‘Jesus Is The Light’ – John 1:1-18 – January 5th, 2020

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 1 through 18. John says:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
All things were created through Him,
and apart from Him not one thing was created
that has been created.
Life was in Him,
and that life was the light of men.
That light shines in the darkness,
yet the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man named John
who was sent from God.
He came as a witness
to testify about the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but he came to testify about the light.
The true light, who gives light to everyone,
was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world,
and the world was created through Him,
yet the world did not recognize Him.
11 He came to His own,
and His own people did not receive Him.
12 But to all who did receive Him,
He gave them the right to be children of God,
to those who believe in His name,
13 who were born,
not of blood,
or of the will of the flesh,
or of the will of man,
but of God.

14 The Word became flesh
and took up residence among us.
We observed His glory,
the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father,
full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning Him and exclaimed,
“This was the One of whom I said,
‘The One coming after me has surpassed me,
because He existed before me.’”)
16 Indeed, we have all received grace after grace
from His fullness,
17 for the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
18 No one has ever seen God.
The One and Only Son—
the One who is at the Father’s side—
He has revealed Him.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

Let’s pray.

As you probably noticed a moment ago, there’s no version of this where I can fit this passage into a standard Southern Baptist Three Point Sermon outline. In a perfect world, I would love to walk through this line by line one verse at a time, wringing every bit of meaning out of every single sentence John gives us, but if I did that, your grandchildren’s grandchildren would have grandchildren of their own by the time we finished. So we’re gonna look through John’s prologue, here, at kind of a dead sprint, instead, and let it frame the rest of what we learn as we learn from John’s gospel over the next several months.

Now, the upside of going through John’s gospel is that it’s beautiful. The downside is that it’s weird. John is going to show us things that confuse us, often they’ll shock us, and sometimes they’ll even upset us, and yet. John has given us, kind of, the key to understand why he’s showing us what he shows us, right here in this opening prologue, so as we walk through today’s passage, and as we walk through John’s gospel as a whole, over the next several months, we’re gonna come back, again and again, and again, to verse 18. Looking with me at chapter one, verse 18, John says:

“No one has ever seen God.
But the One and Only Son—
the One who is at the Father’s side—
He has revealed Him.”

“No one has ever seen God, but Jesus has revealed him.” Jesus is the one who reveals God to us. Jesus reveals what God is like. Jesus shows us what God values, what God cares for. When we look at Jesus, what we’re seeing is God.

“No one has ever seen God. But the One and Only Son—the One who is at the Father’s side—He has revealed Him.” What we’re about to do is spend the next several months looking directly at God, as clearly as he has ever revealed himself to us, so that we can know him, and cherish him, and cling to him as tightly as we’ve ever clinged to anything.

So, getting started, the first thing John tells us about Jesus is that Jesus is our Creator. Maybe that sounds like I’m pointing out the obvious, but that’s a serious claim. Quite a bit of what we learn about Jesus throughout the gospels could be taken in a whole range of ways. But this is different. If Jesus is who John describes him as, then Jesus is our Creator. There’s a pretty limited range of ways that you can interpret that.

He says in verses 2-3, that “He was with God in the beginning,” which is already saying a lot. Because notice what he does not say, here. He doesn’t say what you’d expect him to say: He does not say that he was “created by God in the beginning.”

He says that Jesus was with God in the beginning. And if Jesus was with God in the very beginning, then Jesus had no beginning. Jesus never started existing. There was never a time where Jesus did not exist, alongside his Father and Spirit. Jesus has never not been, period.

And John goes on to say, “All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created.” So not only has Jesus never not existed, but you were created through him. That’s the first thing to understand about Jesus: He created you.

Now, here’s the thing, though. That means more than you think it means. You might be sitting in the pews, thinking, “Obviously Jesus created me.” Right? You might be thinking, “Everybody knows that, do you have a point?” And the answer is, yes, I do.

Because the point here is not just that Jesus made you way back in the dawn of man so you should stop once a day and have a moment of silence and remember that you didn’t make yourself, or something like that, even though that’s not a bad idea. The point is that you are already in a relationship with Jesus.

The fact that you were created through Jesus means that you already have a relationship with Jesus. The only question is what kind of relationship you have. It’s common to come to church, sit down, and listen to an encouraging talk where the pastor brings things to a halt at the end, gets really puffy eyed, and then begs you, and I quote, to “Let God Into Your LifeTM.” You know what I’m talking about?

I will not be doing that. Don’t get me wrong, there will be an altar call. I will stand awkwardly at the front waiting for you. But I will not be asking you to maybe if you’re up for it think about  considering whether you might perhaps if it suits you want to “Let God Into Your Life,” because that’s not actually an option that you have.

You have zero choice about whether or not you “Let God Into Your Life.”

Because God let himself into your life when he created you.

He’s there. Jesus is in your life. Jesus has never not been in your life. Jesus let himself into your life when he created you  and you have absolutely no way of kicking him out of your life or keeping him at arms length or sectioning him off into a small cubicle that you drop by in on Sundays now and then. You do not decide whether Jesus is allowed in your life, Jesus created you in the beginning and he’s been there, in your life, since day one.

In other words, Jesus owns you.

There’s a sense in which Mount Zion kinda pranked itself: When you hired a young guy, you probably thought that you were getting not a Fundamentalist. Right?

But if I haven’t scared you off already, I’d like to make the case that everything I’ve just told you is good news, not bad news.  

Because listen to the way that John describes the God who owns you: He says, in verses 4-5, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men.” That’s very abstract, that takes some “decoding,” but think about what that means. Jesus is the “light” of men. He is the “light” within you. Jesus is what pushes back the darkness.

Often, when the Bible talks about “darkness,” it’s not just talking about the sort of darkness you see when you turn out the lights. It’s talking about the sort of darkness that you recognize when you’re lost in the woods and the sun’s gone down. It’s the sort of darkness that you recognize when you’ve moved into a run-down apartment and you’re lying in your bed and you can hear the cockroaches crawling around the walls and the ceilings of the room, knowing that they’re not gonna scatter till you flip the lightswitch back on. It’s a sinister darkness. It’s a chaotic darkness. It’s the sort of darkness that hides terrible things you’d rather not see or know about or come face to face with.

John says “That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus is that light, who shines in this darkness, and will not be overcome by it. That’s how John describes the God who owns you. That’s good news.

But you might get nervous, you might break into a cold sweat, when you hear that there’s somebody out there who owns you body and your soul and your everything. Right? That makes sense. That’s the right response, up front. Because if you’re a human being who lives on planet earth then your personal relationships have probably been mostly defined by darkness, right? We let each other down, constantly. Sometimes we betray each other.

To use an example that’s very close to home: Over the last couple of weeks, watching people react to the impeachment proceedings on social media, I watched people who’ve known each other for twenty years break off their relationships, sometimes even family relationships, in the comment section of a Facebook post, I’ve watched people threaten each other with violence because they were on two different sides of whether the president should be removed from office – If I’m accidentally describing you right now, take this as an open rebuke: You need to get a grip, grow up, and go apologize to your family members, regardless of which side of the debate you were on. There is a profound darkness that wraps itself around our thoughts and desires and intentions and poisons the way that we treat each other, and that’s true both inside and outside of the Church.

If you are a human being who lives on planet earth, your thoughts and assumptions and expectations about God have probably been pre-poisoned by the sheer darkness that has always overcome us and turned our relationships with our friends and parents and spouses and children toxic. And yet, John says that this Jesus is the true Light that has come into the world and that the darkness cannot overcome.

Jesus does not have your vices. God is not petty like you and I are petty. Christ does not share your insecurities and your childishness and your cruelty and your selfishness and your cold disregard for the needs of others – because these things are darkness. There is no darkness in Christ. Church, this is who you want owning you.

That’s a weird thought. Christ is the person that you want for a master. Because either Christ owns you or you own you. Either Christ is your God or you are your god, and you are not a merciful god. Right? Can we level with ourselves, here? You are not a loving god. You’re a cruel god. You’re a petty and unforgiving god. Like, look, I’m regularly confronted with the fact that it would be far better for there to be no god than for me to be the god of the universe, because I am a terrible god. I am a terrible master. I am not fit to be my own master. You do not want to own yourself.

And so John has very good news for us, and that is that the “True Light” – who “gives light to men,” and “cannot be overcome by the darkness” – this Light owns us. We belong to the Light of the world. And when you belong to the Light of the world, you’re in very good hands.

Church, Christ owns you, and that is the best news you’ll hear today.

But if you were Today Years Old when you learned the Jesus literally owns you, then your next question is probably “Okay, what does he want from me?” And that’s a good question, thank you for asking. I’ll tell you what he doesn’t want. Because God is not amassing a “Fan Club.” God’s not gathering up sycophants. Here’s what Christ actually wants from you:

Through the prophet Micah, God says, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” There is a God who owns you, and that’s what he wants from you.

On a different occasion, the people of Israel said, essentially, “What do you want from us?” And God responded in Isaiah 58 by saying, “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?” There is a God who owns you, and that’s what he wants from you.

Through the prophet Hosea, a similar thing plays out. God’s people turned the whole thing into a bizarre carnival act, they would make sacrifice after sacrifice, because they thought it would appease God. They thought they could live, essentially, however they wanted, and that God would look past their terribleness so long as they paid lip-service to him. They thought God was a narcissist, so he’d accept them so long as the gifts kept coming. But in Hosea 6:6, he says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” I don’t want your gifts. I want your goodness.

That’s what the Christ who owns you actually wants from you. Because God is light, and he wants your light to shine the way his light shines. He wants your godliness to reflect his goodness. He wants every human being on planet earth to be an extension of the goodness, the beauty, the peace that God created us for. That’s what God wants from you. Not your money. Not your fame. Not your talents. Not your greatness. Not your power. Not your defense. God does not need anything from you. But he does want something from you.And the something that he wants from you is your goodness.

But this is where the good news about God becomes the bad news about you.  

In the third chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul goes into, kind of, a famous rant about how everybody’s terrible. It’s basically a Rodney Dangerfield stand-up act. And at the height of his rant, he says:

“Are we any better? Not at all!”

He’s listing off the sins of the Gentile peoples of the world, and anybody in the audience might’ve been nodding along, or clapping, the way you might if I stepped up to the pulpit and just started tearing into whichever group of people you obsessively blame for ruining your country, or your neighborhood, or your anything. And right as the folks Paul’s talking to get to their absolute rowdiest, Paul cuts them off and says, “I don’t know why you’re clapping. I’m talking about you.”

Imagine being in the audience for that. Paul goes on and says:

For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, 10 as it is written:

There is no one righteous, not even one.
11 There is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away;
all alike have become useless.
There is no one who does what is good,
not even one.
13 Their throat is an open grave;
they deceive with their tongues.
Vipers’ venom is under their lips.
14 Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 ruin and wretchedness are in their paths,
17 and the path of peace they have not known.
18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.

In case you missed it, that’s everybody. Paul’s talking about everybody. Paul’s talking about you. The good news about God is the bad news about you. That’s why in Isaiah 24:5, the Lord speaks through the prophet and says “[The earth is] polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant.” He’s not mincing any words, here.

But it gets even worse because, as you would expect, the God we’ve been describing, this morning, has the right response to our bad-ness. In Joshua 23:16, he says that because of these things, “The Lord’s anger will burn against you.”

If that shocks you, it should. Like we’ve said before, God is love. That’s not a touchy-feely liberal sentiment, that’s literally the Bible. That’s 1 John, chapter 4, verse 8. God is love, and John says that because God is love, there’s a word for people who do not love their neighbors, and that word is liar. People who do not love their neighbors do not know God, period. Sin always boils down to rejecting God’s call to love your neighbor, and rejecting God’s call to love your neighbor causes God’s righteous anger to burn against you. That doesn’t contradict the fact that God is love. That’s true because God is love. The good news about God becomes the bad news about us.

So Ephesians 2 says that we become “Children under wrath.” 2 Peter 2:14 says the same thing in different language, it says we’re “Children of the curse.” In Hosea 1:9 God says in no uncertain terms, “You are not my people and I am not your God.” That is our natural state. That is what we grow into when we’re left to our own devices.

And yet. As John puts in, that is not the end of the story. He says, in verse 12 that “To all who received Jesus, He gave them the right to be children of God.” That’s you. How do you become a child of God again? Receive Jesus.

You know how receive things? You just do. Right? You send me a postcard, the only way to not receive it is to reject it. Literally. If I do not “Return To Sender,” then I’ve received your postcard. That’s how you become a “Child of God” again. You receive Jesus.

You bring nothing to it. You don’t redeem yourself. You don’t earn a second chance. You throw yourself on his mercy. That’s the whole thing.

As a, kind of, grim word of warning. If you receive Jesus, he will spend the rest of forever driving you to right every wrong that used to define your life.

Because righting the wrongs that used to define your life is what you do as a member of God’s family. But you become a family member by receiving Jesus. That’s the whole thing. As Paul says in Ephesians 2, the beginning, middle, and end of our salvation is “by grace, through faith.” God saves us because of his great mercy. And if you would like to receive that great mercy, all you do is ask.

And that’s what we’d like to invite you to do, this morning. Like I said, I am not gonna beg you to maybe think about letting God into your life, because that’s not an option that you have. But what I am gonna do is offer to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of this God.

So as the music plays in just a moment, I’ll be standing at the front, waiting for you to come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

A Beautiful Inheritance – Psalm 16 – December 22nd, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the 16th Psalm. David says:

Protect me, God, for I take refuge in You.
I said to Yahweh, “You are my Lord;
I have nothing good besides You.”

As for the holy people who are in the land,
they are the noble ones.
All my delight is in them.

The sorrows of those who take another god
for themselves will multiply;
I will not pour out their drink offerings of blood,
and I will not speak their names with my lips.

Lord, You are my portion
and my cup of blessing;
You hold my future.
The boundary lines have fallen for me
in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

I will praise the Lord who counsels me—
even at night my conscience instructs me.
I keep the Lord in mind always.
Because He is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad
and my spirit rejoices;
my body also rests securely.
10 For You will not abandon me to Sheol;
You will not allow Your Faithful One to see decay.
11 You reveal the path of life to me;
in Your presence is abundant joy;
in Your right hand are eternal pleasures.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

Let’s pray.

If you’re not familiar with that long, winding middle-section of the Bible, some of this might be news to you, but the man who wrote today’s Psalm eventually became the king in Israel, but only after a long series of “Three Stooges”-style misadventures where he narrowly avoids getting murdered by the powers that be.

He starts out as a shepherd boy in the backwoods of Israel, but eventually a prophet named Samuel comes and finds him because God spoke to him and told him to anoint the shepherd boy, David, as king. But that created a bit of a problem, because when God told Samuel to anoint David as the king, there was already a king. There was already a man occupying the throne of Israel, named Saul. And he was bigger than David, and stronger than David, probably more popular than David. And as a general rule people don’t give up their power without putting up a fight.

And so when Saul learned that God had anointed a new king in Israel, he decided to take his best shot at stopping God in his tracks by stopping David in his tracks, and he turned the full weight of his power as king towards putting David to death.

And so if you read through the books of first and second Samuel, you see that for years, David would hide out in the countryside, trying to stay under Saul’s radar so he wouldn’t get Jeffrey Epsteined by Saul’s men, and while he was hiding out he would do whatever he could to help the peasants in the villages.

And over the years, as David hid from Saul, God worked in the hearts of the people of Israel and gradually caused nearly everyone David met to come around on him. Without doing anything to try and forcibly take over the kingship that was rightfully his, David slowly became what everyone in Israel longed for.

And so by the time Saul finally imploded under the pressure of trying to hold onto a kingship God had taken away from him, and purposefully fell on his own sword, the God of the Bible had already won over the hearts and minds of the people and they received David as their king, not begrudgingly, but with gladness.

That’s the story of the early parts of David’s life. A lot of us remember it from Sunday School. But our Psalm, this morning, gives us, kind of, a glimpse inside his head.

And so looking at verse 2, David says, “I said to Yahweh, “You are my Lord; I have nothing good besides You.” That makes sense enough: Because when David’s on the run from Saul, all he’s really got is whatever the village folks decide to give him out of the kindness of their hearts. So he’s got no permanent home. And he’s got no real guarantee that he’ll be safe till morning when he goes to sleep. And he’s got no idea where his next meal is coming from. All he has is the Lord.

But as David frames it, that’s cause for rejoicing, not mourning. He says “You are my Lord. I have nothing good beside you.” And what you’re hearing in his voice is not dejection. He’s not lamenting that he has nothing good besides God, he’s celebrating. He’s rejoicing like you would if you had everything on planet earth because he does.

Because when you’ve been reconciled to the God that we’ve been talking about this morning, something happens to you. Something happens inside you. This renewed relationship you have with the Lord becomes your one joy.

It doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy other things. You still like sports and you still like your kids and you still like hunting or cooking or sewing or watching Murder, She Wrote, or whatever. Right? But your relationship with those things changes.

Because you no longer simply enjoy those things for what they are, you start to enjoy the Lord through those things. You start to enjoy God through hiking, if that’s your thing. You enjoy God through taking care of your children. You enjoy God throughfishingor going to the gun range, or whatever. They start to remind you of your Father in heaven. Everything you do starts to point back to him. He’s become your one joy. He’s become your one good. And that’s what’s happened with David, so he says, “You are my Lord. I have nothing good beside you.”

And yet he’s not just saying that because there’s an illegitimate King who’s after his head. Because eventually this same David becomes the King in Israel. He becomes the wealthiest man for 1000 miles, and he just gets wealthier and wealthier as he gets older. And yet even as his riches pile up, David continues to say, “You are my Lord. I have nothing good besides you.” The wealth he amasses as a ruler in Israel has nothing for him except in the sense that he is able to use it to glorify the God in whom he finds his joy.

That’s why in verse 5, David says, “Lord, You are my portion and my cup of blessing.” Pay very close attention to the language he just used. He doesn’t do that things celebrities do, where they’re like, “I would like to thank Jesus for this Oscar, also I would like to thank the woman I’m cheating on my wife with, who’s in the audience over there.” David’s not paying lip service, here.

God is not an obligatory “trimming” that he just kind of throws on at the end of everything out of some weird superstitious habit. He says “Lord, you are my portion.” God is his portion. He’s not “coating” the rest of his life in religious language and religious imagery, God is his life. This is what his life is about. This is the thing he’s chasing after. Everything else in David’s life is about his pursuit of the Lord. His life is not simply about God’s glory, in some abstract sense. His life is about this God. He says “Lord, you are my portion.”

So he’s the King, and his kingship is about God. David is a husband. And his husband-ness is about God. He husbands his wife as somebody who belongs to God and wants to reflect God’s goodness as a husband. He’s also a father. His fatherhood is about God. He fathers his children as someone who belongs to this God and wants to image the goodness of this God. The Lord is his portion. This God is what David’s life is about.

Now, in our day and age, that probably sounds boring. But apparently it isn’t: David says “Therefore my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices,” verse 9. David is not a captive in his own house. David is a captive in his own skin, begrudgingly doing the will of some God who kidnapped him and won’t just leave him alone. David says “My heart is glad.” “My spirit rejoices.” God is his one joy.

This is where his joy comes from. This is the joy that everything else points back to and David has found it. And David has grabbed hold of it. And David is holding it close. And David will never let it go.

And David never has to worry about being let go. Because God has grabbed hold of him, too, and he holds him close, and David takes that joy and lets it fill out everything else in his life. David takes the joy of being reconciled to God and lets that fill out everything else in his life. And the result is that his heart is glad and his spirit rejoices. 

But there’s more. Because it turns out that when the Lord is the thing that “makes your heart glad” and “your spirit rejoice,” it changes everything else about your life, too. Look at what David says here:

He says, “You reveal the path of life to me.” David was on one path, but then the Lord grabbed hold of him and he showed him another one. His life is different because the Lord is the thing that makes his heart glad. His life is different because the Lord is the one who makes his spirit rejoice.

His life is different. But it’s not worse. He says, “In your presence is abundant joy.” Whatever he lost when he left his old life behind, look at what he gained: “IN your presence is abundant joy.” God’s presence is where joy is.

The things that David lost when he turned away from his sin and threw himself at the mercy of the God he is describing here held nothing for him, because they aren’t where joy is. Right? Doesn’t that track? There is no joy in any of the things you have to leave behind when God gets ahold of you and starts to change your heart. Don’t get me wrong, when you finally submit and start following Jesus, it’ll be painful. It’ll feel like giving up everything. It’ll very much feel like dying and coming back to life, because it is. And yet, all you have to lose is your misery.

That’s why David says in verse 4, “The sorrows of those who take another god for themselves will multiply; I will not pour out their drink offerings of blood, and I will not speak their names with my lips.” He says, “The sorrows of those who take another god for themselves will multiply,” and that is not a threat. That’s a promise. That’s a warning. But it’s barely even a warning. That’s David telling us what we already know.

You know that. You know fully well that “the sorrows of those who take another god for themselves will multiply,” because there have been times in your life where you were the people who took another god for themselves.

Now, this is rural North Carolina, this is not exactly a bastion of paganism. I strongly doubt that you formally changed religions. It is extremely unlikely that you abandoned Christianity  and converted to Harry Potter, or something like that.

But there’s more than one way to “take another god for yourself.” Because like we’ve said before, whatever it is that actually drives your decisions, that’s your god. Whatever it is that runs your life, that’s what you actually worship. Whatever it is in your life that’s so important to you that it drives you, time after time after time, to willfully disobey God’s will for you and chase after bankrupt things you think will make you happy instead – that’s your actual god.

Now, if that hit a little too close to home, know that you’re not unique. That’s very much what we do. We take other gods for ourselves.

To quote one old, dead theologian, “The human heart is an idol factory.” The human heart is an idol factory, because the human heart creates idols. Your heart creates little-“g” gods that you worship. You worship gods you created yourself.

And the reason that I know that you do it is that I also do it, and everybody I’ve ever met does it, because everyone who’s ever lived on planet earth at anytime, anywhere, ever has always done this. We are idol factories. We take other gods for ourselves. And when we take other gods for ourselves our sorrows multiply. Right? It’s inevitable.

Maybe you neglected your kids during some season of your life, because you idolized work, and you idolized work because you idolized the security that you hoped it would bring.

Or maybe you left your spouse, because you didn’t feel like they paid enough attention to you. Because you idolized the feeling of being admired. Or you idolized the attention that you wished that they would give you.

Or maybe you cheated on them because you found somebody else who was young enough and dumb enough to admire you in ways that your spouse knows you too well to, right?

The list goes on, and on, and on – taking another god for ourselves doesn’t always look like bowing down to a statue you bought at a souvenir shop on vacation. Most of the time it just looks like choosing our will over God’s, but it always causes our sorrows to multiply. Right?

Doesn’t that ring true? Level with yourself: Looking at the idols that your heart has produced, can you genuinely say that any of them have made you happy? Have any of them brought you joy? Have any of them made you whole? Have any of them made you feel complete?

Of course they haven’t. They can’t. That’s the problem with idols. You created them, so they cannot complete you. Because they are not where joy is.

But David has found the place that joy comes from. David has found the thing that joy comes from. He says, “I keep the Lord in mind always. Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Joy comes from the God who created us. That’s where it comes from. And so, like all of us, David’s soul reaches back toward the God he was separated from in the Garden, and the good news of the gospel is that that God reaches back for us, too.

So we have entered the point in the service that we usually refer to as the altar call. And at this point, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t brought up Baby Jesus in our Christmas sermon. And that’s a very good question, but the very simple answer is that I have. We’ve been talking about Baby Jesus this whole time, just this year we didn’t put him on house arrest and lock him in the manger. What we are celebrating, this week and every week, is that the God David sings to in this Psalm is the child that was born in the manger on the first Christmas.

That’s half of what we exist for. We exist to celebrate the God that David talks about in today’s passage, and we exist to introduce you to him. And so the question that we have for you is do you know this God? Do you know Jesus Christ? Is Christ where you find your joy? Have you been reconciled to God, like Colossians 1:20 says, through the blood of his cross? I’m not talking about praying some magic prayer that somehow safeguards you from going to hell, I’m talking about throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus. Submitting to the God of the universe. Confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, like Romans 10 says, and believing in your heard that God raised him from the dead. If you do not have a relationship with this God, that David tells us about, but you would like to, then I would like for you to come talk to me. I’d like to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on his mercy to be reconciled to God.

Let’s pray.

‘Waiting On The Lord’ – Psalm 130 – December 15th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Psalm 130. The Psalmist says:

Out of the depths I call to You, Yahweh!
Lord, listen to my voice;
let Your ears be attentive
to my cry for help.

Yahweh, if You considered sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with You there is forgiveness,
so that You may be revered.

I wait for Yahweh; I wait
and put my hope in His word.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning—
more than watchmen for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord.
For there is faithful love with the Lord,
and with Him is redemption in abundance.
And He will redeem Israel
from all its sins.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

Let’s pray.

Our Psalmist starts out today’s passage by saying “Out of the depths I call to you, Lord.” The obvious question to ask would be, “what depths?” He doesn’t say. But I could venture a guess. You ever feel like you’re drowning? Like you’ve been buried alive? Maybe you lost your long-time job and you don’t where your next mortgage payment is coming from. Or maybe you had a bad harvest season, and you haven’t got nearly enough produce to break even on the debts you owe, let alone pay for any of the things you need to keep on living as the days and weeks and months pass by. You’re in the depths.

Maybe your marriage is hanging by a thread, or maybe the thread already broke so there’s no marriage to speak of and you’re just hanging, you’re holding on to whatever you can get your hands around, but as these things usually go, your hands are getting sweatier and the surface you’ve grabbed hold of is slipping out from between your palm and your fingers and in a minute or two you’ll be falling and you’ve got not idea how far you’re gonna fall or where you’re gonna land, or who or what’s gonna be there when you do. All you know is that you’re in the depths.

If you’re anything like me, you’re in the depths more often than you have any intention of telling people. You know what I’m talking about? You’re in the depths more often than anybody could possibly know, because when you’re drowning you won’t tell a soul about it.

Any given Sunday, if I come up and say, “How’s it going?” What’re you gonna say? You’re gonna say, “Fine.” And then you’re gonna ask me the same question, and I’m gonna say, “Fine.” And then we’re gonna go our separate ways, having absolutely no idea that the other person is suffering because “Fine” is what you say when people ask you how you are.

Nobody says, “I’m suffocating.” Nobody says, “I’m in the depths.” It’s not socially acceptable in our day and age to tell people how you really are because that would make you look vulnerable. Right? It would make you look weak. It would make you look like all those people you judge as you’re walking by them on the street or at the Food Lion or in the courthouse when you’re up there contesting a parking ticket.

Our culture stigmatizes vulnerability. It stigmatizes anything that smacks of weakness, and even if you’ve never thought about it like that before, your subconscious has, and so every time you hit a rough patch and need help, every time you’re genuinely in over your head, and you cannot make it through what you’re going through alone, you make sure than alone is exactly how you face it.

You bury it deep in yourself, tell next to nobody, get a stress-ulcer, or something, and white-knuckle your way through 187,000 “I’m fine”-conversations before eventually getting back to a place where things are semi-okay again and you can breathe easier. That’s what makes the depths so lonely. Not simply that you’re struggling but that you’re struggling alone. That you’re struggling in silence. That you’re so determined not to burden anybody else with your problems that you hold your tongue and just quietly sink further, and further, and further into the depths.

But the 130th Psalm show us a very different way. The Psalmist says, “Out of the depths, I call to you, Yahweh.” He says, “Lord, Listen to my voice.” He sounds desperate. He sounds afraid. He knows that he’s asking a lot. He says, “Let your ears be attentive to my cry for help.” What do you do when you’re in the depths? You call out to God.

And we can do that. I don’t wanna sail past that. I wanna plant down roots and fixate on that fact. You can actually do that. You can call out to God from your depths.

Because God is not like your insurance policy, where its value grows the less you use it. Right? Like, when I have some sort of traffic collision, it is incredibly unlikely that I’m gonna phone up my insurance company and file a claim, because I don’t want my monthly rates to go up. You know what I’m talking about? Because if I rear end somebody, my insurance might cover the damage to their car, but they’re also gonna raise my monthly rates. So I’m gonna spend more in the long run filing a claim than I am just biting the bullet and paying for the damage out of pocket if I’m able to. Some people treat God like that. You treat God like your car insurance. You go as far out of your way as you possibly can to avoid calling out to him.

And so what eventually happens is that your prayer life is practically nonexistent until your marriage is on the rocks. Or your bills become unpayable. Or your doctor finds a mass in your lungs or your brain or your pancreas and then, finally, you call out to God, but the whole time you’re doing it you feel fake and uncertain and you worry that you’re imposing on God’s time or attention but listen to me: You aren’t imposing on God’s anything.

Call out to God. You are welcome to. You are more than welcome to. You’re so welcome in God’s presence that you belong there more deeply than you belong anywhere. God’s presence is exactly where you belong, because God has made you belong.

That’s why Hebrews chapter 4 tells us to “go before the throne of grace with boldness.” What does that mean? That means the boldness of a child who hasn’t learned modesty yet. The boldness of a child whose parents have never turned them away, never chastised them for dreaming, or wanting, or asking. We’re invited to come before God’s throne, and just sit there with him. To share with him. To listen to him. Complain to him. Lament to him.

If your prayer life is mostly panic, I’ve got nothing bad to say about it. That’s holy panic. Panic at the throne of grace. Do it. Spin out at the throne of grace. Pull a Job and sit outside your house for seven straight days, saying nothing or saying everything, bringing your fears and anxieties and laments and grievances to God and expect him to show up, comfort you, maybe challenge and confront you, and then restore you. Expect that. Reach for that. Desire that. Go boldly before the throne of grace in search of that because God has made you welcome in his presence and invited you to come.

And the Psalmist knows that this is true, but the reason that he gives for his confidence is very different than the reasons that we’re usually given. He says “Yahweh, if You considered sins, Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, so that You may be revered.” We’re invited into the presence of God, not because God is super chill and doesn’t take our flaws seriously, but because he does. When the Psalmist calls out to God from the depths of his anguish, his hope is not in the notion that God is a Cool GrandmaTM. His hope is in the reality that God is forgiving. Like Psalm 103 says, that the Lord is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love.”

But what is “faithful love?” Over against the image that we’re sometimes given, God is not a harsh taskmaster, watching closely for the day you inevitably mess up and then taking some perverse pleasure in casting you out for not measuring up – as the Bible actually frames it, that’s more like what the devil does. Instead, there’s more references than anybody’s got fingers to count that celebrate God’s patience. God is patient. If you’ve got the KJV, it might say “long-suffering,” and that means exactly what it sounds like: God “suffers long.”

He’d rather be wronged than give wrong. Like Paul says in 1 Corinthians, we imitate God by our own patience, our own longsuffering-ness, he says “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” God is slow to anger and full of faithful love, instead of erupting with wrath when we screw up, God pours out his patience onto us. He pours out his kindness onto us, as Paul tells us in Romans, with a kindness that brings us to repentance. That is where our Psalmist’s hope comes from. God has shown him a kindness that has brought him to repentance. God has shown him a kindness that brought him home.

But what does that kindness look like? He says “if You considered sins, Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, so that You may be revered.” God’s kindness looks like forgiveness. God does not consider the Psalmists sins. That’s where his boldness comes from. That’s where he gets the courage to “call out to Yahweh.”

But he recognizes that he shouldn’t be able to do this. Have you ever thought about that before? The Psalmist says “If you considered sins, who could stand?” If God considered my sins, we wouldn’t be fishing buddies. If God considered my sins, I wouldn’t be invited to the Christmas party at his Lake House, right? He says “If you considered sins, Lord, who could stand?” And he knows that the answer is nobody. Not him. Not me. Not you.

But he also knows that his sins have been dealt with. He says, “But with you there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered.” Now, there’s a lot in that sentence. As strange as it might sound, “forgiveness” was usually an economic term. Think of “debt forgiveness.” “Loan forgiveness.”

At that particular point in time, everything was agricultural. You maintained a healthy crop year in and year out or you died. Those were the options. And if your crops failed, and you wanted to not die of starvation instead of dying of starvation, you had to go into debt to a larger, wealthier, more successful farmer as a means of securing food. And so, throughout most of the world, throughout most of history, that’s how it worked: Your survival was almost entirely at the mercy of the weather patterns, and if you had a bad harvest you became somebody’s debt slave.

And as you would imagine, next to nobody ever actually got out of debt slavery, and so year after year, more and more and more of the population consisted in debt slaves, rather than free citizens, till there was a relatively small group of free landowners supported by a sprawling class of debt slaves whose labor did nothing to improve their lot in life and whose families would never be free again.

And then something very strange happened. God rescued a large group of people from the nation of Egypt. You probably know the story, because you’ve probably seen the Prince of Egypt. And when God rescued a people for himself out of Egypt, he gave them a Law.

And the Law that God gave them gets a bad rap today, because people today don’t like rules. But if you ever sit down and spend an afternoon reading through the Laws that God gave to his people after rescuing them from Egypt, once you get past how shocking some of them are, the first thing you’ll recognize is that they would’ve been very good news for debt slaves.

Because the Law God gave to his people required them “forgive” any debts that their neighbors built up when they had a bad harvest. It required you to forgive any debts that your neighbors built up if they had to borrow money or food or tools to survive the winter or get back on their feet and so on and so forth. We see it most clearly in Deuteronomy 15, where the Lord says through Moses:

“Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.”

That would’ve been very good news for debt slaves.

And when the Psalmist rejoices in the forgiveness God has shown him, he’s talking about something very much like that. Because you and I are like debtors. There’s a sense in which our sin creates a “debt.” If you’ve been Baptist for longer than ten minutes, you’ve probably heard some version of the “Roman Road,” that God created us (Romans 1:20), and we know God created us, something in us knows that because we were created to take pleasure in that. We were created to find our ultimate satisfaction in knowing and being known by God.

But that instead of taking joy in God, we rebelled against him. Romans 3:23, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory,” God’s goodness. We’ve revolted against the goodness, the kindness, the gentleness, the lovingness that God has called us to. And that, Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” Our sin creates a debt of death, for lack of a better term. We’ve rebelled against God’s goodness, and in response, we’re owed death in exactly the same way that you’re owed your wages at the end of a work week.

And yet, Romans 5:8 says that “God demonstrates his love for us,” the same love he demonstrated when he created us and called us good, “he demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

That’s very good news for debtors like us.

So I’m gonna recap that, because we ran through it pretty fast. By sinning against God, we earn our own death. We owe a debt of death. But that’s a debt we don’t pay. That’s a debt God forgives. It’s a debt God pays on our behalf. Christ pays your debt. “If you considered sins, Lord, who could stand?” the Psalmist says. “But with you there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered.”

God pays our debt of death for us, and we don’t owe it any longer.

So forgiveness is not a platitude. It’s not a “nice sentiment.” It’s not a cozy wall decoration that you put up next your “Live. Laugh. Love.” Poster. It’s what Christ purchased for you on the cross. Forgiveness is real, and forgiveness is yours, if, like Romans 10:9 says, you throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus.

That’s why the Psalmist is so confident. This was long before the life of Jesus, but the Psalmist has heard the prophecies. The Psalmist knows that a“Promised One” is coming who will one day bury his sin far, far away from him.

So he says “Israel, put your hope in the Lord. For there is faithful love with the Lord, and with Him is redemption in abundance. He will redeem Israel from all its sins.” The Psalmist has experienced the joy of redemption, the joy of forgiveness. God has paid his debts. God has put him back on level ground at God’s own expense. And that joy, the joy of living in a forgiveness that God has purchased for him ushers him into another joy and that is the joy that we were talking about as we opened this sermon, it brings it back around full circle: The joy of forgiveness ushers us into the joy of communing with God.

Listen to the word-picture that the Psalmist paints. He says, “I wait for Yahweh; I wait and put my hope in His word. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning – more than watchmen for the morning.” He communes with God. He waits, the way you would in a real conversation, with a real person, because God is that. God actually exists. He’s not just an idea. He’s not just a metaphor. He’s actually there. He actually listens to you. He sits. He waits. He joins you every time you stop, sit down, and spend time speaking to him.

So the Psalmist waits, too. He doesn’t quickly rattle off all the requests he has for God and then move on to the next thing. He stops. At risk of being just a little too edgy: He shuts up. He stops talking. He listens at least as much as he talks. He’s communing with God.

The joy of forgiveness ushers us into the joy of communing with God. And it is joyful. Because when Christ purchases your redemption, he sends you the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit makes communing with God sweet. He starts to change your heart so that you take joy in “waiting on the Lord” in ways you probably didn’t yesterday. Communing with God becomes your deep, abiding joy. It becomes your anchor. It becomes the thing you “wait for” more than “a watchman waits for the morning,” like the Psalmist says.

‘Standing Firm In The Cross’ – Gal. 6:11-18 – December 8th, 2019

Please turn with me in your Bibles to Galatians, chapter 6, verses 11 through 18.

Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. 12 Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised—but only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even the circumcised don’t keep the law themselves; however, they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh. 14 But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. 15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. 16 May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God!

17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body scars for the cause of Jesus. 18 Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

Let’s pray.

*

After today, we will be finished with the book of Galatians, at long last. I suspect we’ll all be glad to walk through something a little bit less extreme for our next series. Which is why, beginning next week, we’ll be doing a 40 week study in Leviticus. Not really. This is not the Spanish Inquisition. I’m not gonna put you through that just yet.

It’s kind of bittersweet, finishing up the book that we’ve been looking so closely at for the last few months. Because as we have seen over the past few months walking through this book, Paul preaches a glorious gospel. That glorious gospel is outlined in the first few verses of our book, here. Paul says in chapter 1, verses 3 through 5, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And that as the Son of God, he came to Earth and gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age.

Now that’s a mouthful. So I wanna break that down, too.

Because that means that God himself saved us by himself. It means that he saved us by giving himself. It means that there was no other way to save us from ourselves besides sacrificing himself in our place. Jesus saved us by giving himself. That’s the God we serve. That’s the God at the center of Paul’s glorious gospel.

But specifically, he gave himself for our sins. Our problem was not that we were disappointing. Our problem was not that we were in danger of not reaching our full potential. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say that. But our problem is that we are rightly condemned to death and hell because of our sin. That’s our fundamental problem.

Now, that’s not the God being petty. That’s God being just. Because as we’ve seen elsewhere in the New Testament, our sin turns us away from God. Our sin turns us towards brokenness. Our sin turns us towards darkness. That’s what we begin to love, and it’s what we begin to seek out. Our sin nature causes us to run away from God and run towards darkness. So when the day of judgment comes and Jesus says, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” I doubt anybody’s gonna argue with him.

Like, even in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, where a rich sinner dies and descends into hell, there’s one thing we never see him do, and that’s ask to leave. He says, “Please send somebody to give me a drink of water,” and God says, “No. Nobody can cross that border between hell and everything else.” And then he asks God to send somebody to warn his living family members, and God says, “No. If they don’t obey the scriptures they’re not gonna believe a ghost, either.”

The rich man doesn’t like what he’s experiencing – he’s suffering immensely – but he doesn’t actually attempt to leave. Because leaving would mean joining God. It would mean submitting to God, and in our sin nature, we will never willingly submit to God. Listen to me: In your sin nature, you would dive headlong into hell before you’d ever willingly enter the gates of heaven. That’s the way our sin nature warps us.

So we were condemned to that death, that hell, because of our sin but Paul says in chapter 1 of this book that Jesus saves us by giving himself for our sin.

And yet – there’s always an “And yet,” right? – one of our temptations will always be to compromise that gospel. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to compromise the gospel because you want to win somebody over who won’t take too kindly to being told that they are sinners in need of a savior. You know what I’m talking about? Maybe you are that somebody who doesn’t take too kindly to being told that you are a sinner in need of a savior, right?

So you will be tempted to compromise the gospel in order to tickle the ears of your audience, as Paul says in 2 Timothy, but you will also be tempted to compromise the gospel in a much graver fashion, and that is to avoid persecution, like Paul says in verse 12. You will be tempted to compromise the gospel to avoid persecution.

In one of the most noteworthy stories from a few years back, there was a series of bombings by extremist groups in Isabela City, which is in Basilan – that’s an island province of the Philippines. Basilan is roughly 64% Muslim, with the remaining 36% of the residents consisting primarily of adherents to the traditional folk religion, and a small minority of Christians, mostly located in the city.

A while back, Al Quaeda-backed extremist groups started targeting Christian churches all throughout the region, and the government did next to nothing to stop it, because every bomb set off by an extremist group was one less measure they had to take themselves against the Christians in the area as a government.

Now, the bombings were every bit as political as they were religious, there’s no way around that, but at the end of the day, the fundamental issue was that as Bible-believing Christians, we believe that the God of the universe is Father, Son, and Spirit. We call that “the Trinity.” We don’t know how it works, we just know that it works, and the reason that we know it works is because it’s been revealed to us in the inspired and inerrant word of God.

But for Islamic extremist groups in Basilan, to say that God is Father, Son, and Spirit is deeply offensive. And it would be. It strikes them as blasphemy. And when an extremist group decides that “friendly debate” is not enough, when they decide to resort to violence in order to achieve their goals, you get situations like in Basilan, in which churches started getting bombed during their Sunday services.

And in a situation like that, it would be very difficult to blame you if you tried to soften the persecution you were facing by “compromising the gospel.” There are groups, like one group called “Oneness Pentecostals,” who deny that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, all at once. They deny the Trinity. There are groups called Unitarians, who claim to believe the Bible, but who deny that God is Father, Son, and Spirit. So these are options that they would’ve had if they wanted to soften the persecution against them.

But instead of compromising the gospel, these Christians in Basilan stood firm. They held the line. They said “This is what the Bible teaches, and we cannot move on this issue.” And so the bombs kept coming.

But one of the things that we see throughout scripture is the faithfulness of God, and the faithfulness of God comes from unexpected directions.

You may already know all about this news story, but the conclusion is remarkable. One morning, as a bunch of Christians in Basilan headed to church, they probably broke into a cold sweat, wondering, “Am I gonna be next?” “Is today the day?” “Are we next up on the chopping block?” The Christians at the Santa Isabel Cathedral went in, the service began, and a group of Muslim men gathered around the church and locked arms.

But they weren’t locking arms to trap the Christians inside, they were locking arms to keep the extremists out. They said, “If anybody wants to hurt the people inside this church they’re going to have to go through me.” They said, “If you want to bomb this church, you’re going to have to bomb me with it.” They said, “If you mean these Christians harm, you mean me harm to.” The faithfulness of God comes from unexpected directions.

Because these were not wishy washy, liberal Muslims who didn’t believe in their own faith. They believe the same things about the Christians inside that building as just about any other Muslim would. They believe that the Christians meeting in that Cathedral were Heretics. They believed that they were blasphemers. They believe that Allah would deal with them severely in the final judgment. And yet, they were not going to allow anybody to harm them. Because they realized, by the grace of God, that persecution is always wrong, no matter who it’s carried out against. They realized that oppression is always oppression, no matter the reason or the means. They realized, by the grace of God, that it is always wicked, it is always evil, to use violence towards other people because of their convictions. That the ends do not justify the means.

And yet, when you take a stand like that, you paint a target on your back. So now the extremists who had been bombing churches turned their attention towards friendly mosques as well. So now, not only was it not safe to be a Christian on the Island province of Basilan, it was not safe to be a Christian and it was not safe to be a Muslim who wasn’t radicalized. And so beginning the following week, every Friday, the Christians from that Cathedral and several others would head to the mosque, lock arms, and say, “If anybody wants to come and harm the Muslims in this mosque, they’re going to have to go through us.” And then the following Sunday, the folks from that mosque would head back over to the cathedral, lock arms around the building, and saying, “If anybody wants to harm these Christians, they are going to have to go through us.” Imagine witnessing that, as a person who lived on the island of Basilan – all these year of tension between Christians and Muslims, and suddenly, you see them protecting each other, even at the cost of their own lives. The faithfulness of God comes from unexpected directions.

And pay very close attention, because the moral of that story is not “Why can’t we all just get along?” although certainly that would be ideal. The moral of this story is “Do not compromise the gospel.” Do not compromise the gospel even to avoid persecution. Stand firm. Hold the Line. Preach the gospel, in season and out of season, when it’s convenient and when it’s inconvenient and trust God to do remarkable things to protect you. Trust God to do remarkable and unexpected things. Trust God to make an example out of your faithfulness. Stand firm in the gospel, refuse to compromise in the face of persecution, and expect God to use you as a means of causing the gospel to flourish.

*

But anybody in the world can talk a big game about holding on to the gospel amidst persecution. But that’s a very far cry from actually doing it. Like I said before, you can’t turn on Christian radio without hearing radio preacher after radio preacher work themselves into a catatonic state, screaming and moaning about persecution because a cashier looked at him cross-eyed, right? American Christianity has a weird persecution fetish. We like to fantasize about somebody holding a gun to our head and demanding that we renounce our faith, and then tell ourselves that “If that situation ever happens, I will stand firm.”

But the truth is that living in America, I think so many of us have gotten so accustomed to the relative privilege that we have lived in for the last 250 years, we’ll jump ship the second serious persecution begins because we’ve been practicing to abandon the faith from the time that we were children up to now. That’s what makes American Christianity so endlessly fascinating: We are absolutely obsessed with the idea of persecution, but we spend almost all of our lives practicing to abandon the faith the second it gets difficult.

Think about it. In one research poll, 67 percent of the Christians interviewed said that they are going to have sex with whoever they want to have sex with no matter what the Bible says. Just kinda came out and said it, which is kinda impressive, I guess. 76 percent said that the Bible could never influence them not to get an abortion. And an even more horrifying percentage said that there is nothing you could show them, in or out of the Bible, that would make them give more of their money to help the poor.

I can keep naming things, but I probably don’t have to.

That is very much the culture of Christianity in the United States. We see our faith as something that maybe comforts us, maybe makes us feel better when our loved ones die, but when it comes between obeying the will of God as revealed in the word of God and doing the things we already wanted to do, 90% of the time the thing we already wanted to do is the thing that’s going to win out. We like the idea of having Jesus as our savior – maybe just in case – but the idea of having him as our Lord is completely beyond the pale.

So one decision after another, we practice abandoning the faith. We practice compromising the gospel. We practice cutting loose from God’s rule over our lives. To return to an extremely colorful case-in-point from two weeks ago: We just got back from Thanksgiving. Do not raise your hand, but how many folks had a conversation at the Thanksgiving table where somebody in your family started going off about politics and they said something really out there and you said, “What do you think God thinks about that thing you just said?” and they said, “Look, I know it’s not what Jesus would do, but it’s what I would do.” That’s a very telling sentence. When somebody says that, the only correct response is, “I think you just accidentally revealed who your actual God is.” If your politics are allowed to supersede the obligations that Christ makes on you, you’re already practicing to abandon the faith, because your politics are the things you actually worship.

Or if your wallet is allowed to supersede the obligations Christ puts on you, you’re already practicing to abandon the faith, because your money is the thing you actually worship. Or if your sex life is allowed to supersede the obligations Christ places on you, you are already practicing to abandon the faith, because sex is the thing you actually worship.

And, listen: If you have zero interest in allowing the will of God as it is revealed in the Bible to take the wheel and steer you in the direction that God would call you, you might as well just make it official and jump ship.

Stop pretending.

Make it official and abandon the faith.

Because, seriously, whether you realize it or not, you already have.

Now, I know it’s not every day that you go to church and get told to “Stop identifying as Christian.” But listen to me. If you are a Christian, but God isn’t allowed to run your life, you are not a Christian.

I’m not eloquent enough to think of a way to make this go down easy. If God isn’t allowed to run your life, you’re a non-Christian. That’s what you are. You are unregenerate. You have not been washed in the blood of Jesus, no matter how many times you prayed some magic “sinner’s prayer.” Because, listen, if Jesus is not the Lord of your life, he is absolutely not the savior of your anything.

So I don’t actually want you to abandon the faith. I want you to decide. Are you in, or are you out? Do you want to follow Jesus, or do you wanna vaguely admire him while you do your own thing?

Our message today is about standing firm in the gospel, but for some people that might mean standing for the first time on the gospel. For some of us that might mean surrendering for the first time to the gospel. For some of us that might mean submitting for the first time in our lives to the glorious gospel that Paul has preached to us. If that’s you, please come talk to me.

And let me tell you why you should. Because Paul doesn’t just chastise Christians who compromise the gospel, here. He also talks a little bit about the joy that comes with standing firm. That probably sounds kind of weird up front. How do you take joy in standing firm in the gospel even when you get persecuted for it? If there’s anything persecution shouldn’t bring, it’s joy, right? And yet, there it is. Paul talks about the joy of standing firm in the gospel, even when it brings persecution.

And yet Paul sounds a little bit like James here. In James chapter 1, James says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and endurance produces joy.” What does that mean? It means that when you are wrapped up in the mercy of God, even your suffering is different. The mercy of God changes literally everything, even your suffering. It turns your sorrow into joy, like John 16 says.

But how? Paul has been confusing us since Galatians chapter 1, verse 1, and he ends his letter very much the same way he begins it, with one confusing turn of phrase after another, but if we look closely, we can see what he’s getting at rather clearly: Paul says, “but as for me, I will never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Your translation might put it a little bit differently, but the point is clear enough, that Paul can handle whatever persecution you bring at him, because his one joy is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Our one joy is the knowledge that even when we were sinners, like Romans 5:8 says, Christ “showed his love for us” by taking every last bit of our sin and darkness and inadequacy, nailing it to his cross, and putting it to death with him. Jesus took our death so that he could make us alive – that’s our one joy.

And, church, when that’s your one joy, everything else is joyful in ways it couldn’t have been beforehand. Normal, mundane, boring things are joyful in ways that they were not joyful. Even difficult, or horrifying, or nauseating things that you go through become joyful in ways that they were not joyful yesterday. Because under the cross of Jesus Christ, death does not have the final word in our lives. Suffering does not have the final word in our lives.

This past Tuesday, a bunch of us spent several hours at the hospital horrified, just sitting there in suspense about how miss Annie Gupton’s surgery was going to go, but even if it had gone very differently, even if she hadn’t made it through that surgery and that had been the last few hours of her life, the cross of Jesus Christ changes even our death. Her death would not simply have been bitter. It would also have been sweet.

It changes even the battles we lose. It changes even the suffering that we face at the hands of a world that has been radically broken by sin and death and darkness. When Paul says that “death has lost its sting,” he’s not kidding. It’s not even really a metaphor. Death loses its poison. Pain loses its poison. The brokenness of the world loses its grip over us because of the cross. And that’s a joy not even our misery in the world can steal from you.

And I want that for you.

If you have lived out your life pretending that you and God were OK, but you’ve always known deep down that you were running from him, I want this for you. If you’ve been telling yourself that God has to let you into his kingdom because you said a magic prayer when you were a little kid even though you’ve lived as your own Lord from that point up until now, I want this for you. If you spent this sermon either annoyed at me or scared for you because you finally came to realize that it doesn’t work that way – I would like very much for you to come down to the front in just a moment, talk to me, and we can walk together through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus to be saved from your sin and into God’s tender mercy.

5 Deeply Upsetting Things That “Cultural Christians” Need To Hear – Wednesday Night Bible Study Material

[The following is a transcript from Mount Zion’s Wednesday Night Bible Study from the evening of November 27th]

One of the challenges of living in our particular part of the world is that nearly everyone, everywhere, thinks they’re already Christian, regardless of whether they’ve thrown themselves on the mercy of Jesus and begun a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. We call this “Cultural Christianity” – identifying as Christian because, culturally, it’s the norm. Below are five potentially unsettling things that all “Cultural Christians” need to hear and understand:

Being saved has nothing to do with what you believe in your head:

We see this in James 2:19, in which he confronts anyone who assumes that “believing the right things about God” will save them, saying, ““You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” If the usual statistics mean anything, the average American believes that they’re “going to heaven” because the y theoretically believe in Jesus instead of Allah, or Krishna, etc. But, according to James, believing the right things about Jesus doesn’t get you any closer to God than it gets the demons, who also believe the right things about Jesus.

Being saved has nothing to do with whether you do Christian-y stuff:

We see this in Matthew 7:21-23, when Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

A day is going to come in which we all face judgment together. And, shockingly, Jesus himself tells us that on the day of judgment, countless people who believed the right things about Jesus will go away dejected, because Jesus says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” In other words, plenty of people will say, “Jesus, didn’t I repeat the sinner’s prayer after children’s church one time?” And Jesus will say something along the lines of, “That was 1984, and then you left, lived your life without me, and then died. Don’t kid yourself, dude.” A lot of people will say, “Didn’t I vote for every candidate who pretended he cared about ‘bringing America back to God?'” And Jesus will say something along the lines of, “Yep. But that’s got nothing to do with whether or not you’ve got a relationship with me.”

Most folks seem to think that if they do enough Christian-y stuff, then on the day of judgment God will have to accept them because they “Played for the right team.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Absolutely nothing will save you except throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus. That’s the whole thing.

Being saved has nothing to do with whether you pay “lip service” to Jesus:

We see this in Isaiah 29:13, where the Lord says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” It’s common to hear people say that America is a “Christian Nation,” but it’d be more accurate to say that America is a nation that pays “lip service” to Jesus. More than a few people seem to think that if they pray before meals and share Facebook posts that say “Like if you love Jesus, ignore if you love Satan!” then they’ll get on God’s good side. But God isn’t sports. Faith is not a jersey that you wear. There’s no “Team Christian” and “Team Atheist” or “Team Satan.” Putting up 17 crosses on your wall means absolutely nothing about whether you’ve got a relationship with the God of the universe – all it means is that you’ve got a really busy wall. God isn’t interested in our “lip-service.” He’s interested in rescuing us from our sins through faith in Jesus Christ.

The things you actually do tell us whether you’re a real believer or not:

We see this in Titus 1:16, when Paul warns his disciple, Titus, about people he refers to as “false believers.” He says, “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” Both in Paul’s day and in ours, there were people who claimed to be Christians, but who lived like God doesn’t exist. Maybe one of the most frightening concepts in the Bible is the notion that you demonstrate what you actually believe based on what you do. In other words, if you claim to be a Christian, but you absolutely refuse to let Jesus guide your life, if you refuse to allow the Bible to show you what’s right and what’s wrong, and then obey it, then you are not a Christian. If you claim to be a believer, but refuse to give up your favorite sins, then you are not a believer, period. That’s a hard word, but it’s the truth.

Everyone struggles with sin, and God is infinitely merciful. If you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, then there is no sin, no matter how serious, that God will not forgive. But if you have genuinely thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, then you will attempt to obey him in every aspect of your life. That is to say, if you refuse to obey Jesus in some aspect of your life, then you’re not really throwing yourself on his mercy. And if you’re not really throwing yourself on his mercy, then you are not saved, period.

Saying a special prayer when you’re six and then living as your own Lord for the rest of your life will send you to hell:

We see this in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, in which Paul calls out a group of Christians in the churches in Corinth, because they’ve repeatedly refused to leave behind their old ways. They’re like many of the people who identify as Christians in America today: They heard the gospel when they were younger, they prayed and asked Jesus to save them, and then they lived the rest of their lives as if Jesus did not exist. To these folks, Paul says, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, 10 no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.”

In other words, Jesus is not your “Savior” if he’s not also your “Lord.” Like we said before, everybody struggles with sin. Trying and failing to overcome certain sinful habits does not mean that you aren’t a Christian. This is different. What Paul is describing isn’t about failing to overcome your sinful habits and addictions. He’s describing that phenomenon where people have sinful sex lives that they refuse to give up but assume they’re cool with God because they believe the right things about Jesus. He’s taking about that thing where people will act abusively in relationships with their significant others, or employees, or parents, or children but assume they’re on good terms with God because they believe the right things about Jesus. To folks carrying this misconception, Paul says ” No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.”

Conclusion: “Cultural Christianity” Isn’t Christianity

Most of us have friends, or family members – children, parents, siblings, etc. – who fit the bill described above perfectly. As painful as it is to acknowledge, we need to admit it to ourselves: They are lost. They are not Christians. They are not pals with God. And if they do not throw themselves on the mercy of Jesus to be saved, they will die one day, and they will go to hell.

That means that we need to have conversations with them. There’s no sense in browbeating people – that never works anyway – but they do need to be told, clearly, kindly, and gravely, that God wants to rescue them, but that it will require throwing themselves on the mercy of Jesus. They need to be told that being saved has nothing to do with what they believe in their head. That being saved has nothing to do with whether they do Christian-y stuff. That being saved has nothing to do with whether they pay “lip service” to Jesus. They might need to have the rug pulled out from underneath them, by explaining that the things they actually do tell us whether they’re a real believer or not. They might need to hear it straight: that saying a special prayer when they were six and then living as their own Lord for the rest of their life will send them to hell.

Only you know your “Culturally Christian” friends/family members well enough to determine how to have these conversations with them. I can point out the importance of witnessing to them, but I cannot tell you what to say or how to say it. What I can offer, however, is a word of encouragement: We are all in this together, because we care about the people in our lives. And, soon enough, if they are receptive to the Holy Spirit’s conviction as you share with them, they’ll be in this together with us, too.

‘Who Do You Think You Are’ – Gal. 6:1-10 – November 24th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 6, verses 1 through 10. Paul says:

Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load.

The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap, because the one who sows to his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So we must not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.

Let’s pray.

*

So, we’re all about to go off to Thanksgiving. And what’s gonna happen at Thanksgiving? Our family members are gonna come over. And we’re gonna talk to them (hopefully?)

But there are two things you’re never supposed to talk about at the Thanksgiving table, right? Religion and politics. Which means that’s the only thing anybody’s actually gonna talk about at the Thanksgiving table.

And two things are gonna happen as we inevitably delve into religion and politics this Thanksgiving.

Somebody’s uncle is gonna complain about this or that political issue. Right? It’s coming. It never doesn’t happen. Maybe you are that uncle.

But this year, pay very close attention when it starts. Because when he starts complaining about politics, he won’t just be complaining about politics. What he’s doing is telling himself a story, whether he realizes it or not, and the story he tells is gonna reveal exactly how he sees himself.

The story that he tells might be that Everything Would Be Fine If The Liberals Would Just Leave Him Alone. Right? If they’d just stop coming for his guns. Or, if they’d stop trying to “tax him into oblivion.” Or if they’d stop “taking prayer out of schools” or “taking the Ten Commandments off state buildings,” and so on and so forth.

And you and I are probably on the same page as your uncle on most of those issues, but pay close attention to him because what he’s doing runs deeper than politics: He’s unconsciously crafting a story that makes it seem like his “real problems” are coming from the outside, not the inside. He’s crafting a story where his primary issues are “out there,” not “in here.” Where the primary obstacle he faces in life is “angry college students” who wanna empty out his pockets to clear their student debt, or something, not his own heart. 

And you may agree or disagree with his politics, but notice what he’s doing, because he probably won’t: He’s positioning himself as the protagonist in the Story Of His Life, he’s positioning himself as The Underdog. The Villains are, very conveniently, somewhere else and someone else. He’s rewritten the story of his life into something very different than the story that the Bible tells.

But another thing is gonna happen at Thanksgiving: Your weird aunt is gonna show up in her Hillary 2016 shirt. Right? Her job was to bring dessert for everybody and so she went to Wal-Mart and had a cake done professionally that’s got “Impeach Emperor Trump” written in icing and a tastefully done portrait of the president dressed up like Darth Sidious from the Star Wars movies underneath it.

And you’ll be like, “Carol, can we not do this, this year?” And she’ll take that as a cue to bust out a well-rehearsed speech about moving to Canada in 2020 and taxing the rich, and so on and so forth, and maybe you’re more on board with your aunt, here, than your uncle, but notice that she’s doing the same thing.

Just like your uncle, she’s not just “mouthing off about politics,” she’s telling herself a very specific story about the world and her place in it.

In the story she’s telling herself, she’s not just Carol, a part time Library-clerk and full-time Grandmother who lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Without meaning to do anything, she’s crafted a story where she’s a brave member of the “resistance.” She’s the underdog, the protagonist. Just like before, the real villains are “out there,” not “in here.” She’s telling herself a story where her real problems boil down to “rich oil company executives,” or “Republican congressmen,” and so on and so forth, but her story is every bit as incomplete as your uncle’s story.

Don’t get me wrong. Politics matter. The point of that story is not that politics are bad and you should stay away from them. There’s gonna be a lot of truth to what both of them are saying, and yet all of those things will be woefully incomplete, because those are stories that they tell themselves because it replaces their own hearts as the Villains Of Their Story. The problem with these imaginary aunt and uncle figures we’ve been talking about is not that they’ve got politics, it’s that they’ve turned their politics into “false identities.

We can build false identities out of just about anything. Right? I can. I think most of us suffer from something you could call “False Identity Syndrome.” We build false identities out of anything and everything.

And I think that’s what Paul’s getting at when in the middle of today’s passage, Paul says that, “If anyone considers himself something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” That sounds kinda like a playground insult, but he’s talking about everybody. We build false identities out of anything and everything.

When I was working in a tech repair shop way back in the dawn of man, there was a dude who got hired on who fits the profile Paul’s talking about, here, pretty well. He spent most of his time talking about how “there was an $100,000 a year job waiting for him as a welder,” but that he wanted to get his degree first so he could get a $250,000 a year job instead. And I was like, “So have you started your degree?” And he was like, “well, no.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. So your plan of action was to settle down at this $20,000 a year job in the meantime?”

And he kinda shook his head and then tried to sell me pot.

That same guy had a whole, kind of, treasure trove of stories that he told us, and they got increasingly ridiculous, until at one point, I’m pretty sure he told us he was patient zero in that Ebola outbreak back in 2015 or so.

And it’s easy to laugh at a guy like that because he’s clearly putting up a front. He’s clearly constructing an identity and then trying to convince himself that it’s what he really is by convincing us that it’s what he really is. Right? He “considers himself something when he is nothing,” and in his case that’s fairly obvious which makes him extremely easy to laugh at but Paul’s gonna press that idea further in ways that make us uncomfortable because Paul’s not trying to get us to laugh together at a delusional 25 year old who worked at a tech repair shop in Oklahoma, he’s trying to shove a mirror in our faces.

Because we build false identities out of anything and everything. Paul’s point, here, is that we are not what we think we are. You are not what you think you are.

Whatever it is you define yourself as, it’s half-right at best. Because you are not the things you choose, you are not the country you’re a citizen of, you are not your gender, you are not your race, you are not your politics, you’re not even your religion. All of those are important “pieces” of you, but there is exactly one thing that defines you, and that is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I need to explain that. What I mean is that, in Ephesians 2, Paul says that “We were dead in our trespasses and sins.” Not just “sick.” Dead. He doesn’t say that we were “disappointing in our trespasses and sins.” He says, “we were dead.” He doesn’t say that we were “in danger of not reaching our full potential in our trespasses and sins,” he says we were “dead.” The way Paul describes us in Ephesians 2, we sound almost like zombies. He says we “followed the ways of the world,” we followed the “cravings of our flesh,” and we followed the “prince of the power of the air,” that’s King-James for “the Devil.” So, depressing stuff. We were “dead in our trespasses and sins.” Our fundamental problem was not “rich oil company executives” or “young liberal college students,” it was this. It was us. Our problem was us. So much so that Paul says in that same passage that we were “by nature, children under wrath.”

But then, Paul takes a hard “right turn” and says “But God, who is rich in mercy,” and “because of his great love that he has for us even when we were dead in our sin, made us alive together with Christ.” We were dead, but God “raised us up” together with Jesus. That’s the story of our lives.

And what that means for us is that, Ephesians 2:5, “by grace we’ve been saved.” We were rightly banished from God’s presence, but now, Ephesians 2:6 we are “seated with him in the heavenly places.” You’re not just waiting out the rest of your life to be reunited with God, you’ve been reunited with God. That is the story of your life. That’s not just something about you, that’s what you are. The thing you are is a person who was shut out from God’s presence but now has been welcomed back through the blood of Jesus. That’s the story of your life.

And that tells us two things about you. It tells us that you are bad enough that God needed to give himself to be murdered in your place to redeem you. And it tells us that you are precious enough that God didn’t think twice about doing so. That’s the truth about you. That’s the true story of your life. And, listen: That’s true about you whether you believe it or not.

And the reason all of this matters is because when you build your identity around something other than the redemption God has poured out on you in Jesus Christ, your “false identity syndrome” is bound to work its way out into the rest of your life and wreak exactly the same damage always has. You know what I’m talking about?

And of course it does. Because a lot of what you do has to do with who you think you are. That sounded kinda like it could have come from a fortune cookie, but bear with me. A lot of what you do comes from who you think you are.

So if you think of yourself as somebody who’s got it all together – if you build your identity on the fact that you’ve been able to hold the same job for 10+ years while all the folks around you keep crashing and burning, you’ll have zero sympathy when you encounter the dude who can’t keep a job, because he can’t get to work, because he can’t afford a car, because he can’t keep a job, so he doesn’t have spare money, and so the cycle keeps going, and going, and going. You’ll have zero sympathy for that guy.

And then you’ll have absolutely no emotional resources to deal with it when you become that guy. When the factory folds and you’re the one in the unemployment line now, and nobody’s hiring folks like you ’cause you’re 55 years old and they want teenagers who are clueless and compliant and are willing to work for pocket change ’cause they’re just looking for spending money for the weekends, it’ll feel like death. You’ll feel useless. You’ll wonder what the point of existing is. 

When you find your identity in your self-sufficiency, what are you going to do when the universe reveals that you were never self-sufficient in the first place? That you always hung by a thread, you just recognize it now?

Or if you define yourself by your beauty, or your good looks, or whatever, you will devote an inordinate degree of time and money in effort into staying good-looking. You’ll spend 20 hours a week at the gym. And you’ll look great, but you’ll slowly lose your mind as you get older and your skin gets looser and your hair gets greyer or your hairline get thinner (if you’re me). And when you’re 40 years old and you start to grow horizontally at approximately the speed you used to grow vertically, it’ll feel like death. We build false identities out of anything and everything.

As extreme as it might sound, defining yourself through something other than the redemption God has given you in Jesus Christ will make you quietly crazy. Not “obvious crazy.” Not “Charlie-Sheen-Having-A-Meltdown-Talking-About-Tiger-Blood crazy. But quietly crazy.

And of course it will. Because the false identities we cling to aren’t just silly. They’re soul crushing. Like, it’s good to be a hard worker it’s good to put effort into your looks, and so on and so forth, but they cannot bear the weight of forming your identity. They can’t make up who you are. Clinging to our false identities will make us quietly crazy.

*

But look at what happens when you define yourself through Jesus instead.

In verse 1 of our passage, Paul says, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” That’s not a mundane sentence. That says a lot. When the story of our lives is that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins” but Christ came down and took our punishment for us to “reconcile us to God” forever, that changes how you deal with other people who screw up, right?

Because if you believe, like Paul says, that you were “walking in darkness” in a way that brought “the wrath of God” rightly onto you but then the God that you offended had an inexplicable mercy on you, to the point that he put the full weight of his own wrath onto himself on the cross, what would your major malfunction have to be if you were still eager to cut people off the second they messed up?

Or, in verse 2, Paul says, “Bear one another’s burdens,” and the same thing’s at work here. When the story of your life is that you were struggling along, buried under the weight of the world, but Christ came and lifted that weight from you, picked you up, and carried you on his back into his Father’s house, set you down at his table, draped his robe over you, put a ring on your finger, and fed you, what would your major malfunction have to be if you saw your brothers and sisters in need and told yourself that there’s always gonna be “haves” and “have-nots,” and if the “have-nots” didn’t want to be “have-nots” they should’ve tried harder to have.

A lot of what you do has to do with who you think you are. And this is “who we are”: We are people who’ve been redeemed by Jesus with a redemption that we could not earn and God did not owe.

So when Paul talks about “boasting in yourself” in verse 4, he means the opposite of what it sounds like. He’s not talking about boasting in how great you are. He’s not talking about harboring a sense of smug moral superiority. He’s talking about lifting up the God who rescued us, not because we’re better than other people, but because we aren’t. Paul’s talking about celebrating the fact that, like Ephesians 1 says, God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” not because we were awesome so he wanted us on his kickball team but because we were extremely not awesome and it pleased God to show us a radical mercy we had no right to.

That’s the story of our lives.

But Paul is also talking about celebrating the fact that when God rescues us he doesn’t just forgive us and then say, “Okay, I’ll see you in heaven.” Right? He changes us. He makes us something very different than we were. Think back to the Ephesians 2 passage from earlier: Paul starts out by saying that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins,” but he ends by saying that now we are newly created in Christ Jesus for good works that God set apart for us beforehand.”

That’s the opposite of “boasting.” At no point, here, are you comparing yourself to other people, at no point are you “competing” with somebody else. Instead you’re clinging to Christ as the Spirit he’s sent you heals everything that’s lacking in you.

Paul’s talking about resting in the way that God turns you away from your selfishness and instead towards a kind of radical generosity. Like Paul says in verse 10, we “work for the good of all,” because God has already worked everything together for our good. Right?

So, as a Christian, your non-Christian neighbors should say something like “The folks next door are regressive fundamentalists but they’re the best neighbors I’ll ever have. They keep inviting us over for dinner. They keep helping me change my oil. They co-signed on that loan we needed when we almost lost our house.” The list goes on.

That’s the reason God doesn’t beam you up to heaven after he saves you. It’s because today, as people indwelt by the Spirit of God because of the grace of God, the rest of our lives consist in “walking in” the “good works” that God has “set apart beforehand” for us.

That is the thing our lives are about, not our selfish desires, not our sense of safety and security, not our self-gratification, and not the false identities we try to carve out for ourselves. So put your hand to the plow, and plow forward. Give zero consideration to how you’re doing compared to other people. Devote yourself to “walking in” the “good works” that God has set apart for you day-in and day-out. That’s the whole thing.

‘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 3:18. 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.