‘We Have Been Given a New Birth’ – James 1:1-27 – January 27th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to James chapter 1, verses 1 through 27:

James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion. Greetings.

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.

The brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation, but the one who is rich should boast in his humiliation because he will pass away like a flower of the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass; its flower falls off, and its beautiful appearance is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities.

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.

Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of His creatures.

My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works—this person will be blessed in what he does.

If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Let’s pray.

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So, there’s a little bit of “scholarly debate” about this, but the best evidence seems to suggest that the author of James was one Jesus’s brothers, like we hear about in the gospel of Mark, and the Gospel of John – the ones who didn’t believe in him. But something happened between that first Passover celebration, when James and the others called him a fraud, and A.D. 45 or so, when this letter was written and James was calling himself a “slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So in John chapter 7, James and the other brothers mocked Jesus. But by Acts 1:14, after the resurrection, Luke says they were in the upper room with the other disciples, praying for the Holy Spirit, and eventually James was murdered by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, because he had become a prominent teacher and evangelist among the Jewish Christians in Palestine. Everybody comes to Christ from their own place in life, and some places in life are harder than others to convert from. But James and Jude came from the hardest. They grew up with him. They watched him learn to ride a bike. They watched him learn to tend to the family farm, and they watched him learn to build tables. That’s a hard place to “Come To Jesus” from.

According to longstanding tradition, Joseph was a widower, and James might have been a step brother from Joseph’s previous marriage. So James was Jesus’s older brother, which in that time would have meant that James had “familial authority” over Jesus. But he took off that authority that comes with being the older brother, and he put on “submission” to Christ, calling himself a slave. So James used to call him names, but now he calls him Lord. The resurrection of Jesus turned their relationship right-side-up.

And according to verse 18, we’re like James: Jesus “gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the ‘firstfruits’ of his creatures. Some translations put it a little bit more clearly for those of us who aren’t from agricultural backgrounds, they say “so that we would be the ‘firstfruits’ of his ‘new creation’.” Like James, the Holy Spirit drew us to faith in Jesus, and then the Father made us into his children. So James was Jesus’s brother through either blood or marriage, but after Jesus appeared to everyone in his resurrection, James and Jesus became brothers in an even deeper sense than before. And when we come to a shared faith in Jesus, we become brothers and sister in a deeper sense, even, than we are with our flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters. We’re adopted into God’s family.

So when we were meeting with families this past Christmas, we met a family who had signed up to receive some help in buying gifts for their children. And we found out that several of the children living with them weren’t their children by birth; they were children who didn’t have a safe place to sleep or eat or do their homework, so they’d taken them in and let them live under their own roof. And when you adopt a child, you’re doing something like what God does with us. We are children without a safe place to sleep or eat or rest, and he adopts us into his own family. And if you’re visiting, or you’ve been coming for a while, but you don’t know Jesus, God wants to adopt you. And so I’ll be at the front at the end of this service, and I’ll just be kind of awkwardly standing there while we sing, waiting for you to come talk to me. Because God wants to adopt you, and I’d love to be the one who introduces you.

But verse 18 says that when God adopts us into his family, we become the “firstfruits of his creatures,” of his “new creation.” So we don’t just take on a new title, or the family name. Something fundamental about us changes. Like we’ve talked about before, we were born into a broken creation. I don’t think I have to convince you of that. There’s something deeply wrong with the world. There’s a crack in the asphalt of everything. And we’re victims of that. We were born into a radically broken world and it batters you. Whether you’re never quite sure if you’ll make rent this month or you’re a trust-fund kid, the world still some way to give you two black eyes. There’s something wronger-than-wrong with the world.

The problem is, we aren’t just victims of the world. We were born into a world that batters us, but we grew up into people who find ways to keep the brokenness of the world on life support. That’s why in 1910, G.K. Chesterton was hired to write a book called What’s Wrong with The World, and since G.K. Chesterton is kind of a prankster, he spends about 250 pages saying “The Thing That’s Wrong With The World Is Me.” I’m what’s wrong with the world, and so are you. Some of us are worse than others – Charlie Manson was worse than your cousin Charlie, who’s just kind of a bully – but we’re all part perpetuating the cruelty of the world. We’re all what’s wrong with the world.

So we’re born into a “bad crop.” I’m not gonna try anymore agricultural language because I know jack. But when we grow up out of the ground, we’re already spoilt. But according to verse 18, the Holy Spirit “gives us a new birth by the word of truth” so that the Father can mold us into the “firstfruits” of his new harvest. God is un-breaking the world. In the words of one song that I like, “God’s making right what we made wrong.”

And about halfway through the book of Acts, a bunch of Synagogue leaders drag the pastor of a house church before the city officials and say “These men have turned the world upside down, and they’re trying to do the same thing here.” And there’s a hint of irony in the way that Luke writes the story, because from the Synagogue leaders’ perspective, they are turning everything upside down. Because the Synagogue leaders had grown comfortable in the darkness. They’d learned how to work the brokenness of the world to their advantage.

But the world was already upside down, because when you’re banished from the Garden, when you’re not communing with God, everything is upside down, already. And the Synagogue leaders were at home in the upside down-ness of the world. So when this group of house churches in their city started evangelizing and serving the city, it was like shoving their fingers in an open wound: they were turning the world right-side-up again, and was disorienting. Because the members of these house churches had been “given a new birth by the message of truth,” and as the “firstfruits” of God’s new harvest, they were faithfully carrying out the work of turning the world right-side-up again, and to the Synagogue leaders, it felt like everything was turning “upside down.”

And at his second coming, Jesus will complete the work that he started when he “gave us a new birth.” He’s turning our relationships right-side-up, in kind of a contagious way, so as the Holy Spirit turns us right-side-up, we inevitably start to influence the world around us, and people battered by the upside-down-ness of the world are drawn in, because they can see that there’s a safe place to sleep and eat and lay their heads here in God’s family. And the rest of the book of James is basically a long list of applications for this one statement that James makes, that God has “given us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of his creatures.” So our text today is kind of the “table of contents” for the book of James.

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And the first thing James highlights is how our “new birth by the message of truth” changes our relationship with trials. James says “consider it great joy when you experience trials,” and that’s not really my go-to reaction. But James says that “the testing of your faith produces endurance.” And we need that. Because it isn’t hard “start well.” All you’ve gotta do is hear a revival message that’s finely tuned to pull at your heartstrings and you’ll have all the fuel you need to “Obnoxiously Christian On Facebook” for the next 3 weeks. You know what I’m talking about?

That was a big thing with my generation. We’d go to Christian summer camp, get converted for the seventeenth time, go home and post eleven Bible verses a day on our social media and three weeks later bump into each other at the Discount Condom Outlet. Anybody can stoke our emotions for a while, and that’s good, but what we need is the kind of endurance that’ll carry us through to the end of our lives. James says “endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Trials change when you’re going through them as someone who’s been “given a new birth by the message of truth so that we would become the firstfruits of God’s creatures.”

Because it’s no longer just an “interruption” to your plans. Trials become something God uses to mold you into the image of his son, Jesus. That’s why, in verse 12, James says “The one who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life God has promised to those who love him. And that’s not James saying, “Hey, I know this sucks but you get to go to heaven at the end of it.” Heaven is a place. It’s as real as any other place, like Milwaukee, or something. But that’s not the end-goal. The finish line we’re running toward is that one day, when we’ve endured all of the trials that we’re faced with, we’ll get to be with Jesus, and we’ll be like Jesus. And when that’s our endgame, trials are different.

Because to imitate Jesus is its own reward, and as redeemed people, God uses every trial in our lives to mold us into people who imitate Jesus on reflex. So one day, it’ll be “second nature” to us. Like, I don’t know how heaven works; I don’t know, exactly, how God sustains a world where everybody’s free but nobody sins. But I do know that it’s outside the realm of anything we’ve seen, because the “new heavens and the new earth” are a place where everybody imitates Jesus on reflex, and that’ll change our “life together.” That’ll change the way we act and think and talk to each other. That’s the kind of world where everybody’s free and nobody sins. And although we won’t see that in its fullness until Jesus returns to finish what he started at the resurrection and what he’s working out through us, James would have us live in a way that “images” that future for each other and the rest of the world.

So the “trials and temptations” we go through become a gift instead of a curse, because they’re tools in God’s hands to sand us down into people who reflect his glory. So James writes that “nobody undergoing a trial should say, ‘I am being tempted by God.’” We can let our sin nature turn our trials into excuses to give in to temptation, or we can accept our trials as, kind of, a vehicle by which “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow cast by turning,” turns our natures right-side-up.

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And the same goes for wisdom. And that’s a word you’ve gotta be careful with. Because most of what passes for “wisdom” in our culture is cynicism painted up like conscientiousness. Wisdom isn’t very marketable, but if you appeal to people’s baser instincts and slap kind of a folksy charm onto it, you can beat out all the other late-night news pundits. You can bait people into tuning into your talk-show nightly by finding subtle ways to tell them that there’s no God so they don’t owe their neighbors anything so their only loyalty is to their own sense of security. You know what I’m talking about?

So we are always, all the time, digesting messages that are antithetical to the good news of the gospel, from the political left and the political right, from the cultural elites and the self-proclaimed advocates for “Old Time Family Values,” from secularists and religious fanatics, because we’re all just born into it. There’s an unbelief that haunts the very thoughts of our hearts like a ghost.

And that’s an unbelief that works itself out in every corner of your life, when God’s not allowed to tell you who can and can’t have sex with, or what you can and can’t do with your money, when he’s not allowed to tell you what does and doesn’t count as a human being, and what you are and aren’t allowed to do with your body, or it can work itself out by convincing you that some people aren’t you neighbors because they’re politically problematic, or because their presence makes you feel less safe in your own country, or because some of what they do makes you uncomfortable.

So our culture is constantly catechizing us toward varying forms of unbelief, so we need a wisdom that comes from above. And James says that “If any of us lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him.” And that’s good news, at least for people like me. Because I am what wisdom isn’t.

But God gives “generously and without criticizing.” He’s not waiting for you to mess up, tallying up our foolishness. Instead he “gave us a new birth by the message of truth and made us a kind of firstfruits of his creatures,” so he’s turning our foolishness into wisdom. He’s making us into something different than we were. He’s turning us right-side-up. But for God to turn our foolishness into wisdom means submitting to the wisdom that he gives us.

Because James says “the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” And doubt’s not the opposite of “certitude,” it’s the opposite of “faithfulness.” No one on planet earth is positive that they’re right about God – right? Like, you don’t have to lie to me. The opposite of doubt, the way James is using it here, is obedience. It’s believing a gospel you don’t always feel. It’s like staying in a marriage that isn’t always thrilling like it was on the honeymoon. Don’t expect God to give you wisdom you’re not gonna submit to. Because James says, “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”

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And there’s nowhere that’s more pronounced than when it comes to money. James says that “the brother of humble circumstances should boast in his exaltation, but the one who is rich should boast in his humiliation,” and a lot of folks think James has a chip on his shoulder toward the rich, here. I promise that I’ll never sugar-coat the Bible for you, but I assure that is not the case. We’re reading the book of James, not a Soviet Manifesto. So James’s point is not that that Wealth is Bad and You Should Feel Bad. His point is that “we were given a new birth by the message of truth,” so God is turning our lives right-side-up, and that changes your relationship with money.

Because “the sun rises with its scorching heat and dries up the grass,” and James says, “in the same way the rich man will wither away while pursuing his activities.” James doesn’t want you to burn all your money and take a vow of poverty, he wants you to use the wisdom you asked God for to shape how you use it. It’s like when the Rich Young Ruler comes to James’s brother Jesus and says “How can I be saved?” and Jesus says, “You’ve kept all my Dad’s commands, huh?” And the Rich Young Ruler says, “Yeah.” And Jesus says, “Okay. Liquidate your assets and give the money to the poor.”

Our culture says “Hoard your money because Money Is Power,” but God’s turning the world right-side-up by turning us right-side-up. And so, unlike the world, we see our stuff as God’s Stuff, and we look for ways that God can use us to share God’s Stuff with other people. But the Rich Young Ruler doesn’t see it that way. James says, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourself.” Because when you deceive yourself you’ll go home disappointed, like the Rich Young Ruler. Since he was a “hearer of the word and not a doer” he was “like a man looking at his face in a mirror.” The Rich Young Rulers of the world “look at themselves, go away, and immediately forget what kind of person they are.”

But when God “gives us a new birth by the message of truth,” the Holy Spirit begins to create an otherworldly generosity in us, and it changes our relationship with our money. So James says “the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, who is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works, this person will be blessed indeed.” So we don’t need to be intimidated by that. Because if any of us lack that generosity that James talks about, he says “he should ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to him.” God shapes us into a people who confuse people, because they see us “looking after orphans and widows in their distress” and it slowly dons on them we live on the terms of a very different King and a very different Kingdom. So James doesn’t say we need to go take a vow of poverty. He doesn’t say we need to go retreat from the world. He says that we “keep ourselves unstained by the world.”

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Right down to the way we talk. James says “My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.” You’ll notice that most of the time when James or Solomon, or anyone, says something about “How You Talk,” they’re not just talking about how you talk. Especially in the Proverbs, when Solomon starts talking about how “the tongue can be a balm that heals you or a knife that guts you,” he’s not “talking about the vehicle,” he’s “talking about the pilot.”

So, a command to change how you use your tongue is a command to change you. Because what comes out of your mouth is you. So when you’re getting bad service at a restaurant, and you say something unnaturally cruel – the kind of thing that you can justify to yourself on account of how frustrated your server made you, but that you know fully well would make a mockery of the gospel if they knew you were “so-and-so from Mount Zion Baptist Church” – that unnaturally cruel thing you said wasn’t a “strange anomaly” that came from outer space and used you as a host body; it came from inside you. The things you say and do, you say and do because they’re the sort of things that you would say and do. There’s the old saying, “A cup can only spill what it contains. And when God rebukes you about the way you speak, it’s an invitation to let him change what you contain.

So imagine being the sort of person who’s “quick to hear” people, just because you want to hear them. Not waiting for your next chance to respond, you just want to hear them. Because you’re “slow to speak.” And when you’re “quick to hear” people, and you’re “slow to speak” in return, that usually means that the Holy Spirit’s working in you in a way that’ll also make you “slow to anger.” And that’s got consequences that kind of colonize the rest of your lifestyle.

Because James wants us to hear each other. He wants us to hear our neighbors. He wants us to hear our enemies. He wants us to hear them and be slow to anger.” That means he wants you to be “slow to anger” in ways that they won’t be. Right? James wants you to be slow to anger in a way that your adult children who’ve abandoned the faith probably won’t be in return.

He wants you to turn your ears towards other people in a way that doesn’t demand its due respect, that doesn’t demand to be talked to with the gentleness you’re owed. He wants you to turn your ear towards people to understand them. And for most of us, that means that we need to “contain” something different than we do. Because being “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” isn’t our default mode. It’s not what spills out of us. But James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, then his religion is useless and he deceives himself,” so we’ve been “given a new birth by the message of truth,” and God is molding us into the image of his son, right down to the way we talk. God is changing what “comes out” of our mouths” by changing what’s “inside” us. He fixing our souls by the Holy Spirit, and that’s reshaping the way we talk to each other and about each other.

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So you’ve probably noticed a pattern – God is turning us right-side-up by healing the upside-down-ness that’s inside us. But that means you need more than just a change in behavior. James talks a lot about what you do, and what you do matters. But all the “changes in behavior” that James hammers into our heads by the end of his letter are the results of your getting the thing you actually need – we’re born into the upside-down-ness of the world; most of us grow comfortable in it, learn to use it to our advantage, and then die; you can do that – you can cling to your upside-down-ness till you face God in the judgment; most people do; I don’t want you to.

Because the opposite of Hell isn’t “Heaven,” it’s holiness. But it’s a holiness we’re given, not a holiness we earn, and not a holiness we build ourselves. James says that what we need is a “new birth by the message of truth,” and this is the message of truth. God is not out to get you. He’s out to un-get you. He’s out to turn you right-side-up because your upside-down-ness will kill you, and is already killing you, and you know that, so what you need is a “new birth.” And it’s yours. Take it. God himself came to earth, lived as a human, and then sacrificed his own life to rescue us from our upside-down-ness and make us into his children. So we are forgiven for everything and born into God’s family. Take it. Come home.

I’m gonna awkwardly stand at the front in a couple of minutes while we sing. If I’ve been describing you for the last forty minutes, if you need to be “given a new birth by the message of truth,” then come talk to me. If you don’t wanna meet me at the altar, that’s okay. It’s not a magic altar. You can flag me down, we can find a time to meet, and we can walk through the process of giving yourself to Christ, to be turned right-side-up, to be forgiven for your part in keeping the upside-down-ness of the world on life-support, to be “born into” God’s family, not as a wayward kid perpetually walking on thin ice, but as God’s beloved daughter, or son, welcomed without reservations by your Father, in heaven.

Let’s pray.

‘The Faith of Job’ – Job 42:1-17 – Tyler Ferneyhough – January 20th, 2019

Well Good morning everyone. My name is Tyler Ferneyhough and I’ll be filling in for Ryan again this week. Hope you are all having a good new years; hope you’re all keeping up your new years resolutions. Well, today I am going to be preaching out of Job, so turn there with me if you would like, to Job 42:1-17; that’s Job 42:1-17.

Then Job replied to the Lord: I know that You can do anything and no plan of Yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this who conceals My counsel with ignorance?” Surely I spoke about things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, “Listen now, and I will speak. When I question you, you will inform Me.” I had heard rumors about You,
but now my eyes have seen You. Therefore I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes. After the Lord had finished speaking to Job, He said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me, as My servant Job has. Now take seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer a burnt offering for yourselves. Then My servant Job will pray for you. I will surely accept his prayer and not deal with you as your folly deserves. For you have not spoken the truth about Me, as My servant Job has.” Then Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord had told them, and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer. After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his prosperity and doubled his previous possessions. All his brothers, sisters, and former acquaintances came to his house and dined with him in his house. They sympathized with him and comforted him concerning all the adversity the Lord had brought on him. Each one gave him a qesitah and a gold earring. So the Lord blessed the last part of Job’s life more than the first. He owned 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named his first daughter Jemimah, his second Keziah, and his third Keren-happuch. No women as beautiful as Job’s daughters could be found in all the land, and their father granted them an inheritance with their brothers. Job lived 140 years after this and saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. Then Job died, old and full of days.

This morning I want to talk about faith—its essence and nature. This morning I want to answer the question: what does biblical faith look like, practically worked out? What does it mean to live by faith? What are the intellectual and volitional qualifications? Again: what is the essence of biblical faith. I think that nowhere else in scripture do we see a more clear and relentless explanation of the nature and essence of faith than right here in the book of Job. Here we see faith presented nakedly before us with unflinching clarity; in short, I think that Job tells us that the essence of faith is that we acknowledge God’s right over us and submit to his wisdom even—or, for that matter, especially—when we don’t understand his dealings with us. The theology of the book of Job is the theology of the whole Bible: God is sovereign and he is always right, and he will always do as he pleases; saving faith acknowledges this fact and submits to it—and the primary way that God brings the heart to this submission of faith is by suffering.

Now, as you have probably noticed, the key passage I am preaching from this morning is the last chapter, so I will need to set the stage just a little bit before we get to the actual passage for today. Most of you, I am sure, already know the story of Job, so I will not explain it in too much detail, let I put everyone to sleep; but just really quickly let’s go over the story. Job is described as being a just man with many cattle, as well as sons and daughters; in fact, it says that he was the greatest man in wealth in the east. On top of all that, he feared the Lord; the text says that he would regularly offer burnt sacrifices for his family in case they had sinned against God; it says he did this regularly. So Job is a good man, a just and righteous man who fears the Lord.

But then notice what happens next; you all know the story. Satan and his angels come to God and God asks them what they’ve been doing; they say they’ve been wandering the earth. Now notice here what happens next: God himself mentions Job to Satan, not the other way around. God says, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” So notice this: God himself singles Job out for suffering, not Satan. God does what he wants to who he wants to do it to; this is the God of the Bible: untamable and sovereign. But next we see the cynicism of Satan; Satan replies, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” Satan is a cynic. Satan believes that Job only loves God for what God does for him, not for God himself. And while God will ultimately prove Satan wrong, I think we will see that to some extent Satan was actually right about Job—again, to some extent—and he is also right about us, probably more that we would all be willing to admit. Suffering, as we will see, is how this mercenary attitude is exposed in us and remedied. So God gives Satan permission to devastate Job’s family and property on the condition that he doesn’t harm Job himself.

And so—we all know the story—the servants start flooding in to report the news: the Sabeans have killed all his servants and taken his oxen; then another servant comes and says that fire has come from heaven and destroyed his sheep; another servant says the Chaldeans have done similarly; then, worse yet, another servant comes and says all of Job’s children are dead, destroyed by a great wind. At this point, Job keeps his faith pretty strong and bows down and worships; yet again God provokes Satan against Job once more, giving him permission this time to even attack his health, only on the condition that Satan not take his life, so Satan devastates Job even more, this time with terrible sores on his whole body. It’s at this point that Job starts to break a little bit, and his wife, if you will recall, tells him to curse God and die.

Next his three friends show up on the scene, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar; all three of them essentially say to Job that the reason he is suffering is because he has sinned against God or has rebelled against him in some way. Job, of course, defends his righteousness, arguing that he has committed no explicit, defiant sin that would warrant such deep suffering—and, as we’ll see, he is largely correct about this. However, though the course of Job’s defense of himself against his moralistic friends, Job begins to justify himself before God, demanding to have a hearing before God so that he can make his case and prove himself innocent. In chapter 13, he says,

Behold, I have prepared my case; I know that I shall be in the right. Who is there who will contend with me? For then I would be silent and die. Only grant me two things, then I will not hide myself from your face: withdraw your hand far from me, and let not dread of you terrify me. Then call, and I will answer; or let me speak, and you reply to me. How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin. Why do you hide your face and count me as your enemy? \dat

Later Job says in 23,

“Today also my complaint is bitter; my hand is heavy on account of my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; he would pay attention to me. There an upright man could argue with him, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge.”

And so here, I think, we begin to see certain truths come to the surface: for one, Job was right to say that God was not punishing him for his sins; indeed, he was relatively innocent in that regard; and secondly, that nevertheless, God was chastening Job so that he would come to see the pride that was in his heart nonetheless. Though Job started off well, the prolonged and deep nature of the suffering eventually brought him to a place where the pride in his heart that success and ease had hidden for many years was pressed to the surface, and we see that when Job starts to justify himself before God. Finally Elihu comes and chastens all parties involved, but ultimately he doesn’t settle anything. In short, in the face of Job’s great suffering, human wisdom has reached its limit; only God himself can now settle this issue.

Finally, God comes out of the whirlwind, the text says, to settle this issue once and for all. It is, I think, important to note here that Job’s family was killed by a great wind, so I think here God is purposefully presenting himself in a way that is intended to, at least on a certain level, demonstrate his own sovereignty and power in a way that, particularly for Job, would be terrifying; but notice also that when God comes down in this way, he does not crush Job, but speaks with him and enters into what will become a very intimate relationship with him. Then, very famously, God says, “Who is this that darkness counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” Then God begins to speak—perhaps even sarcastically—to Job, asking him rhetorical questions about nature: “Where were you, Job,” he asks, “when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding…” God says these things for two whole chapters, things like: “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?” Or “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?” And so on. God asks these questions for two whole chapters, at the end of which Job covers his mouth and says he is of small account and he cannot answer God’s questions, and that though he has spoken once, he will speak no more. And God’s response? Two more chapters on his sovereign power over nature; once again God tells Job to dress himself like a man and answer his questions, but this time his questions pertain to the Leviathan and the Behemoth. Why these two animals? Well, I think plainly the point of this is that both of them are mega-big monsters, the types of creatures that even the strongest and bravest of men wouldn’t dare challenge to a fight, yet to God they are like pets, like lapdogs; thus the reasoning here is that just as it would be stupid for even the best and bravest of human heroes to challenge one of these two ancient beasts, then a fortiori it would be inordinately more stupid for any man to challenge God, for whom these beasts are as nothing.

So this is where we find Job in chapter 42; he’s lost his property, his family and his health, his friends are telling him to repent of sins he never committed, the anguish of his condition has driven him to justify himself before God, and now God himself is talking to him, lecturing him on how much more powerful he is than Job. Job is having a bad time, shall we say. But things are not as bad as perhaps they seem. For now Job has learned in these verses (1-6), a major point about faith that we must all learn: That faith acknowledges the power of God and yields to his wisdom. Think for a moment why God would berate Job with four chapters worth of diatribes about his power over and perfect understand of nature. Was God simply trying to boast and show off? Did God simply want to humiliate Job and make him feel bad about himself and have low self-esteem for the rest of his life? No, I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think the major point that God is driving home to Job is that there is a major gap that exists between God and himself; someone like Job, who is qualitatively and mentally finite, is in no position to demand that God explain himself to him; God, after all, is omnipotent and omniscient—ie, perfectly powerful and perfectly knowledgable. With regard to the ordering of our lives, that means that God has sovereign, perfect control over everything that happens in our lives, and further, that God understands with perfect clarity everything that happens in this world. You know what it means to be omniscient? It means that you understand perfectly the causal relationship between a butterfly flapping its wings in the time of Abraham and the massive earthquake that happens in the year 2030—that’s what it means. How many trillions of causal relations does God have in his head at all times? And if he is omniscient, doesn’t he understand perfectly how all those causal relations are interwoven and producing however many billions of outcomes—all of them working toward his good purpose? We should not be surprised, therefore, when God’s dealings with us don’t make sense, or perhaps even seem flawed or mean—or even evil; if we are God’s children, God is always working our circumstances for our ultimate good (if we trust him) and his glory, even if we can’t see his purposes working out in a way we can understand, or even if they seem utterly unredeemable. No doubt the cross seemed gratuitous and unfixable, yet it was there on the cross, humiliated and abused, that God was performing his greatest achievement in human history. Thus we should say, along with Job, “You are powerful and none of your purposes can be thwarted; you are perfectly knowledgable, and thus I am in no position to question the wisdom of your dealing with me.”

It is important to note here that faith does not operate by sight; we believe in what we cannot see. Look at verses 5 and 6; Job says to God,

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Does Job say here that he sees why God has allowed all this suffering to enter into his life? Does God ever tell Job about the conversations he had with Satan? Does God ever tell Job even that he’s going to use his suffering to write one of the most fundamental theological documents in human history? No, no, and no. God never tells or shows Job why he’s suffering; rather we see in verse five that instead Job sees God himself in the whirlwind; God shows himself to Job. I think quite plainly this means that Job is seeing God nakedly and intimately in all his glory for who he really is: sovereign, wise, loving, and unquestionable. Job, having seen God and being also his child, doesn’t need to know why he’s suffering to know that God is doing perfectly right by him: he only needs to see God. This is key: if God had told Job why he was suffering, then Job would never have had to learn to trust God’s wisdom instead of his own; you’ll notice at the end of the narrative that God never tells Job why he suffered—not even after the trial is all over; this is intended by God to keep Job walking by faith and not by sight. For consider: suppose that Job had not learned to trust in God’s infinite wisdom: this would have essentially amounted to Job trusting in his own wisdom, and so he would have been implicitly charging God with acting unjustly by him—in other words, he would have been accusing God of being evil and vindicating himself of being morally superior to God; in short, Job would have become evil himself. The same applies to us: when we are suffering, we must choose to trust God and yield to his wisdom over ours, even when we don’t understand the why.

God is painting a grand picture on a massive, complex canvas, and we are parts of that painting; yet we can only see but a microscopic bit of its surface area; thus it is absurd for us, who can only see one millimeter of a fifty foot canvas, to complain that the painting makes no sense; from our perspective it certainly does, but from God’s—the master painter—it is perfect and beautiful, and when we see him at the end of the age, we will see it too; but until then, we must be content with our one millimeter perspective and trust God with the rest. And so, lastly, before I move on, I want to ask this question: what was Job really repenting of in verse 6? He says that he despises himself, and repents in dust and ashes. Again, does that mean that from here on Job has low self-esteem, that he’s going to be beating himself up for the rest of his life? No, I don’t think that’s it at all; I think here Job is simply expressing his new-found humility at having now seen God as he really is. Now that Job has seen God for who he truly is, he now understands how he ought to relate to him: with supreme humility. NOTE THIS: It is his personal, intimate knowledge of God himself—his nature, his personality—as revealed to him by God himself, not his knowledge of the reasons why God has allowed his suffering, that brings Job to a place of true faith and submission to God’s will. Job has come to realize that he has no right to question God, someone whose understanding and wisdom is qualitatively infinite; telling God he doesn’t know what he’s doing, or that he should have done things differently in our lives is like a toddler telling his parents that he knows better than them—it just don’t work that way. Those of you who have seen God’s glory in your heart and mind know what I am talking about. Have you ever had a time in your walk with God where he has shown you his great strength and glory, and you littleness in his presence? Doesn’t this experience illicit a spirit of awe, worship, and submission in us? I think that is what Job is experiencing in the whirlwind; he is put in his place for sure, but in a healthy, soul-enriching way. Have you ever experienced God’s glory in your spirit? If not, why not? Do you know him this morning?

A second major point I want to make this morning comes from verses 7-9. Here the vestiges of pride have already been pushed to the surface of Job’s soul, and he has now officially repented of his efforts to justify himself before God, putting himself in the right and God in the wrong. Also by this point—and I think this is really important to understand—Job’s relationship with God is deeper and more intimate now; the two of them have seen face-to-face. Notice that God came down in a whirlwind of power and terror, yet it was in this act of glorious condescension that God establishes a deepened relationship with Job, resulting in Job’s soul-nurturing humility—but I leave it alone. Note here what happens next: God tells Eliphaz and Job’s other two friends that his anger burns against them because they have not spoken correctly of him as Job has, and so he tells them to offer up seven bulls and seven rams as sacrifices to atone for their folly; but get this: God then says that Job his servant will pray for them, interceding for them, so that God will not deal with them according to their folly—that is, according to what they deserve. I want us to appreciate the irony here: for probably more than twenty chapters, these three men have been accusing Job of wickedness, saying essentially that the reason why he was suffering was because he had sinned, or was just plain wicked, and needed to repent; yet here in this final chapter it is actually Job who is vindicated before God and the three friends—Job’s accusers—who now stand under the threat of God’s chastening. What are we to make of this? In the main, I think a major point we should get from these verses is that God cannot be controlled or manipulated, not even by moral or religious behavior; biblical faith obeys God not out of obligation, or out of some sense of transaction, or with a mercenary’s mindset, but simply out of love for God himself, for who and what he is.

So, what did Job’s three friends get so wrong that Job got right? Quite simply, they had been operating under the premise that All suffering is God’s punishment for a person’s sin; thus, when they saw their friend Job suffering egregiously, they all inferred—validly by the lights of their starting premise—that he must be guilty of some personal sin or wickedness. But this premise is false, and dangerously so, and it is founded on human pride; it is a theology of suffering that subtly but undeniably seeks to put the human creature in the driver’s seat instead of God, the creator. Why do I say that? Well, think about it this way: If God is obligated to reward me for good behavior, then I can control God’s actions (and, specifically, his dealings with me in my own life) by my moral or religious actions; but if that is the case, then it is I who controls my destiny, and not God; and furthermore, on this system, if I do behave myself and God does not reward me in the way I expect, then he owes me something—or at bare minimum I can say that God has morally wronged me in some way since, after all, “we had an agreement and he failed to come through! He owes me!” Such a theological paradigm appeals to the pride of the unregenerate heart of the natural man because it gives him the illusion that he is in control, that God can be manipulated, that God can be in the wrong, and that he can get God into his debt; brothers and sisters, this was the theology of Job’s friends, and it is poisonous and evil.

How many people—even in our churches—will die and be filled with rage against God himself when they find themselves in hell? I mean it. How many? They lived good lives; they were good citizens; they paid their taxes; they raised their kids right; they did right by their spouse; they went to church every Sunday; they gave to the offering plate; they even gave to charity elsewhere—yet they never knew God; they had never been humbled in his mighty presence like Job; they had never been brought to that wonderful place of being low in God’s holy presence and taught by the Holy Spirit to beg for the bleeding charity of Christ in total poverty of spirit. Christ had never become their treasure; they had lived their entire lives as respectable, pleasant-to-be-around, nice, moral idolaters. I am serious here. Have you experienced this? Have you experienced the depth of your own sin, tasted the glory of Christ, and begged for his bloody grace? Faith begins when we see that God owes us nothing and we owe him everything. Jesus said that in hell there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Do you know who will be doing the teeth gnashing? It will be those shaking their fist at God demanding that God give them a place in heaven, yelling “I lived a good life, God! You owe me! I don’t belong here! I want what you owe me!” This was the attitude of Job’s self-righteous friends, and thus they incurred God’s anger upon themselves. This is the attitude of the natural man, and in most cases it takes suffering to cleanse our hearts of this disposition, to show us our own moral and spiritual weakness and teach us to cling with joyful, grateful hearts to God’s strength and moral perfection. It is a beautiful thing to cling to Christ in the darkness—truly it is—but oh how necessary sometimes is the darkness to bring us to that place! We see then that, though Job was correct in saying that he wasn’t being punished for any particular sin, he was nevertheless being chastened by God to root out what remaining, transactional, pride-based morality still remained in him.

Just as a practical point, let me say this before moving on: if you have this transactional attitude toward God—this attitude that says, “I will behave, God, and be moral in this way or that way, but in return you owe me such and such, this job, this relationship, this solution to my problem”—then when things inevitably go wrong, you will either hate God, believing that somehow he has failed to give you what he owes you, or hate yourself, believing that the reason why you’re suffering is because you somehow failed to behave—or perhaps you may alternate back and forth between the two. The only way to avoid this vicious trap is to know God personally and to learn, as Job did, to love him simply for who he is; we must understand that in this life there will always be brokenness, suffering, and sin because of the Fall, and not all of our problems are always because of sin—though sometimes they certainly are! We must learn to cling to God and love him and depend on him, to crave his Holy Spirit above all else, if we are to survive the sufferings of this world with our souls intact. And by the way, God knows what men say when they are desperate. Read the psalms; you will see many examples of men crying out to God in helpless desperation, sometimes even accusing God of mistreating them or being unreasonably cruel to them; one psalmist even tells God that darkness is a better friend to him that God is. The Bible—and thus its author—is realistic about the effects that suffering can have on people. Remember that Job himself accused God when he was suffering so deeply, yet God said of Job here that he had actually spoken correctly of himself, unlike his three friends, so don’t think I am arguing that God never gives you permission to tell him how you feel; quite the contrary, the Bible gives us brutal permission to express the state of our souls to God in prayer—even if it’s white-hot resentment against God himself. If the feeling is there, it’s there; God already knows about it; pour out your souls to him when you suffer; tell him how you feel and ask him to give you a spirit of trust, reverence, and loving submission—honesty and struggle with God is often what relationship with him is all about.

Lastly, let me say this, and with this we’re done: look at verses 9-10. It says that Job’s three friends actually obeyed the Lord and brought the sacrifices and burned them as the Lord had told them to do—that is, they repented of their shallow moralism—and it says that the Lord accepted their sacrifices because of Job’s intercessory prayers for them. I have already noted the irony of this in my previous point, so I will not go into it again here; but note what happens in verse 10: it says that “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave him twice as much as he had before.” What does this mean? I think it means this, and this is my last point: that true faith forgives, and we can only be right with God, and receive his forgiveness in our lives, if we are willing to forgive our fellow sinners who have sinned against us. Now, in the case of Job, the text seems to imply that God gave Job all these new blessings—indeed, twice what he had before!—simply because Job had forgiven his friends; but I do not think that is what is really going on here. For starters, I think that the reason why God restores to Job double what he had before was simply because God is gracious and he does what he pleases; that is to say, I do not think that God is giving Job back a double portion of all that he lost as some kind of reward for Job’s righteousness, since such a theology would almost feed into the moralism of Job’s friends; rather I think here God is blessing Job simply because it pleased God to do so; he was not obligated to bless Job in this way and he did not owe Job any manner of prosperity—even after all the horrendous things God had sovereignly allowed Job to go though; no, God blessed Job with double portion because it pleased God to do it and God does what he pleases—period. Job’s forgiveness of his friends in his heart was, I think, a necessary condition of Job’s salvation, perhaps, but not a determining factor in the material blessings he received back from God.

Well, that is all I have. Let us pray.

‘Solomon’s Epiphany’ – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11 – January 6th, 2019

We just finished up the Christmas season, and I’d like to look at a book that’s about as “New Year’s themed” as it could be. If you have your Bible, please turn with me to the book of Ecclesiastes. This is one of the lesser-known books by Solomon, and it isn’t hard to figure out why. But I hope that as we read through a short passage from the beginning, it’ll come to reshape our New Year’s resolutions moving forward. We’ll be reading chapter 1, verse 12 through chapter 2, verse 11. Solomon writes:

“I, the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

*

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Solomon was the king of Israel during what an economist might look at and call the “Golden Age,” at least on paper. Israel was never wealthier than it was when Solomon was king. But if you listen to Solomon, himself, instead of bible study curriculum that gushes about him, he’s gonna tell you that it wasn’t because he was a great king. If you listen to the way that Solomon talks about himself, you’d come away thinking he was the villain of the Old Testament.

If you remember the book of Samuel, you might remember that Israel was a country without a king, from the time God brought them out of Egypt till years later when some of the surrounding nations decided to pull a Teddy Roosevelt and start annexing territories from smaller, weaker nations, just because they could. The Israelites panicked, like you would, and said “There’s no way the Philistines aren’t gonna conquer us when our turn comes around.” And they decided what they needed was a powerful king like all the other nations had. So they told Samuel, the prophet, that they wanted “a king like the other nations.” And they wouldn’t let him talk them out of it.

So they get Saul as their king, which seems to work out for a while. The problem is they asked for “a king like the other nations,” and that’s what they got. So when Saul becomes king, he starts out the way a lot of us start out: he’s passionate about following the Lord, and he tries to run Israel the way that God would run Israel. But it isn’t long before that’s not enough. Because what nobody tells you about holiness is that it’s boring. If you read Leviticus, or Deuteronomy, you’ll be surprised about how much isn’t there. People talk about God’s law like it’s super gross, or super weird, or super complicated, but the truth is that it’s boring. Because growing in godliness isn’t just about doing the right steps, and doing the right rituals; it’s about doing right by other people.

It’s about becoming a gentler and more patient person. I know we’ve all been taught to be scared of those first five books in the Bible, but the truth is that the longer you look at them, the more ways they find to tell you how to love your neighbor. And that’s boring. At least for most of us. Because if what you want is power, or if what you want is pleasure – if you wanna gratify yourself till your heart and your stomach are fuller than full – then the kind of gentleness that Bible is going to shape you into the image of will never be enough for you.

And so Saul does what a lot of us do and he started using his power as king to try and satisfy himself instead of serving God like he meant to when he started. So God replaces him with David, and it looks like things are going well for a while, but there’s something deeply crooked in David, just like there was something deeply crooked in Saul, so David starts using his power as king to try and satisfy himself however he has to, even if it breaks God’s law – just like Saul. And eventually that comes to the point where he kills one of his own generals after knocking up his wife, so that’s a pretty far plummet from being a “man after God’s own heart.”  And the child he has with the general’s wife grows up to be Solomon, the guy who wrote Ecclesiastes.

And right after David dies and Solomon becomes king, God comes to him and writes him a blank check. He says “Ask me for one thing.” And Solomon’s heard about King Saul, and he’s watched his father, David, take a hammer to almost everything he’s ever built because his appetite for sin made him foolish, and he asks God for Wisdom. So God makes him wise in ways that Saul and David weren’t, and it looks up front like Solomon is gonna be the one who’ll turn this all around, and be a king who isn’t like the other nations.

But with the last thing he ever wrote, Solomon wants to make sure that we know that he wasn’t. And that’s the opposite of a “power-move.”  Imagine if all the currently-living U.S. presidents spent their last years writing an autobiography together called “How I Ruined America And You Can, Too.” That’s the kind of thing Solomon’s doing here. P

So in verses 12-18 of chapter 1, Solomon says instead of protecting him from the mistakes the other kings made, Wisdom turned on him. It didn’t actually make him a godly king, it just made miserable. But that’s a good misery.

Because like Saul, we get bored with holiness. Loving-the-Lord-by-loving-our-neighbor will never satisfy that deep crookedness in us. But most folks go their whole lives and never realize that they’re crooked inside. Solomon chased after wisdom and he found it. And it made him miserable, because your crookedness oughtta make you miserable.

Because wisdom is like a blacklight, and your heart’s like an old couch. Wisdom will reveal the way that your desires are crooked. It will reveal the way that your appetites are crooked. And if you have a conscience, that’ll make you miserable.

But it’s not enough to grieve over your crookedness. That has to go somewhere. Because you can realize there’s something wrong with you and not care. And that’s dangerous. Because the wiser Solomon gets, the more the he sees what Leonard Cohen calls “The Crack In Everything.” He sees the crookedness in himself and everyone, but instead of softening his heart toward God’s mercy, it makes him callous.P

So King Solomon goes on a decades-long bender, and at the end he doesn’t laugh anymore, and all the things he used to satisfy himself are boring just like godliness is boring.

He starts to drink like Hemmingway, and he ends up just as disillusioned. He’s going through the same process as the other kings. The only difference is that he can put words to what’s happening.

When your endgame is to satisfy yourself with or without God’s blessing, you end up stuffing your pockets full like a shoplifter at a dollar store. But when there’s holes in your pockets, that has consequences for the way you treat people. Since godliness will never be enough for the deep crookedness in you, you’ll find ways to make other people into objects for your own satisfaction. Maybe through sexual conquests, or maybe you’ll exploit your employees, or worse. If your loudest desires are to gratify yourself, you’ll sacrifice people on the altar of your own satisfaction.

But when there’s holes in your pockets, there’s holes in your pockets. So at the end of everything, when you’ve used everybody who’ll let you, you’re still not actually satisfied, and you can’t uncut your pockets. There’s something called “the law of diminishing returns,” where things get progressively less satisfying the more you do them. And there’s only so much under the sun. So eventually, whatever sin you used to take pleasure in’s gonna be about as boring as the godliness you don’t think you want.

I can remember being 15 and desperately wanting to be an atheist. My parents had taken me to church nearly every weekend of my life since I came out of the womb, and it’s just really hard to not believe in God when that’s the way you’ve grown up. It’s on you like several coats of paint, so it takes practice to turn yourself into an unbeliever.

So I practiced. I had this journal I would write in. And I’d write entries in it, kind of play-acting like an atheist. I’d write all the reasons that God couldn’t exist, like cancer, or car accidents. I’d point out that if the God my parents believed in existed, my grandpa wouldn’t have died when I was four. My cousin’s husband wouldn’t have died and left his two young children without a dad. But I only half-believed any of the stuff I wrote. In this journal, I wrote a lot about the plight of the children in Africa, but not one ounce of me cared about the children in Africa. You know what I’m talking about? They were a deflection tactic. Other people’s suffering was a tool that I could point toward to keep God off my back.

So I could say “My sex life is none of God’s business while kids are starving in the Ukraine.” And then when people tried to push back on that, I could default to “Well, God probably doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t matter anyway.”  Because I knew that if God really existed, I’d be bound up in obligation to other people. I would owe some basic dignity to everyone on earth, and that would limit the pool of options in how I could go about gratifying myself.

Because the fact that God existed meant I owed a kind of basic human decency to everyone I knew and didn’t know, and that would radically change my relationship with other people. And I knew that. So I was endlessly inventive about finding ways to convince myself that there was probably no God, so there was probably no “sin,” so there was probably nothing wrong with whatever I was already doing.

My ninth grade English teacher made us choose a famous literary figure and do a report in front of the rest of the class. So I chose a guy named Percy Shelley. He’s one of the most beloved poets of the 19th century. I didn’t really care about that. I picked him because he was famously an atheist during kind of the “last gasp” of Christendom in England. This was before Marx, before Darwin, back when it was genuinely controversial to be an atheist.

So I googled “famous atheist writers” at the library. And my friend Scott was like “How old are you, Ryan?” And my friend Alex was like “That’s awesome.” And I scrolled to the furthest back author I could find, and I landed on Percy.

He was married to a woman named Harriet Westbrook, and she’d given birth to a few of his children. But she was young, and he was bored. And if your main goal is to satisfy yourself, then one womanis never gonna be enough for that deep crookedness in you. So he found a second wife who was even younger and throughout the year 1816, Percy had two wives at the same time, and as a 15 year old I thought that was pretty punk rock.

But his older wife didn’t think it was very punk rock and after putting up with it for a year she drowned herself in a river, and then his teenage wife started writing books that sold better than Percy’s did, and he lost custody of his kids and all his friends started leaving and eventually he died in a boat crash in Italy, which, according to most of his biographers, was essentially a suicide.

And when I finished presenting my paper on Percy Shelley, a girl in my class raised her hand and said, “Maybe the reason he wanted to die in a boat crash was ‘because he didn’t have a friend in Jesus’.”  And that surprised me, because at 15, I had no idea that there were people who didn’t wake up most days halfway wishing they’d die in a boat crash, or something. So this girl was kind of an enigma, because she thought she ‘had a friend in Jesus’ and she didn’t want to die in a boat crash, and neither of those things made any sense to me.

But I started to notice people who weren’t like me. There was a guy on the football team named Brooks Stephenson. And I started noticing the way he acted toward people: a couple of guys got in a fight in the locker room, and he pulled them apart and made sure the smaller guy was okay. I started to notice the way he talked to the “lunch ladies”: He wasn’t just polite; there was an almost “active” kind of gentleness about him. And I started to notice the way he talked about other people. He was a quarterback and I was a receiver, and he was good, and most of us were terrible. But you couldn’t bait him into badmouthing anybody, even if his life depended on it. So from my perspective, Brooks Stephenson was like a space alien, or something.

But there was a reason Brooks was different than me, different from Percy, different from Solomon. Because we were all acting out of an emptiness in ourselves that we had no idea how to fill. We had holes in our pockets, so we’d stuff them full and hope that it would stick this time. But it never does, and that changes your relationship with other people. Everyone becomes an object you hijack to try and gratify yourself.

And I realized that Brooks’ pockets were different than mine. When I talked to him, he related to me differently than I related to other people. He wasn’t trying to get anything from me. He wasn’t trying to strip-mine me for affirmation. Because he didn’t need to. Brooks Stephenson wasn’t acting out of an emptiness in himself that he was desperate to fill. Brooks had a contentment that didn’t come from himself, that I couldn’t understand yet, because I hadn’t met the same Jesus he’d met. And that changed his relationship with me and everyone.A

So there’s a reason that, in Philippians 4:11-13, Paul is able to say:

“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

And it’s easy to turn that verse into something it isn’t. I had a friend in, like, 12th grade – kind of a scrawny guy – who picked a fight with lineman on the football team. And I was like, “Y’know, I don’t know if this is gonna work out for ‘ya.” And he was like, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And I was like “OK, what do you want the text for your funeral to be?”

You see a lot of shirts with, like, a weight-lifter and big letters that say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But Paul isn’t talking about sports, and he isn’t talking about beating up a lineman because he stole your girlfriend.

Paul says “I can be content in any circumstances,” “I don’t need to stuff my pockets full.” Paul has what Solomon wanted. But there’s a difference between the contentment that Paul found and the satisfaction that Solomon desperately searched for.

Because if your pockets have holes in them, if there’s a bottomless cavern in you, you need more than there is under the sun. Your satisfaction has to come from somewhere deeper than pleasure, and deeper than wisdom. It’s gotta run deeper than the things you think you want.

And Paul says the reason he’s content is because of the Christ who strengthens him. And I assure you Paul was not beatin’ up any lineman. But what I can tell you is that unlike Solomon, who had a thousand wives, Paul probably had one wife, who left when he became a Christian. Unlike Solomon who ate his fill, three times a day, Paul never knew where his next meal was coming from. Paul’s contentment was coming from outside of himself. It was Somebody Else’s Contentment.

Because that’s the way that Jesus strengthens you. It’s not by making you so strong you can beat up the lineman who stole your girlfriend. It’s by sharing his own contentment with you. So that God’s own contentment become your contentment. So you don’t need you pockets filled. You don’t need all the things you think will satisfy you. In case someone needs to hear this: a different spouse is not the thing that’s gonna satisfy you. Now, look: if you’re being abused, you need to speak with the police, you need to get somewhere safe. But that’s an extraordinary situation. That’s a different thing. If it’s been fifteen years and the flicker is gone, and you don’t really talk anymore, and there’s definitely no more kids coming, and you’re just bored, I can assure you: a new spouse, a new lover, a new conquest, is not the thing that’s gonna satisfy you, because your pockets have holes.

So your new spouse will be as boring as the one you’ve got, and sooner than it took the first time around. When your soul’s got empty pockets so you’re chronically unsatisfied, the solution is not to stuff your pockets full of things you think’ll make you happy again. You need a contentment that didn’t come from yourself, and isn’t dependent on you having all the things you think you want.

And if you’re a believer in Christ, if you’ve thrown yourself on God’s mercy, slowly Christ’s contentment becomes your own contentment. So you start to make decisions differently. Because we used to do the things that we did because we had some emptiness we needed to fill. We were like Solomon, or we were like Percy. We didn’t know why, we just knew that we weren’t satisfied and we needed to be, and we’d do whatever we needed to do to get satisfied.

But when we’ve thrown ourselves on God’s mercy, he gives us his own contentment. And that doesn’t satisfy all of our desires. That’s not what that does. Instead, it gives us a strength that doesn’t look like strength. When Christ’s contentment is our contentment, instead of fulfilling all of ours desires, it moves us to bank less and less on getting what we want. Because, in a way, Christ’s contentment fills up the cracks in the asphalt of your own satisfaction.

So you can be like Paul. You don’t have any of what Solomon has. But you’re content in a way Solomon can’t be. Because – and this is a dumb illustration – you’re kind of like a bowl that Christ pours his own contentment into, past the brim, so you start to overflow. And eventually you’re not acting based on your emptiness, because you’re not empty. When Christ’s contentment is your contentment, you start to act out of the overflow of satisfaction that he shares with you.

And it makes you generous with your money. It makes you generous with your home. It makes you generous with your kindness. Christ’s own contentment spills out of you onto other people, and it makes you strange. Because you’ll stop using them to satisfy yourself. You’ll stop taking advantage of them. You’ll start looking for ways that you can serve your neighbors instead of just subtly looking for ways that your neighbor can serve you.T

That’s why, if you’ll turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 12, and look at verse 13, Solomon ends his message by saying:

When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity.

So this is a man who had more sex than any of us combined, with more partners than any of us combined, who made more money than any of us combined. Solomon saw things we’ll never see, he experienced things we haven’t thought to wish for. And his dying remarks are that “When all has been heard, fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Holiness is boring, but only if you’re deeply crooked inside.

So those things we think we want – the things we think will satisfy us – those are faint echoes of The Thing That Will Actually Satisfy Us. We need Christ’s own contentment, poured into us. To quote a guy from New York I heard once, “What seem to be our deepest desires are often just our loudest desires.” There is a desire beneath your desire for ‘Happiness.” There’s a desire beneath your desire for “Pleasure.” If you listen to Solomon’s last words, your deepest desire is for communion with the God you used to find boring. And I’d like to introduce you to him, if you’ll let me.

I’ll be standing at the front as we begin to sing. Come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

God Brings Us to Himself by Bringing Us to the End of Ourselves – Genesis 32:22-32 – Tyler Ferneyhough – December 30th, 2018

Turn with me to Genesis 32:22-32:

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.

Today I want to talk about the grace of God; namely, the purpose of grace in the life of a believer, and the means by which God oftentimes implements that purpose. Those of you who have been christians for a long time know, or can perhaps predict, where I am going to go with this, as I suspect you have experienced God’s work of grace in your life—or at least I hope that you have. In short, the main message of my sermon this morning will be that we find grace at the end of our rope; we find grace when we are at the end of our rope—or, when God has brought us to the end of ourselves. In order to make my case, I will make three main points: our resistance God’s grace in our lives, the Lord’s assertion of His grace in our lives, and the inevitable result of God’s grace in our lives.

Let us start with point number one: our resistance to God’s grace in our lives. Let us start with verses 22-23. Here we are jumping right into the middle Jacob’s story. If you know the story, then you know that Jacob is not in a good place right now; in fact, he’s stuck between what you might call a rock and a hard place. Jacob has spent his whole life running from his problems, and now all the consequences of his bad choices that he’s made over all the years of his life are finally starting to surround him, rendering him unable to escape them anymore. His chickens, you might say, are coming home to roost. Remember how Jacob was born? He was born struggling in the womb with his older brother Esau, and when he came out he was grabbing his brother’s heel (25:26); thus he was named Jacob, which means He takes by the heel, or, He cheats. It’s ironic though isn’t it? Because just a few verses prior, God had sovereignty promised that the older son, who would be Esau, would serve the younger son, Jacob; yet here is Jacob barely even out of the womb already trying to earn God’s blessing his own way, on his own terms, and in his own strength, that is, by cheating. Did he need to take Esau by the heel to get God’s blessing? No, because God had already promised that the older would serve the younger; all Jacob needed to do was simply be born and let God do what He had already promised—the blessing was already his! But this was not Jacob’s way. Because Jacob was born with a condition, as we all are, which is the condition of having a heart that says: “I’m not going to trust you, God; I’m not going to obey you; I’m not going to do it your way. I’m going to do it myself. I am up for it; I am strong enough; I am virtuous and moral enough; I don’t want your help and I don’t need it; I am going to do this myself.” Can this disposition ever cause us trouble? Yeah. Did it cause trouble for Jacob? Oh yes, and for most of his life.

Though he certainly never earned the grace of God, he certainly earned the name that his parents gave him. Instead of trusting God to give him the blessing that God had already promised him, he stole it from his older brother Esau by deceiving his father Isaac, who by then had become blind, into thinking he was Esau—in other words, by cheating. Having dressed himself up like Esau he tricks his father into giving him the blessing; so he got for himself what God had already promised to have providentially given him—but at what cost? The cost was that his brother Esau, quite unsurprisingly, turns against him and seeks to kill him, thus forcing Jacob to flee for his life. He goes to his uncle Laban who, as it turns out, is a cheater and a deceiver just as Jacob is; he tricks Jacob into marrying his daughter Leah who had weak eyes, since he could not have married her off any other way. As JI Packer puts it, this is a case of the “biter bit.” The deceiver gets deceived; the cheater gets cheated. Experiencing a taste of his own medicine, Jacob realizes the error of his ways and turns humbly to the Lord and trusts Him—except he totally doesn’t. Feeling cheated and swindled, Jacob manipulates the breeding of Laban’s cattle at huge gain to himself and huge loss to his uncle, resulting in Laban’s anger at Jacob, forcing Jacob to once again get up and leave in a hurry with his two wives.

Anyone seeing a pattern here? Jacob has a knack for ticking off his family members with his bamboozling, and by the time we meet him here in verses 22-23, he has nowhere to go; behind him is Laban, who after chasing him and catching up to him has clearly told him that he never wants to see Jacob again, and before him is Esau, who, according to the caravan that Jacob has just sent out to greet, is coming for him with four hundred men, presumably to kill Jacob for his treachery some twenty years before. Desperate, he splits his property in two, hedging his bets, thinking that if Esau captures one group then Jacob may still be able to protect and keep the other. Now he crosses the brook at Jabbok and separates himself from all his servants, children, and wives. He is alone and desperate.

Let me ask you this: what is Jacob’s problem right now? Is it his circumstances? Is Laban his problem? Is Esau his problem? No; his circumstances are the effect of his problem, but not the cause; the cause of his problem is himself, his sin, his uncircumcised heart. Two decades of doing things his way has ruined his life; it has separated him from his family and rendered him alone. Did God shield Jacob from the consequences of his sin? No, quite the contrary, for twenty years God let Jacob have his way and incur upon himself the just and natural consequences that his way brings: isolation, desperation, despair. But it is crucial to understand here that God did not allow this to happen to Jacob because God was angry at him, or because God is some kind of a sadist who enjoys watching his children languish and suffer. Rather, God’s dealing with Jacob in this way was an act of grace. How else was Jacob going to learn the consequences of sin? How else was Jacob going to be torn from his stubborn self-reliance? How else was Jacob going to come to abhor his own wisdom and come to see the wisdom of obeying God? Is God going to adopt Jacob, or us, into his family and leave us unchanged? Being a child of God comes with a price: God will change your heart; he will take a mirror to your soul and hold open your eyes and force you to see yourself morally and spiritually as you really are. This can be a terrifying and miserable experience, but it is an act of gracious love on God’s part.

Point two: the assertion of the Lord’s grace into our lives. Well, Jacob is left all alone, and suddenly at the river Jabbok, out of nowhere, a mysterious man shows up and tackles him, and the two of them begin to wrestle “until the breaking of the day.” They wrestle and wrestle, and the text says that the man sees that he cannot prevail against Jacob. Now, just really quickly, do you think that this means that the mysterious man physically could not compete with Jacob, that Jacob was somehow stronger or more determined than this mysterious man, or that Jacob’s technique was too advanced for this man to handle? Obviously not, since, immediately after realization, the man touches Jacob on the hip and puts it permanently out of place for the rest of Jacob’s life—just with a touch of the finger. So clearly this mysterious man is very powerful, and so if he is wrestling with Jacob, he must be doing it only to make some kind of point; after all, what is the use, from the man’s perspective, in wrestling Jacob at all if all he has to do to bring him down is simply to touch him? It would almost seem that, from the mysterious man’s perspective, the whole wrestling match—which he himself initiates by the way—is an act of condescension, an act of stooping down to Jacob’s level; this man is not trying to prove something to himself, but rather trying to prove something to Jacob. What is that, do you think?

Well, with his hip permanently out of place, Jacob is forced to cling desperately to this man, and the man tells him to “Let me go, for the day has broken.” What is the significance to this, do you think? Well, no one can look God in the face and live, and the day is about to break, so clearly this man is God Himself; think about that for a second. God Himself has come down to wrestle with Jacob. In this light, how should we read the text that says that this mysterious man—God incarnate—could not prevail against Jacob, thus forcing him to break his hip? I think the plain answer is that the power of Jacob’s flesh—that is, his sin nature, his hell-bent insistence on doing things his way and trusting only in himself—was so strong that he would have never ceased wrestling with God unless God had sovereignly ended it, which He did when he touched him on the hip. Notice that there is a sudden change in tone here for Jacob from now on. He no longer wrestles with God or struggles against Him or resists Him, but instead he is now clinging to God, realizing that now the Man he is fighting against is his only hope. You think he knows this is God? You bet. God tells him to let Him go, for the sun is coming up; in other words, God is saying, “Jacob, if you don’t stop clinging to Me, you’ll see My face and die.” But Jacob, now effectively crippled and weakened, now sees the hopelessness of his life and situation without God’s strength. He realizes in that moment that if he lets God go, he’ll be as good as dead anyway; thus he says “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”

Has Jacob learned his lesson yet? It seems that he has. God had to allow Jacob to have his way and dig himself into a pit for two decades, and then permanently hobble him for life to get Jacob to stop doing things his way and to start doing them God’s way. God had to bring Jacob to the end of himself before Jacob would be willing to yield. This is how God brings grace into our lives—not by sheltering us from our flaws and our sins, or from experiences of moral or spiritual weakness, but by exposing us to them so as to drive us to despair; it is then that we—who like Jacob are born with a stubborn, rebellious, and faithless heart—become willing, even grateful, for God’s help, his strength, and his holy presence. Grace is the means by which God draws us to Himself and severs us from our sin. I really like what JI Packer says here; he writes:

“This is what all the work of grace aims at—an ever deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself. How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another: it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast.”

I can’t help but think about Peter here. Peter was one of the most confident, bold, and outspoken of all the disciples; he thought of himself as a strong leader and warrior, someone who was courageous, someone who had attributes that put him amongst the most spiritual elite. But what does Jesus tell him? He says, “Peter, Satan has demanded to have you, to sift you like wheat.” And then what does Jesus say? “But don’t worry, Peter, I told Satan to keep his hands off of you”? No. He says “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have recovered, go and strengthen your brothers.” In other words, Jesus was saying, “Satan demanded to tear you down and devastate you, and I gave him permission.” Why would Jesus allow this to happen? Why allow Peter to go through that terrible night of the soul? It was for the same reason that God let Jacob cheat his way through life for two decades: so that he could fail, so that he could see his moral weakness and his desperate need of a savior. Peter, like Jacob, had to be brought to the place where he saw and understood that he needed God; God didn’t need him. He had to understand the difficult truth that he wasn’t strong, courageous, or moral as he thought he was. You cannot live a holy life that is pleasing to the Lord and be haughty and arrogant; salvation comes to the humble. As wicked and as pathetic as Peter’s failure was, I am inclined think that God could not have used him to establish the church if such a terrible night had not been allowed to happen.

Likewise for Paul. Remember his thorn in the flesh? Three times he begged God to take it away, and three times God said “No, my grace is sufficient, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Did God teach Jacob that lesson? Oh yes. God gave him a limp in his flesh for the rest of his life to be a perpetual reminder of his dependence on God for strength, guidance, and salvation from his own wicked heart. And doesn’t God give us our own trials, either of our own making or from some other source in order to bring us low so that we will cling to God.

Lastly, point three: the inevitable result of God’s grace in our lives. So now Jacob has been successfully humbled; instead of clinging to his own self-righteousness and his own strength, he is now physically hobbled and clinging desperately to God, who all of a sudden seems very strong and dependable to Jacob. Jacob is now begging God for a blessing; God is willing to give it, but it comes with one condition. God asks, “What is your name?” And so Jacob replies, “My name is Jacob.” What is going on here? Jacob asks for a blessing, and so God asks Jacob his name. On the face of it, God’s question almost seems like a non-sequitur; but is it really? Remember what Jacob’s name means? It means cheater, lier, swindler, heel catcher. God already knows what Jacob’s name is; thus in asking the question, He’s trying to get Jacob to realize something. In asking what his name is, God is essentially saying “I will bless you, but on one condition: what is your sin?” And how does Jacob respond? He tells God his name; “My name is Jacob” he says. In other words, he is saying “I am a cheater, a lier, and a swindler.” Jacob has finally been brought low enough in himself to admit the truth about himself, that he is a sinner and a scoundrel—and it is on the condition of this confession, this act of repentance, that God finally gives Jacob the blessing he so desperately needs and gives him a new name, Israel, which means “One who strives with God.” Thus I believe that it is right here, clinging desperately to God, yielded, broken, and dependent, that Jacob is finally converted; to put it in NT language, it is here that Jacob becomes a born again Christian. He no longer has any delusions about himself; he no longer insists on doing things his own way; in fact now, clinging desperately to God as God personally humbles him, he begs God to do it His way.

Biblical faith is made up of two essential components: allegiance, and dependence. By allegiance is meant obedience; if you are God’s, you obey Him. By dependence is meant you trust Him with your life and your affairs. Do you think Jacob learned this lesson? The next day in chapter 33 he goes up to meet Esau, limping because of his hip. Think about that for a second. If Esau decides to go after Jacob, do you think Jacob will be able to escape? How is he going to outrun Esau when his hip is permanently out of place? So you see here that at this point, Jacob is forced to depend on God, to obey Him and trust Him with the outcome. Jacob is in God’s hands now, limping, but walking for the first time the walk of faith.

What can we glean from this story? I think first we see that God gives grace to the humble. Humility is a necessary condition for saving faith. God humbled Peter and Paul through painful experiences that were necessary to make them useful for God’s purposes; the same is true of Jacob, and it is true of us as well. Hebrews 12:6 says “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastises every son whom he receives.” Psalms 102:23 says “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days.” And again in 119:71, the psalmist writes “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” God disciplines us to humble us; this is vital and necessary for all of God’s children to experience to some degree or the other. A second point is that God often uses trials to teach us about ourselves. Trials teach us what our idols are, what we hope in that isn’t God for meaning and fulfillment in life. It can also prepare us to help others; but primarily, or at bare minimum, trials always serve to humble the believer. John MacArthur once said that humility is the number one Christian virtue, and I think we would all do well to take that maxim to heart. Thirdly, I just want to quickly state that the reason why God can chasten us as believers instead of destroy us with his wrath is because His wrath was satisfied at the cross. Jesus came down and lived the perfect human life that we should have lived, obeyed the Father when it was agony to do so, so that He could be crushed for our iniquities; so, when a Christian is suffering through a trial, we can rest assured that it is only loving discipline from out Heavenly Father, who chastens us graciously for our good and His glory. He may wound us, like he did Jacob, but they are wounds of grace, so that we may learn to lean faithfully on Him. Let us pray.

‘Jesus in the Wilderness’ – Luke 4:1-13 – December 2nd, 2018


I wanna start with a question that seems kinda out of left field: why didn’t God abandon Israel? He disciplined them – and often – and he even exiled them. But he never abandoned them. Why is that? Genesis chapter 15, verse 6, says that Abraham – y’know, “Father Abraham had many sons, and I’m one of them, and so are you,” you know the song – Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).

And just like their father, Abraham, the faithful in Israel were “credited” with a “righteousness” that didn’t come from themselves. But “righteousness” is personal – a chair isn’t righteous. It’s a chair. It’s functional. It might be beautiful. But it can’t be “righteous” or “unrighteous.” Only persons can be “righteous,” and Abraham wasn’t, and Israel wasn’t, kind of like how you and I weren’t.

So the “righteousness” that God credited to Abraham, that he credited to Israel, had to come from somewhere. And, more specifically, it had to come from someone. And what we’re going to learn throughout the four gospels – the books that tell the story of Jesus’s life – is that the “righteousness” that is credited to Abraham in Gen. 15:6, that is credited to Israel because of God’s covenant with them, is the righteousness of Jesus. And when we talk about the “righteousness of Jesus,” I think today’s passage is a good window into what we mean.

So if you have your Bible, please turn with me to Luke chapter 4, verses 1 through 13:

Then Jesus returned from [being baptized in] the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, He was hungry. The Devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

So he took Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The Devil said to Him, “I will give You their splendor and all this authority, because it has been given over to me, and I can give it to anyone I want. If You, then, will worship me, all will be Yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.”

So he took Him to Jerusalem, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. For it is written: He will give His angels orders concerning you, to protect you, and they will support you with their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” And Jesus answered him, “It is said: Do not test the Lord your God.” After the Devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him for a time.

Now, I have a difficult time going six hours without eating something, and Jesus went 40 days. So if you wanna step into his shoes, you could not eat for six hours and then multiply that feeling by 160. So that’s 960 hours. And that’s weird, right? It’s not normal to go 960 hours without eating. And it’s not normal to go out to the wilderness for 40 days all alone. But that’s miles away from being the strangest thing that Jesus ever did, but it’s very not-normal.

But context is important, and it makes this passage a bit less weird – not a lot less, just a little less: So Jesus was born in Bethlehem – so, the promised land, right? But a guy named king Herod, at least on paper, was the “king of the Jews,” but he was appointed by Caesar, not by God, so he was, kind of, a Pretend King of the Jews.

And Herod was famous for executing anyone he suspected of posing a threat to his position as pretend King of the Jews, and he caught word that a child had been born who would one day take up the throne in Israel and fulfill all of God’s promises to Abraham, to Moses, and to the prophets.

And if you’re Herod, and your position as pretend King of the Jews is heavily contingent on the real King of the Jews not being around to replace you, what would you do if some “wise men” came to your court and announced that the person God had sent to fulfill all of the promises to Israel had been born in Bethlehem? You’d send some assassins to Bethlehem. So Herod sends some assassins to Bethlehem, and an Angel wakes up Mary and Joseph in the middle of the night and tells them to run away to Egypt ‘till it’s safe to return.

And when his assassins don’t find anything, Herod gets desperate, so he orders every Hebrew boy two years and younger to be slaughtered. If this story sounds familiar, it should. The language that the gospel writers use here is almost exactly like the language Moses uses in the book of Exodus when he says that Pharaoh ordered every young Hebrew boy to be slaughtered as a way of keeping the Hebrew slave population under control. So this is a great look for Herod. Herod ends up looking kind of like a “new Pharaoh,” and Jesus ends up looking kind of like a “new Moses.” But we’re gonna see that Jesus is more than just a new Moses.

Because this is just the first of a long line of situations where Jesus actually undergoes the same struggles and temptations that Israel experienced throughout the Old Testament: so he was exiled to Egypt, just like Israel was exiled to Egypt at the end of Genesis; then he returns from Egypt back into the promised land just like God brought Israel back to the promised land in the book of Joshua.

And then – you might know the story – he makes John the Baptist baptize him in the Jordan River, just like God brought Israel through the Jordan River and into the land that he’d promised them. And then, Jesus exiles himself to the wilderness just like God exiled Israel to the wilderness when they refused to obey the good commands that he gave for their flourishing.

So Luke and the other gospel writers are telling the story of Jesus in a way that emphasizes all the parallels between Israel, as a people that God adopted,and Jesus himself. Luke is painting Jesus as the Israel that Israel wasn’t.

And so Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, kind of reenacting Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. The problem is they don’t have Bojangles in the wilderness. They have birds and cactuses. And it’s hard to catch birds, and it’s hard to eat cactuses. So he’s fasting – he’s not eating – and he’s hungry. And the devil offers him bread.

Now, remember what we just talked about: Jesus is intentionally walking through the struggles and temptations that Israel succumbed to – these are the things that destroyed Israel, right? – Jesus is facing down the temptations that his people succumbed to, and he’s overcoming them on our behalf.

So the devil offers him bread, which is the same thing he offered Israel when they were in the wilderness, and it’s the same thing he offered Israel throughout the whole Old Testament. Because bread’s not the only thing you’re hungry for, right? It’s not the only kind of appetite you’ve got, it’s not the only thing you crave.

And the devil will weaponize your appetites – he’ll offer you the things you think you want; kind of like he offered Adam and Eve the things they thought they wanted, kind of like he offered Israel the things they thought they wanted, because it feels like God’s withholding them from you; but it’s a bait-and-switch; it’s a worm on a hook; it’s a stick-a-carrot-and-a-string; the devil will offer to satiate your appetites, and it’s a bankrupt promise.

So Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, and says “Man can’t live by his appetites,” “Man can’t live on bread alone,” because that’s what God said to Israel to wake ‘em up out of their sleepwalk in sin. So Jesus obeyed where Israel failed. Jesus obeyed where Adam and Eve failed, and he obeyed where you and I failed. He was faithful on our behalf. Jesus is the God of Israel, and he was obedient in all of the ways that Israel wasn’t.

And when Abraham believed God, the righteousness of Jesus was credited to him, and all of his sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus. Because that’s what happens when you throw yourself on the mercy of God. And that’s good news for Abraham, and that’s good news for Israel, and that’s good news for you and me.

So if you’ll look at vv. 5-8, Luke writes:

“So he took Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The Devil said to Him, “I will give You their splendor and all this authority, because it has been given over to me, and I can give it to anyone I want. If You, then, will worship me, all will be Yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.

So Jesus is walking through all of the things that Israel succumbed to. He was obedient when the devil offered to satiate his appetite instead of obeying God’s good commands, and he was obedient when the devil appealed to that kind of universal desire that we have to own the world.

Y’know what I’m talking about? We were created to “bear God’s image” as we steward the world together – and so God put Adam and Eve in charge of the plants and animals in the garden, so they’d take care of them under his authority, and they’d take care of each other under God’s authority, but Satan offered them what they thought they wanted – he offered them an opportunity to own the world.

So in Genesis 3, Satan approaches them at the tree that God told them not to eat from – “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” – and says “You know God’s lying when he tells you that you’ll die if you eat this.” Right? “God’s withholding this from you, because he knows if you eat from this tree, you’ll be like him. You’ll own the world.”

And they believed him. Which is really a significant part of that passage: they believed the tree snake – who was talking, for some reason – instead of believing what the Lord had told them. There’s a lot to that, right? Because reading through Genesis 3, you get the sense that Adam and Eve believed the snake because Adam and Eve wanted to believe the snake. Like, this wasn’t just a case of getting tricked by an unusually clever reptile. The devil offered them the world in a fairly obvious lie, and they believed him, on purpose.

And that’s a real thing. I relate to that passage on a pretty personal level, because I do that all the time. The list of things that I will and won’t believe at any given time are pretty heavily dependent on the extent to which I believe in my heart-of-hearts that they’re gonna help me own the world.

And that doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody. Right? Like, I’m not ambitious. Not one ounce of me wants to “climb the corporate ladder,” or make a six-figure salary, or have a big house, or even leave my small apartment most days. But I try to own the world every time I rationalize my sin. I try to own the world every time I “rewrite the rules” – you know what I’m talking about? – every time I “move the line” so it fits with whatever I’m already doing. There’s something in us that wants to own the world, and we’ll redefine whatever we need to to make that happen.

Adam and Eve knew exactly what God wanted from them; he made his demands absolutely clear, and there was no reason to think that he had anything else in mind besides their flourishing and their joy when he told them not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; but they did exactly the thing that you and I do when we “move the finish line” to wherever it is that we already are, when we recalibrate our moral code so that we fit comfortably inside it by doing whatever it is that we’re already doing; they did the same thing that you and I do when we try to own the world in any number of ways: they believed the tree-snake on purpose.

And that’s a real thing. They weren’t dumb. They weren’t just gullible. They had an agenda. They had an endgame. The talking snake offered them an “alternate narrative” where they could own the world without submitting to God’s authority, and they believed that narrative on purpose, just like you and I do every time the devil offers us the same thing. So the Garden of Eden happened – literally – way back in the dawn of man, but we rehearse that same sin that got Adam and Eve expelled every single day of our lives, just like Israel did time after time throughout the Old Testament.

That’s why it’s not silly that we’re still expelled from God’s presence even though we weren’t there when Adam and Eve chose to disobey. Like, you do belong here, outside of Eden, with the rest of the exiles; you do belong here, with the rest of “fallen humanity.” Because if Adam and Eve hadn’t rebelled in the garden, it would’ve been you.

Specifically, you. I’m sorry to be the person to break that news to you. Even if somebody else would’ve beaten you to it, that doesn’t help your case. Because if the person who beat you to it hadn’t beaten you to it, then it would have been you. You’d be the person who beat somebody else to it. That’s where we are. There’s something in us that wants to own the world, and the devil offers it to you and to me every day of our lives, and he offered it to Jesus in the wilderness.

So Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13, this time, and says: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.” Which is interesting, because Jesus is the God of Israel. He is the God of the universe. Right?

Colossians 1:16 says that the whole world was created through Jesus and for Jesus; and Revelation 13:8 says that Jesus is “the lamb slain before the creation of the world,” which is a very poetic way of saying that the world was created through Jesus and for Jesus because the Father, Son, and Spirit decided – before they laid the foundation of the world – that if Jesus had to die in our place to redeem us from our sin, to rescue us from our desire to own the world, that he would. The world was created by Jesus, for Jesus, because of Jesus.

So as Jesus is arguing with the devil in the wilderness, he’s doing what he set out to do from the beginning. He’s not out in the wilderness because he just loves peace and quiet, and he’s not there just to see how long he can go without food. He’s in the wilderness so that he can walk through all the things that you and I and all of God’s people through history have succumbed to – so he can be obedient on our behalf.

So Jesus was righteous in our place when the devil offered him a chance to own the world. And when we believe God, when we throw ourselves on God’s mercy, the righteousness of this Jesus is “credited to us” like it was credited to Abraham, and our sin is nailed up to the cross with Jesus. This is the God we tried to dethrone in the Garden – the God who exiled us from Eden – and now he’s exiled himself to the wilderness to pass the test in our place. And that’s why the devil makes his last offer, in verses 9 through 13:  

“So he took Him to Jerusalem, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here. For it is written: He will give His angels orders concerning you, to protect you, and they will support you with their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” And Jesus answered him, “It is said: Do not test the Lord your God.” After the Devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Him for a time.”

So Jesus remains obedient while the devil offers to satiate his hunger, and he remains obedient while the devil appeals to that universal desire to own the world, so the devil changes course and tries bait him into abusing the privileges that come with being God’s beloved son. Right? Like, when Jesus came up out of the water when John baptized him in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended from the clouds and the voice of God basically quotes a handful of verses from the Old Testament. He says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.”

And that’s a quote from Exodus 4:22 when God told Pharaoh, “Israel is my beloved Son, and I’m taking him to the promised land, whether you like it or not.” Because Jesus is God’s beloved son, and you and I become God’s sons and daughters by throwing ourselves onto his mercy. The righteousness of Jesus is credited to us, like it was credited to Abraham, and we become God’s beloved children instead of God’s enemies. And when the righteousness of Jesus is credited to you, none of your sin – past, present, or future – can ever keep you from the love of God again.

So your sin is dealt with. Christ’s obedience on your behalf means that you’re free from the guilt that rightly comes with your sin. But there’s also a danger that comes with that, because the devil will try to bait us into abusing the privileges that comes with being God’s beloved sons and daughters. So the devil will offer you a very different “freedom” from guilt.

Because when you throw yourself on the mercy of God, you are forgiven for everything you’ve ever done, and you’re given an absolute commission to right the wrongs that used to define your life. So you’re set free from the guilt that used to consume you, but that is not the freedom from guilt that the devil offers you.

He tried to tempt Jesus into abusing his privileges as the son of God, and he does exactly the same thing with us today: The devil offers you a pretend freedom from a very real guilt, by making you numb to the gravity of your sin; and if you let him, he’ll set you free from your guilt by slowly changing your heart so that you roll your eyes at the thought of repentance, or you get real clever in finding ways to lie to yourself about your lifestyle. That’s a real thing.

He’ll offer you a pretend freedom by coaxing you toward seeing your sin as not particularly problematic, so you can redirect your guilt towards other people – so when the Holy Spirit convicts you, you can say “I think I’m pretty low on the list of things to worry about.” Right? “If you wanna convict sin, y’know, think a little more about Janet, over there.” The devil will offer you that pretend freedom from your very real guilt, by enticing you away from hating your sin.

And this is important, because hating your sin is nothing like hating yourself. Hating your sin is completely different than hating yourself. And when you hate your sin, you know that, because you remember when you didn’t: You remember the days when you were taking up the devil’s offer of pretend freedom from your very real guilt, because those were the days when you did hate yourself. Right? You were endlessly inventive in finding ways to avoid looking your guilt in the eyes, but that constant denial just turns into self-loathing – you know what I’m talking about? So every time the Holy Spirit would convict you and draw you back into communing with the Father, you’d shrug it off and carry on business-as-usual, but that does something to you.

Because you weren’t created to carry on in sin. You weren’t created to break God’s commands. But more importantly than that, you weren’t created to live out of fellowship with the Father. And that does something to you. When you’re a slave to sin – like we talked about last week – the love of God feels like dread, or it feels like sickness, so you avoid it like the plague. But you weren’t created to avoid God like the plague, and that messes with your psyche.

So the devil offers a pretend freedom from your very real guilt, but it’s a bait-and-switch. It will not do the thing you want it to do. And you have two options: you can hate your sin or you can hate yourself; and however counterintuitive it sounds, hating your sin is the only pathway toward enjoying a genuine freedom from your very real guilt.

Because hating your sin comes from throwing yourself on the mercy of God. And when you throw yourself on the mercy of God, the righteousness of Jesus becomes your righteousness. And that doesn’t just “take you off God’s ‘hit-list’ – right? – you get God. The thing you get when you throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus is you get God in a way you couldn’t beforehand. Because you were exiled from the garden so you lived for your appetites and you tried to own the world out from under God – and when that’s who you are, you can’t commune with the Father, because you won’t. When we were exiles in the wilderness, it was what we wanted. So Jesus came into the wilderness and got us.

But if you haven’t thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, you’re still in the wilderness. And maybe you’re starting to realize that now – that your throat’s dry, and your lips are parched, and you’re homesick for a place you’ve never been. Or you’re just homesick for something that’s not the wilderness. I’ll be down at the front as we begin to sing. If that’s you, and you wanna get got out the wilderness, if you wanna throw yourself onto the mercy of God, then come talk to me. I’d love to walk you through that process. Or, if you’d simply like to talk, or pray together, I’d like that, too.

Let’s pray.

‘Freedom From the Slavery of Sin in Jesus Christ’ – Philemon 1-25 – November 25th, 2018

If you have your bibles, turn with me to the book of Philemon. Our sermon today is on verses 1 through 25 – so, the whole book. There’s no cause for alarm, though: as you will notice, Paul’s letter to Philemon is more like Paul’s Lengthy Text Message To Philemon, so I promise I won’t preach past, like, an hour-and-a-half. Let’s read:

“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

So Paul’s writing this from prison. This is nothing new. More of Paul’s letters than I can count start with some variation of “Hey, it’s Paul. I’m in prison again, but it’s cool.” He’s writing to Philemon – and, if you remember the book of Colossians, Philemon was a member of a “house church” in Colossae, along with Apphia and Archippus. But what’s interesting about this particular book is that he’s writing to someone he directly converted. I enjoy preaching and enjoy having conversations with new believers and long-time believers, but not nearly as much as I enjoy walking through life with people where I got to play some role in bringing them to Christ. Right?

Like, that’s really how evangelism works: You invest in someone by inviting them to share in the joy of knowing Jesus, and then you keep investing in them by walking through life with them and sharing what you’ve learned from your own walk. That’s not always possible – you can only do so much with a dude you witnessed to on a plane who lives three states away – but that’s the general shape of evangelism. Right? It’s not like throwing golf balls through a tennis net and seeing what makes it through – it’s very much the first step in a lifelong process of discipleship.

So it would be a bit like me writing to a guy named Josh, who I met at youth group when I was a senior in high school. I rarely feel some “strong emotional push” to say any particular thing to anyone, ever, but out of nowhere I felt this oppressive sense that I needed to ask Josh if he was “saved.” So I asked Josh if he was saved, and he said, “Yeah, man!” And I thought, “Oh, thank God, I don’t have to evangelize,” and I said, “Tell me about how your got saved, man.” And he said, no joke: “Y’know one time I was with some friends from school, but I don’t know if they were my friends, and they were all gonna go smoke, and I was like, ‘No way, I don’t want any part of that.’” (Pause). And I was like, “…Go on,” and he was like, “That’s it.”

So I walked him through what I actually meant, and he was floored – he’d never heard any of this before, and he’d been coming to our youth group for months, so then I was floored, because he’d been coming to our youth group for months and he’d never heard the gospel. But he kept talking to me, and then by God’s mercy his grandmother moved in with his family, and he started talking to her, too. And a few months later, he got it, and he made the same decision I made years earlier when a guy named Brad decided to walk with me through my unbelief and into my eventual surrender to the Lord.

So preaching is fun, but it’s not quite as satisfying as walking through the process of discipleship with somebody you’ve watched transform by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every time I run into Josh at church or talk to him on the phone or watch him as he takes up some of the same roles I used to fill in the youth group, I’m reminded that the gospel actually changes people – and I think the same kind of thing is at play with Paul: He converted Philemon and he’s invested in his walk with Christ.

And it’s good. Because so much of what goes into discipleship is disappointment and heartbreak.  And it has so little to do with how well you counseled them; at your very best, with all the best responses to their ambivalence about God’s laws, and all the most sophisticated answers for their doubts most of the people you invest in are still gonna come to a point where they decide they’ve had enough of this Christianity thing and they’re gonna go their own way and it’ll have nothing to do with you. So you can rest, because the cure for what ails us is the mercy of God.

But so far Paul’s just kind of “setting the ball on the tee” for the bomb he’s about to drop on Philemon. Take a look at vv. 8 through 16:

Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me). I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

So Paul has prefaced all of this by reminding Philemon of their relationship. Paul converted Philemon and there’s a very real sense in which Philemon owes Paul his life. We don’t really think about things this way, but Paul was the tool that God used to bring Philemon out of his slavery to sin and into his family. That doesn’t mean that Philemon’s gonna drop everything and become Paul’s bodyguard, or something, but it changes the relationship between them.

We know a handful of things about Onesimus from history, and he’s interesting. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, which is kind of scandalous in hindsight: by the time the Bible was compiled for the first time at the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D., slavery was basically dead in those parts of the empire that were under heavy Christian influence. Slavery was so ingrained in the Roman empire that it would have seemed insane to suggest to anyone living at the time of Paul and the apostles that within a few centuries it would be all but nonexistent. But by the late 300s it was dwindling, and fast.

And part of the reason was that the more the gospel of Jesus spread, the more people allowed it to take over every aspect of their lives. And the more people allowed the terms of the gospel to hijack their conscience, the less comfortable they were with owning a human being.

And that makes sense, right? Because Jesus is the God who came to Moses thousands of years earlier and said “I’m using you to launch a prison break to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and make them into my people.” And everything that happened over the history of God’s people, from the time of the Exodus and to the founding of this church in the year 1862 and up till now – all of this has been rooted in the fact that God rescued us from slavery and made us his people.

Right? In the days of Moses, Egypt owned our bodies and they thought they owned our souls, and God rescued us from slavery under their harsh imperial rule. But they weren’t the only slave-masters we had. We were slaves to sin in a way that ran even deeper than our slavery to Egypt. We weren’t enjoying his presence and we weren’t obeying the good commands that he gives for our flourishing; we were eager slaves to a harsh slave-master named sin, andunless the Holy Spirit had moved in us so that we threw ourselves on the mercy of God, we would have continued to reject the love of God all the way into eternity;

Right? God is love, that’s the Bible; God wants to be your friend, your “neighbor,” your father – in a way that your human father, or your human mother, couldn’t measure up to no matter how good they were; God wants to be you closest friend, and he will continue to pour his love onto you, but until you’ve thrown yourself onto his mercy, you will remain an eager slave to sin; and when you’re a slave to sin, the love of God makes you sick to your stomach – you know what I’m talking about?

So thousands of years after rescuing us from slavery in Egypt, Jesus came to earth, was born from a virgin – we’re celebrating that next month – and lived as a human, but he lived differently than we did; And that’s important – when Jesus came to earth, he didn’t stop being God, but he did become a real human; he didn’t do life on “cheat mode.” Jesus experienced the same drive toward sin that we experience and he resisted in all the ways that we don’t, and he obeyed in all the ways that we don’t, and he refused to be a slave to sin; so when he was crucified, he didn’t die for his own sins, because he didn’t have any sin to die for. He died for your sin, and my sin. All of it. All of our sin, over all of our lives, was nailed up to the cross with Jesus. He was punished for our sin, and there is no punishment left.

And when Jesus rose up from the grave three days later – we’re celebrating that in about six months – he brought you and me back up from the dead with him, no longer as “slaves to sin” but as free people. We are free with a freedom that isn’t ours. We are free with all the freedom of Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul says in 2nd Corinthians 6:18 that we are “sons and daughters of God” because of Jesus. God rescued us from slavery in Egypt and he rescued us from our slavery to sin in the cross.

And that’s why although slavery has existed for nearly all of human history, it took, like, ten minutes for the early church to just suffocate the Roman slave system in the regions where they had the most influence over culture. Because when this is your religion – when you’re a member of a community that’s been set free from two kinds of slavery – what would your major malfunction have to be if you thought it was perfectly fine to keep owning a human being?

But this was long before all of that. Paul’s writing maybe 30 years after the resurrection of Jesus, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it hadn’t clicked for Philemon yet.

So Onesimus was Philemon’s slave, but he wasn’t a very good slave. His name – Onesimus – technically means “useful.” It’s like when you meet somebody named “Misty,” or “Precious.” Those are adjectives, but they’re also names. So if you met Onesimus, it’d be like “Hey, my name’s Useful.”

But Paul says he was “Useless” to Philemon. And I have a hard time feeling sorry for Philemon on that one – like, if you come complaining to me that your slave isn’t as productive as you’d hoped he would be, I’m just not going to waste any tears over you. That’s not something I’m going to “cry alongside you over.”

So Paul isn’t insulting Onesimus here. There’s nothing wrong with being “useless” as a slave. And apparently Onesimus understood that, because he didn’t hesitate to run away the first chance he got. And since Philemon had been converted by Paul, Onesimus had probably either met him in the past or overheard Philemon talking about him, so he tracked Paul down and begged for his help.

Paul says that while Onesimus was with him in prison, he became a son to him. And it’s easy to miss the significance of that, today: Paul shared the gospel with Onesimus. He’d probably heard it plenty of times before at the church that met in Philemon’s house. But this time he heard from Paul, and something was different – it’s crazy the way that hearing the gospel from someone who isn’t your slave master might make it more persuasive; the gospel probably seems truer when you hear it from somebody who doesn’t legally own you. So Onesimus believes the gospel, and God sets him free from his slavery to sin.

Onesimus was grafted into the family of God, and he became like a son to Paul. Because he had died with Christ; his sin was nailed up to the cross with Jesus; He was resurrected with Jesus, no longer as a slave to sin but as a “beloved son” of God. But there’s more than that. Because this wasn’t just about Onesimus. In Jesus Christ, all of Onesimus’ sin was nailed up to a cross, and all of Philemon’s sin was nailed up to a cross – you see where Paul’s going with this?

A man and his slave were nailed to a cross together in Jesus Christ. And they were resurrected into a new life with Jesus. And that changes your relationship. Because they’re not just a master-and-slave anymore; now they’re brothers in one family; they’re members of one body. And if you found out your brother got sold into slavery, y’know, are you gonna to carry on “business as usual”?

And when you start to walk down that particular path, you start to wonder how you can really justify owning your brother in Christ. And once you start going down that path, you start to wonder why you really thought you could own anybody. And once you start going down that path, you start to wonder how you can sit idly by while millions of your brothers and sisters in Christ are bought and sold throughout the empire. And once you start going down that path, you start to wonder how you can tolerate anybody getting bought and sold by anybody to anybody, anywhere.

But we aren’t there yet. Let’s look at vv. 15 through 25:

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever,no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

So Paul is so inadvisably confident that Philemon’s gonna do what he’s hinting at that he’s sending Onesimus back to him. Which seems like a bad idea from our standpoint, right? Like, if somebody’s slave runs away and tries to hide out in your home, you should hide them in the cellar and do whatever you’ve gotta do to make sure their master goes home empty handed (or goes home in a casket), right? But he’s sending Onesimus back, and he’s confident that he won’t be punished. Because he illustrates the gospel in the way that he sends Onesimus back: When Onesimus gets back to Philemon’s house, his debts are as good as paid. His wrongs are all erased and whatever Philemon has against him is scattered as far away as the east is from the west.

And if you’re Philemon, and you get a letter from the man who brought you to faith in Jesus Christ that says –

“I’ve taken your slave under my wing. I’ve taken his debts, and I’ll take full responsibility for everything you’ve got against him.. I’m sending him back to you because I know you’ll forgive him just the way the good Lord forgave you in Jesus Christ. And I know you won’t stop at forgiving him. I know you’ll do a heck of a lot more”

– what would you think he’s talking about? I don’t think I have to spell it out. Actually, I don’t have to spell it out, because we know from history that when Onesimus died toward the end of the first century, he wasn’t Philemon’s slave anymore – he was the bishop of Ephesus.

This is the kind of thing that happens when the gospel takes hold of your relationships, when the gospel takes control of your household, or your wallet, or your conscience. I don’t know how long Philemon was a Christian before Paul wrote to him, but it kept taking over his decisions over the course of his whole life, to the point that he started making reckless economic decisions like releasing his slaves.

Because owning a slave was like owning a car. It was the cornerstone of the imperial economy. Setting your slave free would be about like having your car demolished for the sake of the environment – folks would look at you weird. You’d upset your family and concern the neighbors. How would you react if the folks next door said, “I read the latest climate report and just couldn’t justify owning an automobile”? You might admire their willingness to put their money where their mouth is but you’d be concerned about their judgment – it’s Louisburg, North Carolina, how’re they gonna get to work?

That’s how engrained slavery was in the world that Philemon lived in and there’s no version of letting his slave Onesimus go free that doesn’t just wreck his finances. But this is the kind of thing that happens when the gospel takes hold of your decision making. This is what happens when the gospel takes hold of your relationships.

Because when God has rescued you from your slavery to sin, it changes your relationship with your money, with your family, with your enemies, and with yourself. You start to see other people as people in ways you never thought to beforehand. Slowly, it co-opts you and turns your “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh,” and it makes you see the image of God in everyone you meet.

But if you haven’t thrown yourself on God’s grace, none of this is true about you. You might be nice – you’re probably nicer than I am. You might be generally considerate and polite and self-sacrificing, but there’s still something in you that drives you to want terrible things. You know what I’m talking about. There’s something in you that terrifies you. There’s something deeply crooked in you, like there’s something deeply crooked in me, like there was something deeply crooked in Philemon – and we need something more than old fashioned human decency to deal with that horrifying crookedness. Philemon was a decent man as far as anyone can know, and he still didn’t get that it was not okay to own Onesimus. We need more than common sense, more that old time virtues, more than a good work ethic or a lifetime of philanthropy.

We need that deep crookedness in us healed, and that means you need the same thing Philemon and Onesimus both needed and found through the gospel that Paul preached. Jesus took all of your sin – he took all of that deep crookedness that terrifies you in yourself – and when we nailed him to the cross, he took it to the grave with him. If you’ve thrown yourself on God’s mercy, it doesn’t mean you won’t be tempted by sin, but you’ll be forgiven fully, freely, and forever. And the forgiveness that Jesus bought and paid for on the cross will mold you into the image of Jesus over the rest of your life until one day, you’ll rest in God’s presence, and every crooked thing about you will be made straight.

So throw yourself on the mercy of God, if you haven’t. I’ll be standing at the front as we sing. If you want to be set free from your slavery to sin, if you want every crooked thing about you to be made straight, if you want to become God’s son or daughter, then please: come talk to me. Or, if you’re already God’s friend, and you’d simply like to pray together, come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

‘Why the Bible Belt is a Mission Field’ – Haggai 1:1-11 – November 4th, 2018

If you have your Bible, we’re gonna be in the book of Haggai. If you’re not sure where that is, it’s right near the end of the old testament, between Zephaniah and Zechariah—sandwiched between the two “Z’s”. Our passage will be Haggai 1:1-11, if you would turn there.

Haggai is about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed along with the rest of the city by the invading Babylonian army in 587 B.C. So at this particular point in time, the Israelites are dealing with their exile in Babylon, which is narrated at the end of Chronicles, and then carries on throughout the books of Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and the prophets Obadiah, Joel, Haggai and Malachi. That was a lot of information, but at least now you can’t say I didn’t teach you anything.

So let’s look at our text. I’ll be reading from the English Standard Version. Haggai, chapter 1, verses 1-11 says:

“In the second year of Darius the king, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD, [the temple].” Again, the word of the LORD came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while my house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood. Build my house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought home what little you found, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

So part of the reason this whole section of scripture, this whole time-span in history that Haggai fits into, is so close to my heart is that I got saved because I accidentally opened a Bible and turned to Nehemiah. A guy named Brad kind of annoyed me into meeting with him and we’d talk about the good Lord. So one day I got my dust covered Bible out of that one cabinet everybody has in their house – you know, the “Bible Cabinet” where we lock it up between each Sunday – and I opened it to a nice middle-y section, and it was the book of Nehemiah. And I understood none of it. I had a thousand questions. Number one being, “what’s Jerusalem?” Why did it need a wall? What happened to the wall, and why did the guy who gets paid to test out the king’s beverages care? But somewhere between the first and last chapter of the book that I had just stumbled through, I had just kind of stopped not-believing and started believing.

So I met the Lord, but I almost didn’t. Because there’s a profound danger that comes along with growing up in this particular part of the world. The fact that we live in the Bible Belt means that we live in the most overwhelmingly Christian part of the most overwhelmingly Christian country on entire planet. And yet the Bible Belt is a mission field – right? Because our culture is so flooded with surface level Christianity, most people are born, live their whole life, and then die claiming the title of Christian but never meeting Jesus – and our culture cultivates and encourages that pattern. And I was almost a one of its victims.

My parents loved the Lord, and they tried very hard to follow Solomon’s advice and “raise [me] up in the way [I] should go, so that [I] would not depart from it.” But despite my parents’ best efforts, I grew up with the sense that being a Christian meant going to church and not having fun. And those were the two parts. And I was pretty good at going to church, and I was pretty good at not having fun, so I figured I was set. Because this was the Bible Belt, and almost no one’s an atheist in the Bible Belt. Instead, when you aren’t so sure about God, you keep the Christian moniker, but you always caveat that you don’t judge people. Right? Once you say you don’t judge other people, you’re off the hook for everything. So you’d whisper it to yourself when you do something you know is wrong, and you feel bulletproof. I was that guy until my friend Brad annoyed me into the faith.

Growing up in the middle of the most overwhelmingly Christian region of the most overwhelmingly Christian country, most people my age grow up going to church, making some sort of confession of faith at a young age, and then going off into adulthood to raise more kids to do the same but never actually come to anything like genuine faith in Jesus. And so the question that we have to raise in response to this is, “How did this happen?” How is it that the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce nominal Christians – “Christians in Name Only”? And once we have answered that, I think the question we absolutely have to address is, “How can we instead create a culture where the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus?” And I think this kind of obscure text from the Old Testament actually addresses both of those questions.

So in vv. 1-4, the Lord says:

“Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the temple of the LORD,” . . . “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while my house lies in ruins?

To give a little background here, at the time that Haggai is preaching, Israel has been having pretty good fortunes. As fiery as this word from the Lord out of the mouth of Haggai is, things have been going pretty well for Israel, and that’s the problem. At this point God has worked in the heart of Cyrus, the king of Persia so that, almost out of nowhere, he decided to allow the exiled Israelites to return to their land and live in peace as his subjects.

And their fortunes continued to get better when a later Persian king, Artaxerxes, gave them permission to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to protect themselves from their enemies. They built the wall and then they began to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem that Babylon had destroyed when they conquered the nation years earlier.

The problem is that, throughout all of history, God’s people are always looking for a way out. Right? Even for us, when our relationship with God is at its best, part of us is looking for an exit sign. There’s just something in us that rebels against the Father. And Israel continued that pattern here as well when they just stopped building the temple. When everything was going so well, they just stopped rebuilding the temple. And Haggai gives us a pretty good idea why: Look at v. 2-4. The people of Israel, that God had just graciously brought back to the land that He promised them and had enabled to build a wall for their protection, were now building well-crafted houses and planting crops and vineyards throughout the land. And you might notice that these are all good things. If they’re gonna survive the next year in Jerusalem, these are pretty non-negotiable things that they have to do. But the problem is that in the process, they stopped actively carrying out the will of God and only concerned themselves with taking care of their immediate needs. So after God had rescued them for a purpose, the Israelites went into what you could call survival mode.

So in the midst of taking care of the necessities of everyday life, they had lost touch with the mission that God had rescued them for. Just a few years earlier, they were struggling to survive under the harsh rule of the Babylonian empire and God had rescued them. And we’re in kind of the same position here too, right? If you’re in this room this morning and you’re a believer in Christ, then there was a time when you weren’t. Even if you can’t remember that time because it was so long ago. God rescued you from the pit of your own sinfulness and made you His ambassador. God has made you His priest.

And that’s why we don’t have “priests,” because God didn’t rescue us from the darkness that we were walking in just to make us into people who sit each week and soak up sermons. He rescued us to make us into priests for the world. That doesn’t mean that you need to go get a priest’s robe and start chanting words in Latin from a pulpit – even though that’s honestly pretty cool, right? I’m into that. What it means is that if you are a believer in Christ in this room, you are the one that God has chosen to introduce the town of Louisburg, North Carolina to Jesus.

So if you want to know why the culture of the Bible Belt is almost tailor-made to produce cultural Christians who show no evidence of repentance and faith, it doesn’t take much to see that part of it boils down to the fact that more folks than any of us can count have lost touch with the mission that God has rescued us for. That same impulse that kept the Israelites from carrying out their mission in Haggai flows through us and everyone.

One of my friends from college graduated several years ago and joined the Episcopal Service Core, which is kind of like the North America Mission Board, but for Episcopalians. He started working with the youth pastors at his local parish and was horrified by a few of the things he learned. A couple of years ago, he said, and I quote:

“A lot of the kids in the youth group that I serve at wouldn’t be able to locate the four Gospels in a Bible. And that’s kind of why the Episcopal church is dying. They raise their kids to be ‘religious’ but they don’t really teach them anything distinctly Christian. So what happens is that students will grow up going to church but drop out after a little while in college because there was never any real root to their faith. When they get older, some of them come back because they want their kids raised religiously like they were. But only some of them come back, and so every generation the Episcopal church gets smaller and smaller. I don’t think it’s gonna be around that much longer.”

Now, I told that story because I wanted to evoke a certain response. If I had heard that several years ago, I would have thought, “OK, well, that’s just the Episcopal church.” But my perspective changed because every semester in college, I would meet new students during orientation week, and I’d meet new students while I was teaching a Bible study, and I’d meet new students as an intern at my church, and eventually, I lost count of all the 18 year old life-long Baptists I’d met who couldn’t explain to me why Jesus needed to die on the cross. Right? So I’m talking about 18 year old life-long Baptists who showed up for orientation at my Baptist college needing to be converted to Christianity – victims of the ‘cultural Christianity’ that haunts our part of the world.

And that’s why Sunday School teachers are superheroes. Right? I have so much respect for Sunday School teachers, and small group leaders, and all of the regular folks who pour themselves into discipling the church without fanfare. Every week you throw yourselves into the scriptures and surrender to the God who inspired them to use you as a tool to shape the people in your care into the image of Christ. That’s a real thing. A good sermon is good, but the work of discipleship really happens when we turn our chairs toward each other. Right?

I can think back to so many men and women who decided to disciple me – they decided to keep going, even when I and all my classmates seemed impossible to reach – and it made all of the difference. And plenty of those people who discipled me weren’t even any good at it. The best Sunday School teacher I ever had couldn’t teach to save his life. But he was. He could barely put a sentence together, and he was the best teacher I ever had because the Holy Spirit just works that way. He stumbled his way through books of the Bible and bad life-examples and it totally worked . He discipled us from one degree of maturity to another in a way that sermons can’t, because the Holy Spirit will carry you through the work that God has set before you. So if you’re teaching Sunday School or you’re teaching a small group or you’re discipling a new convert or you’re trying to raise kids to stay Christian don’t lose your hope. You’re sowing more seeds than you think you are. Keep at it, and rest in the knowledge that the work that God gives you was “set aside for you beforehand,” like Eph. 2:10 says.

So we exist to spread the gospel into every corner of the earth, including ours, but the prosperity of the Church in the Bible Belt has made it incredibly easy to ignore the mission that God rescued us for while still feeling like obedient Christians.

And that is a really dark thought, but there’s good news. If you would, look at v. 5-6. The Lord says:

“Now, therefore, consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”

Israel has lost touch with their mission, and God’s response is to poison the well that replaced it. And if you’ll look at vv. 9-11.

The Lord says, “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”

And God may not have brought a famine to our land, but the Church is rapidly losing “cultural influence” in America. And God seems to really like plot twists, and the big plot twist here is that somehow losing our safety and status in America has been a good thing, more than a bad thing. This is a dumb analogy, but I think it works: It’s generally a bad thing to take food from hungry people. But if they’re eating, like, rat poison, y’know, it’s the most loving thing you can do. And God loves His Church. And since the founding of our nation we have enjoyed a near unprecedented place of safety and privilege in society, which for a very long time served to help the Church propel the gospel to every corner of the earth. But in recent decades, we’ve allowed the safety and the privilege that we’ve enjoyed in America to turn us away from the mission of God to the nations and instead become drunk on comfort and on cultural influence. And that’s an easy thing to do, and it’s the thing that happened. So it’s a bad thing to take water from thirsty people, but it’s a good thing to take arsenic from thirsty people. And the privilege and cultural influence that used to aid us in carrying out God’s mission for us have gradually become an obstacle.

So for the last few decades, it looks like God has been taking away the thing that captured our affections in His place. Right? If the comfort that America has provided us is sabotaging our missionary mind, He’ll take it away from us—not because He wants to hurt us, but because He wants to save other people.

So if the privilege that the Church enjoyed in American society for the last two and a half centuries is causing us to lost touch with the great commission, God will take away the thing that has kidnapped us. And that’s a painful process, but it’s also a fruitful process.

Because you know that the single greatest periods of growth in the Church have always been times of great persecution. And you hear that in, like, every sermon, I know. But God has always used persecution against the Church to multiply the Church. Right? For the first three centuries after the resurrection of Jesus, the Church was like a rabbit, it just kept multiplying: Every day, there were new Christians, and sometimes new Christians were former persecutors. Like, some Roman spy would visit a small church community in somebody’s basement hoping to get some dirt on the members of this new religion that the government could use to justify persecuting them. And the spy would hear the gospel clearly proclaimed, gets saved, and have to go into hiding because if his boss found out he’d be the next martyr.

So we’re part of a faith that began as a persecuted people group and currently throughout most of the world is still a persecuted people group, and might one day return to being a persecuted people group in America. But we can rest knowing that everything that happens, happens so that the gospel will further multiply to every corner of the earth: God removed every obstacle that kept Israel from obeying the mission that He saved them for, and there’s no reason not to think he’ll do the same thing here.

 So vv. 7-8, the Lord says:

“Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD.”

In 2018, God doesn’t live in a temple in Jerusalem. We’re not called to buy a plane ticket to the modern state of Israel and start construction on a third temple. But we are called to make disciples.

And it’s easy to make that more than it is. Reading Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore and make disciples,” can give the impression of “raise some support, pack up your stuff, kiss your family goodbye and move to Kazakhstan.” And somebody – at least one somebody – from every church should do that, if possible. You should “go.” You should leave, if you’re able to. Mission trips are awesome. That’s a real thing. Go somewhere that doesn’t have the gospel and share it with them. Organize as many as you can. Support as many missionaries as you can. All of that is good, and right, and perfect.

But the Great Commission is for every corner of the earth and there are so many corners here. And we’re never not “going,” so if you have neighbors, I hope that you’re going to make disciples of them. Right? The guys who live in the apartment next to mine are not my pastor’s responsibility. They’re mine. Because God pulled me out of the pit of my own sinfulness to make me a priest to them. And the primary reason that isn’t immediately obvious to me is that the American Church, and especially the Church in the Bible Belt, has grown so comfortable because of the safety and privilege we have enjoyed here that that it’s easy to lose touch with the mission that God rescued us for.

So because God cares about His mission in the world, I don’t suspect that 20 years from now Churches will have tax exemptions. I don’t suspect that 10 years from now Christianity will be the majority religion in the United States on paper anymore. But I do suspect that we’ll be a more obedient and effective people. I do suspect that the gospel will spread throughout our nation all over again. And I do suspect that, when all is said and done, God will have shaped us into a people with whom He is well pleased, and that through us, He will create a culture in which the gospel flourishes and people meet Jesus.

And if you’re not a believer in Christ, I pray that you’ll be one of them. I pray that through us, God will create a culture in which you meet the Lord. I pray that you’d become profoundly dissatisfied with holding on to the Christian moniker but serving as your own King of Kings. If I can annoy you into the faith, I will. But even if I don’t, I pray that you’ll pick up you dust-covered Bible and let the good book convert you on its own. uld res

‘Raised Up in Christ’ – Ephesians 2:1-10 – October 14th, 2018

If you’ll turn with me to the book of Ephesians, let’s take a look at chapter 2, verses 1 through 10:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.

Those are some pretty extreme words, and if you’ve read much of Paul, isn’t exactly surprising. But if Paul’s words here are extreme, they’re also extremely hopeful. If you are a believer in Christ, this passage is the story of your life. And it’s a story with a happy ending that far outweighs the terror of its unhappy beginnings. And if you’re not a believer in Christ here, I want it to become the story of your life, and I promise to annoy you, hopefully, into becoming one.

Verse 1 starts out every bit as dark as chapter one was gloriously upbeat. Up to this point, Paul has been warmly reminding his readers of the great mercy God had shown them in election. Everyone who is a believer in Christ is incalculably blessed. Not with earthly riches, or fame, or power, or wealth, but with something better. We are blessed with all the riches in the Heavenly places, Paul said earlier. We are wealthy with a wealth that we didn’t earn.

But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when God and I weren’t friends. There was a point when you had no business in God’s living room. Earlier, Paul said that we were beloved in Christ, but there was a time before that election was worked out in us, and in those days we weren’t coming to God’s Christmas parties.

 Verse 1 says that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins.” And corpses don’t get up out of their graves carry on with their business. They don’t have business, because they’re corpses. But we were a special kind of dead. Paul writes in verse 2 that we were dead in the trespasses and sins “that we used to walk in.” Generally, the dead don’t walk, either. So we were a special kind of dead that doesn’t mean quite the same thing as being normal dead. If you consult a Bible dictionary or a word study, you’ll see that Paul means that we were so buried beneath our sins and trespasses that we could not act any differently.

So there wasn’t going to come a day when we up and quit sinning. It was our nature. Those were the days when we’d sin and we weren’t sorry. We might have been haunted by some low-rent guilt that just hung out in the background, but it was always a vague guilt. We weren’t sorry for our sin, and we weren’t sorry for much of anything in particular. We were just kind of guilty, but feeling guilty isn’t the same as being repentant. Because we were “dead in your trespasses and sins,” so we kept walking in it.

And maybe it wasn’t gross. Not everybody had over the top, nauseating habits. Not everybody, like, killed JFK, or whatever. Maybe your sin was quiet. Maybe it was subtle. Maybe it was socially acceptable, like a disrespecting your wife, or turning a blind eye to people in need. But it was sin, and you were a sinner, and you were numb to the voice that might have warned you to flee from it. And part of that was that we wanted to be numb, right?

If we’re honest, we didn’t want to hear our conscience, so we buried it. We put our heads down, and we did what Paul says in verse 2, we “followed the course of this world,” and it made our sin so much easier. Because it’s unbelievably easy to keep walking in the sins that you gravitate towards when you’re just “following the course of the world.”

But we weren’t just following the course of the world when we sinned. Paul writes in verse 2 that we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked “following the prince of the power of the air.” If you read up a bit on that phrase, you’ll find that it’s a reference to the devil. But notice the Paul does not say that we walked in sin because we were “controlled by the devil.” Paul writes that you were “following the prince of the power of the air.” 

And that’s an important distinction, because Paul goes on to say that we walked in trespasses and sins “following the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived in the passions of the flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” So there’s Paul stacking phrases on top of phrases again, but his point is actually very simple: You do the things that you do because they’re the sort of things that you would do.

That’s why in verse 3 he writes that we “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” There’s a popular quote that goes something like: “Religion says ‘you broke God’s rules,’ but the gospel says ‘You broke God’s heart.’” And that’s not wrong. But it’s not right enough.

Our sin may break God’s heart, but it will also break us. God’s response to sin is not just heartbreak – it’s wrath. If you persist in sin – and I’m talking about commonplace sin, disrespect-your-wife type sin – if you persist unrepentantly in sin your whole life, utterly numb to the voice of your conscience, God will break you apart like you broke His law, and He’ll be right to do so. Our sin is always worse than we think it is. It always drives us further, and further into more, and more, and more sin.

So, one of my favorite movies is a French zombie film from the 1980s called Living Dead Girl. It’s about a young woman named Catherine Valmont who is accidentally brought back to life when a barrel of toxic waste is spilled on her grave. But she doesn’t come back the same as she used to be.

She comes back as a zombie, and we all know what zombies do. What makes matters worse, though, is that she doesn’t lose her personality. She’s not mindless, like the ones from The Walking Dead, stumbling around and groaning for brains. She is still Catherine Valmont, but she’s gotta eat, and she can only eat what zombies eat. She was brought back from the grave, not to a new life, but a living death. There is no cure for her “living death.” Her best efforts cannot make her “alive” again. She is a monster, and that is who she is now. And it’s all she can be.

And I don’t know if Paul saw that movie, or what, because he doesn’t say that we were “disappointing in our trespasses and sins,” – he says that we were dead! Right? It doesn’t say that we were “children who would never reach our full potential,” – it says that we were “by nature children of wrath!”

And that’s pretty extreme, as always, but doesn’t it ring true? I don’t know about you, but I can remember being six and skilled at finding new ways to cause trouble for my parents. I could break their rules in ways they’d never anticipate, and then break rules they’d never thought to make. Or, maybe you don’t remember, but you don’t need to, because you’ve got kids of your own now and you’re just waiting till they turn eighteen and you can sue them for emotional distress. There’s something in us that drives us to want awful things.

And we follow that drive, that appetite, into one degree of sin, and then another. And we’ll keep at it, like Catherine Valmonts in our home, and our villages, until we die for good and face the wrath of God. Or, until something else happens:

Verse 4 says that “God, being rich in mercy, and “because of the great love that He had for us, made us alive together with Christ.” That’s good news that my favorite French zombie movie won’t tell you about. You can’t just make yourself “not dead.” You can’t solve your sin problem if you are your sin problem. But God can, and that’s good news for those of us who suffer from “Living Death Syndrome,” because Paul says He is rich in mercy.

So God “made us alive together with Jesus.” This is an interesting sentence. Sunday school 101 is that Jesus is God. Remember the Gospels? The religious leaders were so upset that Jesus claimed to be God that they crucified Him. And they thought they were doing their own will. But they were actually doing God’s will. God saw that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins.” He saw that there was nothing we could do to save ourselves. That we were bringing His wrath on ourselves. So Jesus decided to give Himself up to be crucified by people like us, so that He could die, not for His own sins, but for the “trespasses and sins that we once walked in.”

But that’s not all Paul is talking about. Jesus didn’t die on the cross and then float up to heaven. He died on the cross for our “trespasses and sins,” and three days later He rose up again. And Paul says that “while we were dead in [the] trespasses and sins” that Jesus died on the cross for, God “made us alive together with [Jesus].” He went into the grave, buried our sin, and brought us back with Him.

To put it another way, Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved!”

And this tells us quite a bit about what the God of the Bible is like. Verse 4 says that God “raised us with Christ” because of “His great love that He had for us.” Writing in the first century, Paul wasn’t talking to a group of people who could simply assume that they were loved – by God or anyone. In the Roman Empire, there was no such thing as a human person. There was no sense that people were valuable simply because they existed. You were useful, or you weren’t. And if you weren’t useful, you didn’t matter – especially not to the gods. You could satiate the gods with sacrifices, but you couldn’t be their friend. You could impress them by dominating others, but you couldn’t be intimate with them. You could enjoy their aid or blessings by invoking them with the right rituals, but you couldn’t hang out with them.

But in verse 6, Paul says that “because of [this] God’s great love for us,” He has “seated us in the heavens together with Christ.” You couldn’t befriend the old gods, you couldn’t be loved by them, and you couldn’t hang out with them. But since this God already loved us, He “raised us up with Christ” into the “Heavenly places” where He is. We can have friendship with God through Jesus. And verse 7 says that he did this so that “the immeasurable Riches of His grace” are “displayed through his kindness to us” in Christ.

So, I don’t want to assume that everyone in here is Christian. I spent 17 years going to a Bible-believing Church, convinced that there was probably no God. Or, if there was one, that He probably rigged the universe as a kind of cruel joke against the folks He created. What changed, for me, was that a guy named Brad was deeply troubled by my profanity-laden Facebook posts. When he confronted me, I agreed, for some reason, start meeting with him before and after Youth Group to talk about the Lord Jesus. I would calmly tell him why Christianity was stupid, and he would listen and tell me why I was stupid. And over time my emotional hang-ups sounded less and less convincing as they came out of my mouth. So that eventually I just gave up trying to not believe.

So I want to be your Brad, and I want to be absolutely sure that if you are like the teenage version of me, your disbelief in the gospel does not come from not having heard it. If you don’t believe in God, I want you to know exactly what the God you don’t believe in is like. The God you don’t believe in is like Jesus, who saw that we were dead in our trespasses and sins and let us crucify Him so that He could take our sins into the grave and raise us back up with Him.

This is a God you can’t earn friendship with. Right? You can’t earn this God’s love. You can only throw yourself on His grace. So you can abandon the idea that you can’t be brought back from the death you’re living in, and you can abandon the idea that you don’t need to. You can throw yourself on the grace of God, and the God that Paul believed in, that I believe in, and that you don’t believe in, will bury your sins in a grave where Jesus was laid, and Jesus will raise you up with Him into friendship with God.

I’ll yell at you about it some more at the end of this sermon.

But even if that’s not you – and you don’t have any hang-ups about the God of the Bible – there are at least two traps that are dangerously easy to fall in. In verse 8, Paul says that we are saved by grace “through faith,” and that this is not from ourselves. Maybe you do believe in this God that Paul is talking about, but you’re like me and you spend most of your Christian walk trying to find ways to make sure God keeps liking you. Right? That same drive in us that moves us to sin also constantly pushes us to find ways to deny the gospel with our lives, even after we’ve received it by grace through faith. So that’s the first trap.

But Paul says, in verse 9, that we are saved “not by works,” so that “no one can boast.” Because lot of us have a tendency to say: “Yes, salvation is by faith, not by works. Yes, you can’t do enough good deeds to save yourself. No, I don’t think that my good works will get me into heaven.” And on paper, all of that is biblical. But if you aren’t careful, that can turn into “I did Faith the right way. I succeeded in believing the correct thing, and God rewarded me with salvation.”

Right? That’s the second trap: It’s entirely possible to believe the right thing on paper while secretly trusting in yourself to earn salvation. It’s totally possible to believe that you earn salvation by having the correct belief system and go your whole life not realizing it. But Paul says that we are “saved by grace, through faith – not from works.”

So faith is not a work that you perform in exchange for a place in heaven. Faith is a gift from God that you surrender to. Grace is a gift from God that you throw yourself on. Our salvation begins with God, is carried out by God, and is finished by God.

That is why Paul says in verse 10 that we are “God’s workmanship.” It’s easy to read over this verse without giving it a moment’s thought. Paul writes that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which he prepared beforehand for us to walk in.” It is one thing to be created, to be born. Everyone is created. Everyone is born. But not everyone is born again. Not everyone is a “new creation” in Christ Jesus. Everyone is born into the living death that comes from sin. But only those who are “raised up with Christ” are set free from it.

If you’ve read Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, you’ll remember Hazel Motes is a 20 year-old man who was raised a fundamentalist in the Bible Belt. When he goes off to the military, the other soldiers manage to entice him into joining their sinful lifestyle, and he gets hooked. When he gets out of the service, he becomes an atheistic street preacher.

He sets up shop on street corners and delivers revivalistic sermons about how, in his own words, “There is no salvation because there was no cross because there is no sin because there was no Jesus because there is no God, so nobody’s got much of anything to worry ‘cept for how they’re going to make next month’s rent.” He manages to scrape together some money, and tries to buy a car. He gets to the used car lot and finds the sketchiest station wagon on the whole lot. Hazel asks the car salesman what the vehicle costs, and the salesman replies “Jesus Christ crucified,” which upsets Hazel.

Throughout the book, Hazel uses this station wagon to escape the looming sense of guilt that has haunted him his entire life. But abandoning Jesus doesn’t make his guilt evaporate like he hopes. And it can’t. Because Christianity didn’t invent guilt, and it’s not the thing keeping guilt on life support. But Hazel tried his best to outrun it, so he bought a car in the hopes that station wagons might drive faster than guilt can run.

At the end of the novel, Hazel gets pulled over. The officer asks him to step out of the car but leave the keys in the ignition. Once he gets out, the officer pushes the vehicle off a cliff. And this turns out to be the beginning of Hazel’s redemption. Because without the car as a crutch that he can use to solve his guilt problem, he is left to face the fact that only Jesus can rescue him.

The car salesman said that the vehicle would cost “Jesus Christ crucified.” He was more right than he knew. Jesus Christ crucified is the only thing that can save us. Anything we try to use instead of Jesus is like the station wagon Hazel Motes bought. Anything we do to try to make God like us more is like buying a station wagon to drive away from our sinfulness. Hazel Motes’ station wagon can’t drive you out of the grave. Only Jesus Christ crucified can.

So this passage from Ephesians ought to be incredibly liberating. Because Jesus does what Hazel Motes’ station wagon can’t – He sets us free from the impossible task of saving ourselves from this living death that our sin creates. We can’t outrun it and we can’t work our way out of it. But we can throw ourselves on the grace of God, and in a glorious twist of fate, that’s enough. Jesus is enough. The gospel is good news for Catherine Valmont, it’s good news for Hazel Motes, and it’s good news for you and me.

And it should good news for everyone else. Paul writes in verse 10 that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand for us to walk in.” Our good works can’t save us, but we were saved for good works. God rescued us from whatever we used to be and gave us a mission. Whatever our old life was like, our new life should be characterized by good works, and it should make us weird.

Right? People who knew us before should be deeply confused about the way our lives have changed. We might have been alcoholics, or we might have been serial scumbags, but if you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of God, you have been forgiven for everything you’ve done, and you’ve been given an absolute commission to right the wrongs that used to define your life. And if you’re still walking in those sins, repent immediately, if not sooner. Like, you can leave, right now, if there’s some grievous wrong you need to go reconcile with someone over, and I won’t be offended. I’ll probably just assume it’s because I’ve been talking so long. You were raised with Christ and newly created for “good works that were prepared [for you] beforehand.” Throw yourself into them. Look for ways you can be useful for God’s kingdom. Or, just look for ways you be good. Knowing that you can never earn God’s love, work harder out of gratitude than you could ever have worked out of terror.

I said earlier that if you are a believer in Christ, this passage is the story of your life, and I wasn’t kidding. You and I were dead in our trespasses and sin. We did not have a relationship with God. We were not his children, we were children of wrath. We were all Catherine Valmont. We were all Hazel Motes, buying broke down station wagons to drive away from our iniquity. But God is richer in mercy than we could ever have hoped for.

And for those who are not believers in Christ, I promised earlier that I would do my best to annoy you into becoming one. This passage is not the story of your life unless you have thrown yourself on the grace of God. But I want it to be. And I’m not above begging. Like Paul, I want to plead with you be reconciled to God. If you’re like I was as a teenager, you probably won’t. You’re probably half hearing this. But I hope that you will.

As we get ready to sing, I would like you to come down and talk to me. I’m incredibly unfriendly, so you don’t have to worry that I will invade your space, or try to force my way into your life. I would simply like to invite you to come down the aisle, wherever you are in your journey, and let me be your Brad. If you would like to give your life to Jesus this morning, I would like to walk you through that. If you’d simply like to talk, I’d love to do that too.

Let’s pray.

Father, You have rescued us from our deadness in sin by grace alone, through faith alone. And I pray that You would rescue some more. You have saved us into good works that You prepared beforehand. Let us be vehicles by which You pull people from the fire, and transform the world. In Jesus name, amen.