentiles, and the tool they’ve decided to use is the fact that Gentiles do not adhere to the law of Moses.

And Peter thinks he can appease them. And so Peter stops fellowshipping with Gentiles, and he segregates himself with other Jews.

But Paul refuses to join Peter in trying to appease the circumcision party. He says, of course inviting Gentiles to fellowship with us in Jesus Christ is going to change the culture of our churches. Of course Gentile Christians don’t adhere to the “letter” of the Law. But you don’t need to either anymore. Because that’s not what the Law is for. The law is not meant to justify us in the eyes of God and it is especially not meant to draw a wedge between Jews and Gentiles.

It ought to do the opposite. Because as we strive to be good enough, we realize that we need something more than behavior modification. We realize that we need to be rescued from the outside. And that rescue that we need comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God the son, coming to earth, living out the life that we should have lived, and then giving himself over to be crucified in our place so that you and I are crucified with Christ, our old selves are put to death with Christ and we are raised up out of the grave with him not as our old selves but as new selves, as members of Christ’s body. And as members of Christ’s body, we are bound to each other for the rest of forever, and as people who are bound to each other for the rest of forever, we have an unqualified obligation to seek reconciliation with each other at all costs.

This flies in the face of the circumcision party, because the circumcision party wants to tear us apart from the inside by baiting us into putting our cultural differences or our racial differences or our ideological differences or our good-old-fashioned disagreements and grudges above the fact that you and I have been crucified together with Christ and resurrected together with Christ, and that we’re members of one body now whether we like it or not.

So, the gospel is absolutely free and absolutely terrifying. God’s grace is absolutely free and absolutely demanding. Jesus rescues us from our sin at great cost to himself and no cost to ourselves, and then calls us to submit ourselves to his good mercy in a way that drags us through costly and difficult and life-changing and horrifying reconciliations that are not optional.

So, listen, if you’ve been reconciled to God, you will be reconciled to your neighbors. You will be reconciled to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Like, in the first century, if you were a Jewish believer and you had been reconciled to God you were going to be reconciled to your Gentile neighbors whether you liked it or not, and if you were a Gentile believer in Christ and you’d been reconciled to God you were going to be reconciled to your Jewish neighbors whether you liked it or not. God didn’t consult you on that matter. He didn’t ask for your opinion. He didn’t give you a questionnaire to fill out about who you thought it was worth being reconciled to. If you’ve been reconciled to God, you will be reconciled to your neighbors.

That’s a scary thought, for multiple reasons. And one of them is that if you put your foot down your entire life and refused to be reconciled to your neighbors, the problem was not that God had failed you. The problem very well might be that you were not reconciled to God so you had no heart for reconciliation with each other.

This is the part where I’m supposed to do some sort of interpretive gymnastics to explain why this doesn’t mean what Paul makes it seem like it means. But I’ve got nothing for you. If you refuse to be reconciled to your brothers and sisters in Christ, the problem might be that you have not been reconciled to God so you have no heart for being reconciled to your brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are some obvious caveats to that – right? – like, there are some people who continue to be directly belligerent and predatory, and so you may never be able to have a functional relationship with your abusive spouse again. I am not pushing you towards that. That is its own thing. You may never be able to have a functional relationship with your biological mother or your biological father again because every time you get mildly close they try to take advantage of you. Those are all real things. Those are their own thing.

But there is a universe of difference between maintaining a necessary distance for your own safety and refusing to be reconciled to your fellow members of the body of Christ because of your own pride. Being reconciled to God will drive us to being reconciled to our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, because we’ve been put to death with Jesus. Our pride has been put to death with Jesus, our shameless self-interest has been put death with Jesus, our greed and our selfishness, our contentiousness, have been put to death with Jesus, and we’ve been raised up together with him as members of his body. And Christ will not have avoidable discord among the members of his body.

We’re getting to the section of the service that people often refer to as the altar call, but throughout the last half hour I’ve done, maybe, everything I can to talk you out of coming down to the altar and giving your life to Jesus Christ by laying out some of the radical demands that come with being raised up to walk in newness of life as Paul says. If you take away nothing  else from today, take away that redemption is annoying. As a member of Christ’s body, the Holy Spirit will drag you through difficult reconciliations you would never have chosen to pursue on your own. That’s annoying. That complicates your life.

Which means that if you’re anything like me, you’d probably rather walk. My pride is so pervasive that in my sinful nature I’d rather cling to my grudges than submit to the transformation Christ calls us to in the Spirit.

But if that’s you, we’re praying that the Holy Spirit would break down your hard-headedness. We are praying, like Thomas Watson said, that “Sin would become bitter to you” so that “Christ becomes sweet.” We’re praying that you would grow profoundly dissatisfied with the grudges and prejudices that might keep you from turning yourself over to Jesus to be reconciled to God. We are praying that you’d give yourself over to be crucified with Christ, and raised up together with him so that you’re no longer just you, but Christ lives in you.

Let’s pray.