Tag Archives: Ryan Ellington

‘Walking In The Light’ – 1 John 1:5-2:11 – March 24th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John, chapter 1, verse 5 through chapter 2, verse 11:

“Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.

This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” yet doesn’t keep His commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly in him the love of God is perfected. This is how we know we are in Him: The one who says he remains in Him should walk just as He walked.

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

*

Let’s pray.

The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo had a saying that roughly translates into English as, “God is your father, but he’s probably not like your dad.” As a Christian living in Japan in the early 20th century, Endo kept running into the same problem when he would talk to “potential converts.”

The problem was that throughout the Bible, the authors refer to God as “Father.” When Paul is preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17, he quotes a Greek philosopher who says, “We are all God’s offspring,” and instead of arguing with it, Paul signs off on it. He says “You are God’s offspring – You’re this God’s offspring. The old gods you were brought up hearing about are not your parents, they are not your friends. But this God, the God of Israel, is your Father.”

When Paul was evangelizing, that went a long way. Because in a culture like Rome, everyone was starved for something like “fatherly affection.” Every human being on planet Earth needs more love than any one person can give them, and that extends to your kids, right?

If you have kids you already know that – they need more fatherly love than you have within yourself to give to them, just like you needed more fatherly love than your dad ever had inside him to give you – and it’s not because they were bad, it’s because we need a “Fatherhood” that goes beyond what human fathers are capable of.

Our “human fathers” are a shadow of our “heavenly Father.” And we need the shadow, but we also need “The Thing That Casts The Shadow”: We need “Our Father in Heaven.” And people were starved for that during Paul’s lifetime, so he told them about “Their Father in Heaven,” and then he introduced them through Jesus Christ.

But Shusaku Endo wasn’t evangelizing in first-century Rome, he was evangelizing in early 20th century Japan. They were still recovering from the Second World War, and one of the obstacles that he faced was the rigid “patriarchalism” that still ran through Japanese culture. That’s a big word, and what it means is that in Old Japan, like a lot of places, the father wasn’t just the “head of the household”; he had more or less absolute authority.

According to Shusaku Endo, “Old Japan” was very much an “authoritarian” society: You didn’t “earn” your authority, you just inherited it. You “stepped into” authority based on your “place in society,” and if your place was “father,” you just claimed your authority and then enforced it ruthlessly.

As a result, nobody was particularly interested in hearing about their “Father in Heaven,” because if you had one father you probably didn’t want another one. And so Shusaku Endo would tell people that God was their Father, but that he probably didn’t bear much resemblance to their dads.

Because God’s authority is absolute. It’s not negotiable. But he is not a “fragile patriarch” who would erupt at every “imagined slight.” It’s quite the opposite: If you read through the Old Testament, the thing that will catch your attention is not the violent stuff that everybody likes to talk about, it’s how God patiently walks alongside Israel amidst Israel’s disobedience and insubordination.

He says, “Israel is my son, and I’ll take him by the hand, and train him up in the way that he should go, and mold him as he blossoms into adulthood.” God is our Father, but for some of us he is not like our dads, because John says that “God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in him.”

And because our “Father in heaven” is “light” and “there is no darkness in him,” having “fellowship” with him is going to cause us to stop “walking in darkness.” And if it doesn’t, something’s wrong, because John says that “If we say we have fellowship with him, yet walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.” And that’s a hard word, but it’s also a necessary word, because if you own a television, or you’ve read a newspaper this year, you know that at least once a month, some Famous Professional Christian gets outed as a scumbag:

The Roman Catholic Church has taken a hit because of the revelations that have come out over the last few years about the horrifying extent of the sex abuse problem that is plaguing their communities. And just a few months ago people were smugly trotting that out and claiming it as points for “Team Protestant.” You know what I’m talking about? There were articles in popular Baptist magazines and periodicals declaring that the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals were definitive evidence that Evangelicalism was from God while the Roman Catholic Church was from the Devil.

The problem is that we have the same issue. Over the last over the last 40 years, there have been upwards of 700 reported cases of abuse by Southern Baptist ministers, deacons, youth pastors, and so on.  And those are just the ones we know about.

So, just a few months ago the lesson that we were trying to take from the Roman Catholic scandal was that there’s something very wrong with Catholicism and that the answer is to become Protestant, but the lesson that we should have been taking was that “If we say we have fellowship with God, yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth.”

John says that “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The problem is that you can get away with living in denial for a pretty long time. It’s the easiest thing in the world to tell yourself that your sins are small, that you’re on “the low end of the totem pole”; that other people are the ones committing the sins that actually catch God’s eye. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, too, but folks who are consistently walking in unrepentant sexual sin almost always point to things like “corporate greed,” or “prejudice,” and so on, and say, “Look, that’s what you really need to be worrying about – not my sex life.”

And on the other hand, people who are consumed with the kind of greed that eats away your soul will make hefty donations to Focus On The Family, or they’ll teach a Sunday School class about “The Dangers Of Sexual Immorality,” or they’ll head up a “non-profit” designed to overturn the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level, and they’ll point and say, “Those are the people you need to be worrying about.”

– So if you preach a sermon out of James chapter 2, on how “the gospel changes what we do with our money,” he’ll come up to you after church and say, “How could you possibly waste your time talking about something as abstract as ‘greed’ when these people are trying to ‘redefine marriage’ in our country?”

– Or, if you preach a sermon series on Song of Solomon about “What Sexuality Might Look Like When It’s Surrendered To God’s Design,” you’ll get an angry email from a college student about how pointless it is to talk about “sexual sin” when the Walton Family is still decimating local communities by putting all the shops out of business and then siphoning most of the Wal-Mart money back to Bentonville, Arkansas.

And so people will point to The Sins We Don’t Really Struggle With and demand you spend more time preaching about them instead, because those are The Real SinsTM. We never think that The Sins We Struggle With are a “top priority.”

But John says that if that’s our mindset, that “If we say we have no sin,” we are “deceiving ourselves,” and “the truth is not in us.” So when you get an email like that, the only particularly worthwhile response is to say, “I would really like people to repent of their greed and their lust.” You’ll write back and say, “I’m glad you don’t struggle with that particular pattern of sinfulness, but you’re struggling with something, and John says that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’.” So you’ll say, “I’m glad that you don’t struggle with ‘destroying rural economies for personal gain,’ Derek, but I do still want you to stop viewing pornography.”

And the good news is that we don’t have to lie ourselves anymore. We don’t have to try to convince ourselves that we aren’t every bit as sinful as we’ve always half-suspected that we were. Because John says, “I am writing you these things so that you may not sin.”

That’s pretty straightforward. And it’s weirdly something you don’t hear very often anymore, right? How often have you heard me, or anyone, step up into the pulpit and say, “My sermon this morning is called ‘Don’t Sin’”?

We tend to assume it’s a waste of time to even bring it up. We know that everyone still struggles with their “sin nature,” so we assume that no one’s actually finding freedom from the sinful patterns that they struggle with. We assume that the guy who’s been addicted to pornography since George Bush’s presidency is going to stay that way till he kicks the bucket. You assume that your mom is never going to stop Being Mean To Waitresses. You assume that your uncle is going to continue Narrowly Avoiding Getting Busted For Tax Evasion until the day you preach his funeral.

These things are not autobiographical, by the way.

But John says “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” That’s big. Because among other things, that means that not sinning is an option. When your server hasn’t offered to refill your water in over five minutes, you don’t have to ask for the manager to complain about them. You don’t have to yell at your spouse. You don’t have to under pay your employees, like James ranted about a few weeks back in James chapter 5 – because not sinning is an option for us now, in a way that it wasn’t quite an option beforehand, because Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected to “raise us up” from our “deadness in sin.”

So John says that, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” John says, “He himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of whole world.”

Plenty of people spend their whole lives beating themselves up because they can’t purge themselves from all sin, no matter how hard they try. But this is different: When you have been raised up with Jesus, you live in a forgiveness that never runs dry, and that endless supply of mercy sets you free to devote yourself to obeying God’s commands instead of breaking them.

And that’s counterintuitive. Because there’s no “threat of punishment” there. John says that “Jesus is our Advocate with the Father,” and that means that we’re not in danger of “condemnation” when we stumble. Because the righteousness of Jesus is “credited to us,” and his righteousness takes away any threat of punishment from God.

And I’ve had a handful of conversations where this was the hang-up we ran into: Somebody would say, “I don’t think I can worship a god who doesn’t threaten to punish me when I fail him.” They’d say, “I don’t want a God who forgives me preemptively.” People will say, “I have no reason to obey that God.”

In some cults, they teach that it would be “reckless” for God to forgive us “fully,” “freely,” and “forever” on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our sins. But the substitutionary death of Jesus in our place is anything but reckless: Because think back to your own life – be honest with yourself, here – how many times has the “fear of punishment” actually changed what you are? Can you think of a single time?

Sometimes, the “threat of punishment” can change your behavior – it can cause you to not do something instead of doing it – but it can’t change your nature. Our problem is not that “Sometimes, We Fail God.” Our problem is that there is something deeply, horrifyingly crooked in us, and that “deep, horrifying crookedness” shows up in every single corner of our lives. Our problem isn’t that we have a flat tire, it’s that we’re hemorrhaging transmission fluid.  

You’ve probably met somebody with an old beat-up car who had to open up the hood and shake their engine a little bit get it to start. That was my first car, there towards the end. You can do that for a while. It won’t fix the car, though. The “threat of punishment” can change our behavior, but it can’t change our nature. It can’t fix what’s wrong with us. It won’t “cure what ails us.”

But Jesus changes our nature by forgiving us before we had a chance to “clean up our act,” so we obey him out of gratitude instead of fear. That’s why John says that “The way we can know that we’ve come to know God is by keeping his commands”: When God saves you through faith in Jesus, he gives you the Holy Spirit, and you start to want different things than you wanted when you were “walking in darkness.” You start to “love what God loves.” You start to “want what God wants.” Over the course of your life, you’ll start to “keep God’s commands,” almost on reflex, because that’s the thing the Holy Spirit is training your heart to gravitate towards.

So John says that “Whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is perfected.” Friendship with the “God of Light” will ruin your relationship with the darkness that you used to love. So John says that “The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.”

And none of what John is telling us here is new: “Love thy neighbor” goes back to Moses and beyond, right? But there’s a way in which it is new. Because “the darkness is passing away.”

Since “The Fall,” in Genesis chapter 3, the world’s been filled with “a thick darkness.” And we were part of that darkness. It wasn’t just that “there’s evil in the world.” We were part of the evil that’s in the world. We participated in the darkness and kept it going.

So The Problem Was Us. But Jesus Christ is “cleansing us of all unrighteousness,” so we’re not only forgiven for our part in keeping the world dark, we’re also being healed of all the darkness left in us. So these commands that used to do nothing to keep us from sin are different now that God is “cleansing us from all unrighteousness.”

And if God’s changing us from the inside out, one of the things that’s going to happen is that we’re going to “love our brothers” in a way that we couldn’t when we were “walking in darkness.” Because if we’re “abiding in God,” like John says, it’s kind of like gutting that old car your friend used to drive: He replaces our old “parts” with new “parts.” He replaces our old idols, our old, addictions; whatever it is that keeps you from loving your brother – I don’t know what it is, but you do – God’s coming for it.

Whatever “causes you to stumble,” whatever that thing is that helps you to not love your brother, God’ll purge it from you, because he promised to. When you asked him to “cleanse you of all unrighteousness,” you put your idols on God’s hit-list, and he will heal you in ways you didn’t know you needed to be healed, because like John said at the beginning of the passage, “God is light and there is absolutely no darkness in him,” and when he’s finished with his work in us, we will be “light,” and there will be “absolutely no darkness” in us. And your role in that is just to “turn over the keys” to that process while God opens up your eyes to idols you never knew you had.

And that’s actually a very sweet process. Because the “threat of punishment” can make you guilty in ways that make you scared, but when God is “cleansing you of all unrighteousness,” that’s a different kind of guilt. It makes you “happy” with a kind of happiness you never knew to want, because it purges you of “misery” you never knew was misery. It’s a sweet guilt, not a bitter guilt.

We do something called the “altar call” here. The altar call is never not awkward, but here we are: If you feel like I’ve been talking about you for a half-hour, then, without knowing it, I probably have. “God is light, and there is no darkness in him,” and when we “turn over the keys,” he will heal us from the darkness that we’ve been walking in, that we were “born into.”

And if you’ve been “walking in darkness,” then we’ve been praying for you, that you’d throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, that you’d “turn over the keys” to be rescued from the “darkness,” since John says that “the darkness is passing away.” So as we start to sing, I’m going to awkwardly stand at the altar for a few minutes, and you can come talk to me.

The altar isn’t magic. What happens when you “come to the altar” is that we have a conversation. I’ll walk you through the process of throwing yourself on God’s mercy, and then we’ll pray together. If you don’t want to come to the altar, that’s okay. You can flag me down after church. We can nail down a time to meet. And we’ll talk through the process of laying your sin and your pride and your brokenness at the feet of Jesus.

Let’s pray.

‘What We Lost In The Garden’ – 1 John 1:1-4 – March 17th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John, chapter 1, verses 1-4.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life – that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the Eternal Life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us; our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

Let’s pray.

*

John opens his letter saying that “Jesus was from the beginning.” That’s a strange sentence. But it’s something John fixates on in nearly everything he writes, whether it’s the Gospel of John, or these letters, or the Book of Revelation. Revelation is basically “protest literature,” like the Letter From A Birmingham Jail, or something, but it’s all built on the idea that “Jesus existed before all of this stuff,” kind of like Paul says in Colossians, that “everything is created through Jesus, and for Jesus,” John says that “Jesus was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world” in Revelation 13:8.

And if you were a Jewish Christian, like John, you’d immediately recognize that Revelation is talking about the “Passover Lamb.” Like in the book of Exodus, when God was springing the Jews out of slavery under Egypt, God sent a series of “plagues.”

Each of the plagues serve two purposes: The less important purpose was that each plague targeted a different cornerstone in the “Egyptian economy” – so the Nile filled with blood, and it’s hard to get by without that; flies swarmed throughout the countrysides, which ruined most of their crops, and so on.

But even more importantly, scholars in the field of “comparative religion” have shown that each of the plagues that God enacts on Egypt roughly corresponds with one of the pagan gods that the Egyptians worshipped. And so a message comes through, if you are an Egyptian living during the time of “The Exodus,” that it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re the “Global Superpower” right now, you can only be “The Baddest Kid On The Playground” for so long, because the God of Israel is coming to liberate your slaves, and your gods can’t help you.

And so the final plague that God enacts on Egypt is to put to death the firstborn children in every household throughout the entire land. That’s horrifying. The nausea that you felt when I said that was the correct response. That’s the idea.

It wasn’t “fixed.” You weren’t doomed to lose your firstborn just by virtue of being an Egyptian. You don’t really get this from movies like “The Prince of Egypt,” but not one Egyptian needed to die in the process of freeing the slaves from their clutches.

God said, “I will spare anyone who covers their door post with the blood of a lamb on the night of the plague” – he would “pass over” their household – so Moses goes to Pharaoh and he warns him, and God gives Pharaoh one final chance to free the Israelites from slavery, and Pharaoh declines.

And so the Israelites spread the word about what’s happening, and the Book of Exodus doesn’t really go into details here, but reading through the history you get the sense they must have gone “street preaching” or something, because a bunch of their Egyptian Neighbors have caught on – after nine plagues – and said, “There is a God in Israel, and I want that God to be my God.”  So the Israelites and the Egyptians who listened to them cover their doorposts in “lamb’s blood,” and when midnight strikes, every firstborn in Egypt dies.

But for the Israelites, and for the Egyptians who believed, not one child was harmed. In “Southern-Baptist-speak,” they were “saved by the blood of the lamb.” That’s what religious Jews celebrate every Passover. It’s what we celebrate every Easter. And it’s what John frames his gospel around.

Because according to John, “Jesus is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” Jesus is like the “Passover Lamb.” What God is doing in Passover points to what God is doing in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So Jesus, obviously, wasn’t sacrificed for our sins before the world was created, but the way that John puts it, the decision was made: Jesus decided, before he “created the world for himself,” that he would come to Earth as a human, live a life that fulfilled all of his own requirements for us, and then allow us to murder him for our own sins. So Jesus becomes our Passover Lamb.

Because, on our own, we are like Egypt, because we work hard to keep the brokenness of this world on “life support.” If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we spend an astonishing degree of time and energy making sure that the world stays horrifying, right? And as with Egypt, a just God will see to it that we Get What’s Coming To Us. But Jesus is like the Passover Lamb, and when his blood covers us, we become like “the Israelites who were spared,” we become like “the Egyptians who believed them.”

So Jesus’s plan, from the creation of the world, was to rescue us from our sin by sacrificing himself for us: He is “The Lamb Slain Before The Foundation Of The World.”

And few weeks back I had a conversation with some Jehovah’s Witnesses who were evangelizing in downtown Wake Forest, and our hang up ultimately came down to exactly this. Because in some sense, they have very good theology: They make a big deal about Jesus as our sacrifice; they place a lot of stock on the fact that Jesus was a perfect human being who was able to take our sin onto himself because he didn’t have any sin of his own – and that’s right, but it isn’t right enough.

Because it’s absolutely true that Jesus is a “perfect human being.” It’s absolutely true that he’s able to take our sin on to himself because he has no sin of his own. But he is also God himself: Everything was created through Jesus, by Jesus, and for Jesus.

In verse three of John’s gospel, he says that “Not one thing that has been made was made apart from Jesus.” Jesus wasn’t a “creation,” he is “the creator.” So God couldn’t have just grabbed any “perfect man” or “perfect woman” off the streets and said “I’m going to punish you for the sins of humanity.”

When people say that God is unjust because of the Cross, they’re usually thinking about something like that: When people say that the death and resurrection of Jesus is “divine child abuse” – maybe you’ve heard that one – they’re usually thinking of something along those lines.

But Jesus wasn’t just an exceptionally good man that God plucked out of his living room and then punished for our sins. That would be horrifying. That’s the sort of thing that the Egyptian gods would do. That’s an awful lot like that short book The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where there’s a thriving city of people but their “thriving city” depends on there being one child, selected at random, who is tortured underground. This is not like that.

This is God himself. This is the God that we sinned against. Jesus is the God that we betrayed in the garden. He is the God whose face we bloody every time we sin against somebody else. Jesus is the person that you have personally wronged every time you’ve broken God’s commands, or broken somebody’s trust. Jesus is who you sinned against. So he’s the only one who can die in your place.

This is a stupid analogy, but I’m running with it anyway: The cross is not like catching your firstborn son breaking all your China plates and then punishing your secondborn son instead. It’s like catching your firstborn son breaking all your China plates and punishing yourself.

*

Throughout John’s life, he had a sworn enemy – which is funny, because John’s not really the kind of guy that you’d expect to have a “sworn enemy.” Every time his name comes up throughout the gospels or Acts, you get the sense that he was the “Fred Rogers” of the group, and what we know from the rest of history pretty much confirms that.

But there was a guy named Cerinthus who managed to find his way into his “crosshairs.” Cerinthus was a heretic from the first century who traveled around the empire knocking over most everything John and the other Apostles would build up.

Cerinthus and his cronies would set up camp in a village that had been evangelized and pretend to be associates of the Apostles. So they would tell new converts that they had a “unique revelation” that the apostles “hadn’t known about yet” when they first evangelized them, then they would spend a few weeks “hammering it into their heads.”

And so Cerinthus and his entourage would teach that “When Jesus came to Earth, he wasn’t actually a human”; that he didn’t really “put on human flesh and blood and bone,” subject himself to “disease and fatigue”; he didn’t actually “live in someone’s womb for nine months” and then go through the process of being born; that he didn’t really have to learn how to ride a bike, or build a table, or tend to the family farm.

According to Cerinthus, all of that would have been “beneath” the God of the universe. So he taught that Jesus was kind of like a “projection” of “God’s personality,” thrown up on a “projector screen” here on Earth. So according to Cerinthus, when villagers would encounter Jesus, they weren’t talking to a flesh-and-blood human being, they were talking to a “spirit,” like a “ghost,” or a “disembodied soul.”

Because Cerinthus and his people didn’t think that anyone with “human flesh,” and “human feelings,” and “human thoughts” could be perfect. Cerinthus believed that human persons were “damaged goods” that ought to be returned rather than repaired.

But John says that he “Saw Jesus, and he heard him, and touched him with his hands.” And that’s important, because you can’t touch a “ghost.” If Jesus couldn’t have flesh and blood and bone, John and the Apostles couldn’t “touch him with their hands.”

Jesus walked the Earth. He wasn’t a “magic spirit being.” He became a human like you and me. So when he obeyed God’s commands, he did it as a human like you or me.

It wasn’t like a video game; he didn’t do it on “cheat mode.” He obeyed by deciding to obey instead of sinning. He obeyed by following the guidance of the Holy Spirit and submitting to the commands that God had given through Moses and the prophets. So when he was crucified, sinless, it wasn’t a “cop out.” He didn’t save our souls “on a technicality.” The fact that he was God himself didn’t “cancel out” his humanity.

He played the same game we play, he lived the same life we live, on the same terms that we live in, with the same limitations that we face. But Christ was obedient where we were rebellious.

So when we crucified him, he wasn’t punished for his own sins – because he didn’t have any sin to be punished – he was punished for ours. All of my sin, for all of my life, was nailed to the cross with Jesus. And when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, we were raised up with him – and all of his obedience, over all of his life, was given to us. So as far as the scales are concerned, it’s as though you and I have always obeyed just like Jesus obeyed.

And that’s possible because Jesus came to Earth as a human. And we know that because John saw him and heard him and touched him with his hands.

*

John says, “We testify and declare to you the “Eternal life” that was with the Father and was revealed to us.” And that’s interesting, because a lot of us grew up memorizing John 3:16, which says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have ‘Eternal Life’.”

And when you isolate the verse off from everything else, and when you’re 6 years old, you get the sense that the verse is saying that “If you believe in God, instead of dying, you’ll not die, and you’ll keep not dying forever.”

I remember being six and hearing a rumor that “If you asked Jesus into your heart, God wouldn’t light you on fire for all of eternity.” We’d just learned “John 3:16” in our Children’s Sunday School Class, and the message was spreading quickly. And I didn’t really understand what the kid meant when he said “Ask Jesus Into Your Heart” – because what would you think that meant if you were six? – but I was excited about the prospect of Not Getting Lit On Fire, so I told my parents that I wanted to “Ask Jesus In My Heart.”

We talked to the pastor, he asked some probing questions that I apparently stumbled my way through answering correctly, and then he said it was time to get “baptized.” I didn’t really know what it meant to get baptized, but I knew that water was the opposite of fire, so it seemed like the obvious measure to take in my quest to not get lit on fire for all of eternity.

Because it’s easy to get that idea about “Eternal Life” when you bracket off verses like John 3:16 from the rest of the Bible. As though “Eternal Life” amounts to Not Getting Lit On Fire For Eternity, And Not Much Else. But reading through 1st John you get a very different idea: John writes that the “Eternal Life” was “with the Father” and then he “came to Earth,” and “we saw him,” and “we heard him,” and “we touched him with our hands.” “Eternal Life” is a person.

“Eternal Life” is Jesus Christ, and because God “loved the world,” he “sent his only son” so that “everyone who believes” in Jesus “won’t perish,” but instead they get Jesus.

You’ve heard this enough times already, but you’re going to hear it again constantly: The thing you get when you’re “reconciled to God” is you get God. The thing you get when God “sends his only son to keep you from perishing” is you get Jesus. When you get “Eternal Life” you’re getting God himself. You’re getting a person. You are getting What We Lost In The Garden. And what we lost in the garden was God.

Cerinthus didn’t care about that. Being reconciled to God wasn’t even on his radar. For the heretics that John was facing off against salvation meant not burning. It meant “overcoming your body.” It meant “enjoying a pleasant afterlife.” It didn’t have a blasted thing to do with being reconciled to God. And if you don’t want to be reconciled to God, you won’t be.

That was really the thing that kept me converting for 17 years: Once I was no longer terribly concerned that I was going to get “lit on fire,” I had no reason to go “groveling”  before that “Invisible Man In The Sky” that my grandparents talked about. I didn’t want to be reconciled to God, because that also meant obeying him. The problem with “believing in God” is that when you “believe in God,” it means that God isn’t you, and that your plans and hopes and dreams might have to change “according to his will.” And I did not want that.

What I wanted was to not get lit on fire. That was the extent of my interest in “God’s godness.” Because if being “reconciled to God” also means “submitting ourselves to him,” most folks have no particular interest in being reconciled. Encountering Jesus will either “Harden your heart,” like the Pharisees or the Rich Young Ruler, or it’ll “break open” the wall you’ve built around your heart, like it did with Zacchaeus, or the Woman at the Well.

When the Woman at the Well encountered Jesus, she went and told everybody in her village; she brought them back to meet Jesus and encounter him for themselves. Witnessing Jesus caused her to become a witness” to other people. When Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, he witnessed to everyone he’d ever wronged by “righting the wrongs” he’d done to them: He was a tax collector who stole money from the poor, so he righted the wrongs that he had committed against them by paying back four times what he had taken from them.

And this wasn’t just “guilt doing its work,” although I’m sure he felt plenty guilty for the things he’d done; this was what we call repentance. This is the way the Holy Spirit begins to mold your behavior when you’ve encountered the “Eternal Life” that is in Jesus Christ and responded in faith.

And for the same reason, John and the other disciples now “bear witness” to the things that they “saw and heard and touched with their hands” during Jesus’s ministry. The people who encountered Jesus became witnesses, and, as a result, the gospel spread rapidly into every corner of Galilee, and then into every corner of Palestine, and then into every corner of the Roman Empire, and beyond.

To this day it’s one of the great “anomalies of history,” sociologists and historians are still writing lengthy books and getting grants to research all the particular reasons why Christianity spread throughout the empire and pretty much swallowed up the culture.  

And the common denominator seems to be that the earliest Christians were disciples who made disciples who made disciples. It’s exactly that simple.

Like John says in verse 4, they would bear witness to the “Eternal Life” that is in Jesus Christ “so that their joy could be complete.” Over time, as the Holy Spirit works on your soul, different things begin to make you “joyful.”

God doesn’t just begin to take away your selfishness, or your cruelty, or your greed, he shapes you into someone whose joy can only be “complete” through obedience. So your joy can only be complete by “following God’s good commands,” by fellowshipping with God’s people, by immersing yourself in God’s word.

And eventually your joy can only be complete by sharing the good news of Gods great kindness to us through Jesus Christ with other people. And when a whole group of people have that posture, what happens is that the world starts to tip and then turn right-side-up.

If you want a bird’s-eye view of how this plays out, read through the book of Acts. Because what we see in the book of Acts is that believers would congregate and leverage their resources to canvas the whole city, regularly – even obnoxiously – adopting their nearby regions as a “mission field” of their own.

Because for every Paul, there were thousands of Priscas and Aquilas – folks who stayed home, and turned home into a place where God’s people were multiplying daily. We hear a lot about the “traveling missionaries” from the first century (like Paul) because they wrote most of the New Testament as aids for their traveling ministries. But the actual life-blood of the earliest Church was the normal folks with nine-to-fives and a relentless commitment to evangelizing their own city while Paul and his associates traveled the world.

As you read through the book of Acts and you read about what John and Paul and Peter and others have gone before us in doing, you see that the folks who turn the world right-side-up with the gospel are usually not the “Billy Grahams,” they are the “Bill Jeffersons,” who run a shop downtown and make $44,000 a year, and have no leadership position in their Church, and pay their taxes, and babysit their grandchildren, and regularly invite their neighbors and co-workers to their house, and regularly talk to them about the gospel, and regularly volunteer themselves to help in their time of need, and regularly force themselves into situations in which they “become witnesses to the Eternal Life that is in Jesus Christ” in their own home and their own neighborhood and their own city and their own community. What Louisburg, North Carolina needs from us is for us to be that.

I’ll be at the front, as we sing. If you are not friends with the Jesus that John is talking about, here, Come talk to me while we’re singing. I’d like to be the person who walks you through the process of turning yourself over to Jesus to be forgiven for your sins and adopted into God’s family.

Let’s pray.

‘We Are Going To Be More Than Okay’ – James 5:9-20 – March 10th, 2019

If you’ll turn in your Bibles to James chapter 5, verses 9 through 20, James says:

Brothers, do not complain about one another, so that you will not be judged. Look, the judge stands at the door!

Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience. See, we count as blessed those who have endured. You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful.

Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. Your “yes” must be “yes,” and your “no” must be “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.

Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone cheerful? He should sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours; yet he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the land. Then he prayed again, and the sky gave rain and the land produced its fruit.

My brothers, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his life from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Let’s pray.

*

So, I have titled this sermon, “We Are Going To Be More Than Okay,” and I brought the receipts to back up that claim. If you’ve been here for the last five sermons, it won’t surprise you when I say that the reason “we are going to be more than okay” is because, in James’s words, “We have been given a new birth by the message of truth, so that we might become the firstfruits of God’s ‘new creation’” – that’s chapter 1, verse 18.

But that process, of being “More Than Okay,” is going to be grueling. In verse 10, James says, “Brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name as an example of suffering and patience.” That’s a very ominous piece of reassurance. He says, “We count as blessed those who have endured great suffering.” I don’t know what that’s going to look like.

We’re fortunate, because we’re not dealing with anything like with the earliest Christians were dealing with. We don’t have an emperor Caligula, we don’t have a Nero. No one in the United States of America is using us as “human candles.” Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t uncommon for whole groups of Christians to have their churches lit on fire and their pastors tied up and drug across a gravel road by Klansmen and city councilmen, but that was usually persecution of Christians by Christians. That was uniquely horrifying situation, and we don’t have that.

But there’ll always be something to endure.

If what you endure seems small in comparison to getting eaten by lions, that’s fine. It might be. Your trials might be comparatively small, but they don’t not matter. All of your suffering is suffering. All of your pain is pain. There’s an old hymn that says “The Lord collects our tears in bottles,” and it’s true. God sees your pain. It doesn’t have to be like other people’s pain. God sees it because it’s yours. And he cares.

Like we’ve talked about before, when we are suffering “in Christ,” our suffering changes. It becomes one way that God molds us into the image of his Son. Our suffering becomes a tool that God uses to sanctify us, to heal us from our sin, to turn us into “vessels that please him.”

But that doesn’t mean God enjoys our suffering. That doesn’t mean your suffering is good. That doesn’t mean our suffering is something we should “just shut up and take.” It means God cares about your suffering. And he will help you to endure.

So your sickness, your poverty, your medical bills, your lost children – your sufferings are sufferings, and you can look to the people who suffered before you. Because even if their suffering was “bigger,” their suffering was suffering, and you have that in common. And so the prophets have gone before you. Job has gone before you. And Christ has gone before you. James says “The Lord is very compassionate and merciful,” and his compassion and mercy take shape when he joins us in our sufferings.

So the displaced Jewish Christians under James didn’t suffer alone, and they didn’t suffer for nothing. Because their suffering was a vehicle God used to mold them more deeply into the image of James’s brother, Jesus. So James says, “You have heard of Job’s endurance and have seen the outcome from the Lord,” because we know from the story of Job that our suffering is different under a God who is “compassionate and merciful.”

And the Book of Job is actually more relevant to James’s point than it seems up front. Like we keep coming back to throughout the series, James is easier to understand if you keep the things that James is assuming in the back of your mind. I think the King James Version puts the passage the best, in Job 19:25-27, Job says: “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the Earth, And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes Shall Behold, and not another, Though my reins be consumed within me.”

Job is speaking two or three thousand years before the birth of Jesus, and his great hope, that sustains him through his suffering, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because the resurrection of Jesus Christ means his own resurrection, too. Job will be raised up with Jesus on the third day just like you and I were raised up with Jesus on the third day. And that changes our sufferings.

It changes a lot of things: Because we have been “given a new birth,” therefore James says in verse 9, “Brothers, do not complain about one another.” And that tends to go down rougher than most of the other sins that James warns us against. Because what passes for wisdom here in our part of the world just assumes that you’ll be at odds with your neighbor for the “long haul.” Right? There’s not a sitcom currently airing that doesn’t have at least one character whose entire role is to be obnoxious for a minute or two, then leave so that the main characters can humorously complain about them for a few minutes. The result is that we’re just kind of born into the assumption that there are some folks we’ll never be on good terms with, so we might as well just complain about them.

Because complaining is a social lubricant, you know what I mean? The other night I was at dinner with some old friends, and we spent a solid half-hour complaining about some folks we’d known in college, not because that was edifying, or even particularly enjoyable, but because it’s easy, and it comes naturally. We’re just “soft-wired” to complain about one another.

The problem is that complaints are kind of like sermons. At least in the sense that our complaints reveal a little bit about what we expect from one another. Our constant complaints about certain people tend to be a subtle concession that we never really plan or hope to be reconciled to them. That we never really hope to be friends with them. That we’re really not hoping to share a life together with them on the other side of the final resurrection.

When I complain about my neighbors, or former roommates, or distant family members, I am preaching a rather eloquent sermon about how little interest I have in relating to them as sisters or brothers in God’s family. And James’ advice is really intricate: He says “Stop complaining about each other.”

The problem for me, though, is that I don’t want to. I don’t want to stop complaining about the Annoying Guy At The Office. What I want is a scapegoat. I want somebody, who isn’t me, that I can pour out my fury and dissatisfaction onto.

Complaining about one another gives us an outlet where we can focus our unhappiness and then fire away, right? It gives us somebody that we can take a metaphorical bat to until we feel just a little bit better about our own lives. But James says, “Brothers, stop complaining about one another because the judge is standing at the door.”

So, what we desperately need is to see our neighbors differently, to see one another differently. Not Complaining About Our Neighbors requires us to want different things than we currently want. And the good news is that we’ve been “given a new birth together by the message of truth,” and it turns our relationships right-side-up

So the Holy Spirit will change our hearts towards each other. He will move in us so that we stop complaining about each other and instead become invested in one another’s well-being. We are going to be More Than Okay because God is going to turn our hearts from hearts that do not love one another into hearts that love one another more than we love ourselves. It’s coming. Prepare yourself for it. Prepare your heart to be changed by the Holy Spirit, because you’re going to be more than okay.

And that changes our relationships, so we no longer have to “complain” about each other but instead “build each other up,” and like we talked about a few weeks back, it changes our speech.

In verse 12, James says, “Now above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.” A lot of commentaries think he’s jumping from topic to topic, just trying to cram everything he can into the last few verses of the letter, but you have to see this along the lines of what James has been saying.

Think back to chapter three; think back to “The Sermon on the Mount,” when his brother, Jesus, told us not to make “oaths,” not to “swear by heaven or by earth.” Some Christians have taken that to mean that you literally shouldn’t make promises, or that you literally shouldn’t sign “contracts,” but that’s a little off the rails – obviously.

Because James and Jesus are telling us that because of the resurrection of Jesus – because we were “raised up with Christ” into “new lives,” as “new people,” with the Holy Spirit “living inside us” and “changing our nature” over the course of our lives – we really can become “honest folks” in a way that we couldn’t beforehand.

That same resurrection that changes our suffering into something different than it was; that resurrection turns us into people who can be trusted. And the obvious application to that would be that our neighbors should be able to trust us. We should be well known for being honest-by-default. So the Holy Spirit will spend the rest of our lives purging the dishonesty from us

And so we shouldn’t need oaths. We shouldn’t need promises. For so much of history, “oaths” and “promises” and “covenants” and “contracts” existed because they knew that you couldn’t count on a person to keep his word if you didn’t “get it in writing,” with penalties in place if he broke it. But we have been “raised up with Christ.” The dishonest men and women that we used to be are “buried in a tomb in Palestine.” But we’ve been brought up out of that tomb with Jesus.

And so, obviously, we’ll make contracts – for a phone plan, etc. But we submit to the Holy Spirit as he molds us into people for whom oaths and promises are redundant. We allow the resurrection of Jesus to turn us into people who embody the trustworthiness that oaths are meant to artificially enforce. Every corner of our lives are brought together under ministry of the Holy Spirit. Christ heals us from what we were, and then knits us together.

In that first sermon, I said the whole letter of James is basically a laundry-list of applications for chapter 1, verse 18, and now we’ve walked through the whole letter and you know what I’m talking about. It says, “We have been given a new birth by the message of truth so that we might become kind of firstfruits of God’s new creation,” and therefore in verse 13, James says, “Is anyone suffering? He should pray.” That’s what we do at the church every Wednesday, and it’s what we do in our homes every day of the week. Because Christ heals us through his death and resurrection, but that’s a different sort of “healing” than we probably asked for.

Now and then, we get a glimpse of the way that Christ will heal our bodies in the “new heavens and the new earth,” but most of the time the “healing” that we experience on this side of our “final resurrection” means we still get sick; we still deteriorate as we age; there are still days where we can’t get out of bed.

Like Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, there’ll be days when you wake up and wish you hadn’t. All of those things are constant realities for us, and Jesus never promised to change that when we became his people. But James says, “Is anyone among you sick? He should call for the elders of the church, and they should pray over him after anointing him with olive oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will restore him to health.”

That tends to lead to confusion: it can feel like James is writing a check that the Holy Spirit won’t cash when he says that “The prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will restore him to health.” But if you look back through history, you get a good idea of how this actually played out: Within a handful of decades after the resurrection of Jesus, the church became the place you’d want to be when you got sick.

The early Christians under James believed that they had been put to death with Jesus and raised up with him together – and as “resurrected people,” they determined that they weren’t afraid of disease the way they used to be.

So in densely populated cities where disease was constantly at the door, the Christians became famous because they kept pooling their money to build additions onto their houses to function as free hospitals for the sick.

So whenever an outbreak would hit, people would Naturally flee the city. And that included The priests of the “god of healing,” named Asclepius; they would just kind of pack up their bags and head for the countryside where it was safer. But the Christians under the influence of James and Paul, and Peter, and John, would stick around, man the hospitals, and care for the sick.

And that tends to have an effect on people – when last week they were cheering while your brother in Christ was getting torn up by a lion at the coliseum and this week you’re nursing them back to health because the government and the god of healing have both left them out to dry.

For James’s communities, “Pray for the sick” always carried the implication that your “prayers” included your concrete involvement in making sure they received the medical attention they needed. Kind of like James says, “Faith without works is dead,” in chapter 2, you could summarize him here by saying, “Prayers without action are usually meaningless.”

So divine intervention really happens. God really does heal people miraculously, sometimes. But unlike the old pagan cults, that has never been the norm. That’s never been the primary way that the God we meet in Jesus Christ works.

The old pagan gods, like Asclepius, thrived on sprawling promises about how they would “heal your diseases” and “keep your pigs from dying” and “make sure your crops never flooded,” and so on.

Because The old pagan cults were all exercises in “cozying up to the gods” to get them to “cast their vote in your favor,” to try and manipulate the supernatural forces of the universe into solving your problems. But the God we meet in Jesus is not like that.

Because rather than zap all of our problems away like the old gods promised to (and never actually did), this God worked more like “the hand inside a glove” that Miss Tanya Denton talked about a few weeks back in the children’s sermon: Occasionally, he would heal your sickness; now and then, he would part the Red Sea; but normally, he would do something much subtler, that got at the root of the problem in ways that simply “waving a magic wand” couldn’t.

So instead of simply healing everyone’s disease like Asclepius promised to (and never did), the Holy Spirit moved in the hearts of God’s people and possessed them to reach into their own pockets and find a way to provide what the people around them needed.

Benjamin Franklin liked to say that “God helps those who help themselves,” and that’s a clever way of saying that you should get a job, but the truth is that “God helps the helpless,” and the way that God helps the helpless, most of the time, is “by working in the hearts of the not helpless and possessing them to walk alongside the helpless and aid them in breaking out of the cycle of poverty.”

I know that there are some people, in some traditions, who will accuse me of “explaining away” what James says in this passage. There’s not much I can do about that. Some folks read this passage and the conclusion that they come to is that medical care is unimportant, that we can “pray our sickness away,” without fail – and that if God doesn’t “work a miracle for you” it’s because “you didn’t have enough faith.” If anyone has told you that, I’m sorry.

I want to be as clear as I possibly can: If your family member passed away, it wasn’t because you didn’t “pray hard enough”; it wasn’t because God looked down at you and said, “Ye of little faith.” It’s because the God we meet in Jesus Christ is not like the old pagan gods. When Jesus is talking to his disciples, he doesn’t say “Follow me and the bills will stop piling up.” He says the opposite. He says that “In this world, you will have trouble.” He says, “Things are going to get harder for you, not easier, if you follow me.” Expect that.

And so it’s cheaper to hold a weekly “Healing Service” on Sunday night than it is to devote a portion of your income to caring for other people’s healthcare needs. But take a wild guess which of those things the Christians under James’s leadership actually did. So when James said, “Pray over those who are sick, and the Lord will heal them,” he and all of his readers are assuming that there’s a doctor involved, and that you might not come away healed at all.

And he also understands that a lot of people will not be satisfied with that. Some people are so not satisfied with the way that God approaches our suffering that they “call it quits” on the faith entirely.

I get that: I have probably suffered the least out of most of the folks that I know, but complain the most about it. The world batters everybody, regardless of whether you’re rich or poor, whether you live in the “first world” or the “third world,” whether you hit the “genetic Lottery” or your body started falling apart when you were 15. But I came out of the womb having been dealt a pretty favorable hand – and yet it takes so very little to rattle my faith.

It takes a minor inconvenience. You know? Whatever I sound like in the pulpit, I assure you it takes all of 10 seconds for me to revert back into an 8th grader lamenting to his youth pastor that “My Girlfriend Broke Up With Me Does God Even Exist.” Right? We are catastrophically easy to draw away from the good news of the Gospel.

And among other things, that means that your unbelieving family members are not your fault. They know you better than I do. They grew up with you. They’ve seen you from angles most other people don’t even know about. It’s very difficult to hide your jacked-up-ness from them. And if they lost their faith, it’s easy to torture yourself by playing the “Greatest Hits” reel of every mistake you’ve ever made in your head and finding a way to convince yourself that you are the reason they have abandoned the Lord.

An obvious disclaimer: if you abused your children, if you cheated on your spouse, if you were the pastor of a church and you embezzled church money on a weekend getaway in Vegas where you married a stripper and paid off seven members of the Russian mob – I’m just spit-balling here – then you might be partly responsible for somebody else’s loss of faith.

But if you made the very normal, baseline mistakes that everyone on planet earth makes when they try to raise a kid, or live with a spouse, or whatever, you are not responsible for your family member’s, or your friend’s loss of faith. They’ve made their decisions. You can have peace about that.

What you are responsible for is “drawing them back to the mercy of God.” You can’t change their hearts – you can’t cause them to repent and believe the gospel – but you are responsible for the folks in proximity to you.

Like Paul says in 1st Corinthians, the resurrection of Jesus changes what our life is about from this point onward. So whatever our old lives were about – where we used to complain about each other, where we used lie to each other – has been put to death, and our new lives in Jesus Christ are about bringing the gospel to every corner of the earth.

Our new lives are about inviting other people into the family we’ve been adopted into. And so those who fall away from the faith are our responsibility. As people who are going to be “More Than Okay” because of the “New Birth” that we receive in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is absolutely our responsibility to see to it that other people are also going to be more than okay.

So I want to address those who’ve “fallen away,” and I want to address those who have never thrown themselves on the mercy of God, like always. We believe that we are going to be more than okay because Jesus died on the cross for our sins and then raised us up with him on the third day.

We want to spread the gospel into every corner of Louisburg, North Carolina. And if you’ve never surrendered in faith to Jesus Christ, then you are one of the corners that we want to spread the gospel into. So we’d like to invite you to join the family of God. To be born again into the family that we’ve been born again into.

We’re about to do something called “Communion,” or “The Lord’s Supper.” What it means is that, like in Luke chapter 22, when Jesus broke bread with his disciples and said, “This is my body, and it’s going to be broken for you,” and then he shared his wine with them and said, “This is my blood, and it’s going to be spilled for you,” in the same way, today, we share bread and juice as an image of the communion that we have with God together because of the forgiveness and reconciliation that Jesus purchased for us through his broken body and spilt blood on the cross.

But If you haven’t thrown yourself on God’s mercy to have your sins nailed to his cross, then that is not true about you. And we want it to be.

And so before we share the bread and juice together, I’m going to stand at the front while we sing the invitation hymn. And you can come down the aisle and have a conversation with me. And I’ll walk you through the process where you can put your faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, to be born again into the family of God, to be More Than Okay. We want the story that we are about to remember together in Communion to be true about you.

So let’s Pray.

‘Be Patient Until The Lord’s Coming’ – James 4:13-5:8 – February 24th, 2019

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So it is a sin for the person who knows to do what is good and doesn’t do it.

Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you. Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You stored up treasure in the last days! Look! The pay that you withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts. You have lived luxuriously on the land and have indulged yourselves. You have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned—you have murdered—the righteous man; he does not resist you.

Therefore, brothers, be patient until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth and is patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.

Let’s pray.

*

So, my grandma has the text picked out for her funeral sermon. She doesn’t want a traditional eulogy. She wants a “Revival Service.” When Mary Foster passes away, she wants an “old time, fire and brimstone” revival sermon, out of a passage in Joshua, complete with a “call to repentance and faith” and an “altar call,” which will be interesting.

I haven’t written it yet, because I really don’t want to think too hard about Mary Foster’s eventual death right now, but she’s got none of the qualms that I have about it. She’s at ease with the reality that she is going to die one day.

And for her, it’s not about “going up to heaven where she doesn’t get sick anymore,” and she “never has to watch another golf game with my grandpa.” The thing she wants is to “see Jesus face-to-face.”

She wants to sit with him and rest, with a rest that we can’t have when we aren’t with him, with that rest that comes with “sitting on God’s couch,” with God himself, and just having a good cry, because everything you went through on Earth was leading to this, and now you’re here, and God’s here, with you, and he isn’t leaving, and you’ll never be apart from him again. That’s the thing she’s looking forward to.

And so those books you see on all the bestseller lists – the ones you can buy at airport book stores, about kids who went to heaven and came back to tell us all about it – are usually about 20 or 30 degrees off in the way they describe the afterlife.

Because they talk a whole lot about being reunited with your family, about the “great, big mansion” you get, about seeing your childhood dog, and eating all your favorite foods and singing all your favorite songs from the Baptist Hymnal – but those things will be secondary, at best, when the day comes.

Because when I cross over the other side of death the thing that will capture my attention and my affections will be God himself. In the final resurrection, we will glorify God together by enjoying him together.

The thing that will bring us joy and pleasure and happiness will be God himself. Just being with him will satisfy us in the way that all the things we currently use to satisfy ourselves can’t. God will be the source of our joy, and our happiness, and our satisfaction, and so the way that we relate to each other will happen out of the overflow of our overwhelming satisfaction in God.

God created us to multiply his own joy and satisfaction into other creatures that weren’t himself, and on the other side of death, when we’re reunited with him, face-to-face, we will be joyful with the joyfulness that is in Jesus Christ.

We will be satisfied with the satisfaction that is in Jesus Christ. And that will make us more intimate with one another – not less – because our “intimacy with one another” and our “intimacy with God” have become somehow the same thing.

And Mary Foster knows that however painful and terrifying her eventual death will be, that’s the thing that’s on the other side of it, because she has been saved by God’s grace, through the death and resurrection of Jesus for her sins.

So she has the text for her funeral sermon picked out, and she has instructed me to preach a revival sermon instead of a eulogy, because she wants everyone she knows well enough to invite to her funeral to be clearly presented with the gospel.

She wants to share an intimacy with them that is beyond the bounds of what’s even possible on this side of death, and she wants them to join her in worshipping Jesus together and enjoying him forever. And when you have that eternity in view, that changes the way you spend this temporary period.

But I really don’t think Americans understand that they’re going to die. You know what I’m talking about? James says, “We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring, or what our lives will be. Because we’re like a smoke that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

One of the side-effects of living at this particular point in history, in this particular part of the world, is that we have temporarily escaped the uncertainty that used to surround our sustenance. Not that long ago, a bad winter meant you didn’t have a harvest, which meant that your family died of starvation. That was just a fact of life.

Since the “Industrial Revolution,” the invention of the Steam Engine, the rapid influx of new technologies has temporarily put us in a place in which we can make abundant quantities of food, and then store them for long periods of time without spoiling. And it’s made life unfathomably easier for those of us who are fortunate enough to exist at this particular moment in time.

So we won the lottery. And that particular fortunate turn tends to obscure our thinking: Because as a result, it has never been easier to assume that our prosperity is purely the result of our hard work; it has never been easier to be an atheist; it has never been easier to stand up and declare, without a hint of irony, that we are “self-made,” that we don’t owe anything to anyone, that God’s “got nothing to do with it.”

So as a 21st century American, it’s easy to forget that you “appear for a while and then vanish.” James says, “We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring, or what our lives will be. Because we’re like a smoke that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” And for James that’s good news, not bad news.

When you’re thinking about what to spend your time, your money, your energy towards, you’ll make very different decisions based on whether you’re half-way hoping to live forever or you’re fully expecting to not wake up again one morning.

In a passage that sounds like it belongs in a Bernie Sanders stump speech, James says, “Come now, you rich people! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming on you.” He says, “Your wealth is ruined and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your silver and gold are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire,” because “You stored up treasure in the last days!” So James was probably fun at parties.

But James’s issue isn’t “wealth, period.” James never tells us that we shouldn’t work hard for honest money, he never tells us that we shouldn’t save, he never tells us that we shouldn’t invest in our future. James takes issue with the way that the world teaches us to pursue wealth and then hoard it.

Some people think that since we’re gonna to die one way or another, “We might as well do what we want, because the good and the bad are both going in the ground.” James says, “The pay that you have withheld from the workers who reaped your fields cries out, and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord,” and he wouldn’t bother to say that if it wasn’t an actual issue they were dealing with. The rich folks in James’s day figured they could exploit whoever they needed to because the rich and poor were both going in the ground at the end of everything.

And in a way, that’s true: Mother Teresa died, and Hugh Hefner died, and they have that in common. But Mother Teresa genuinely understood that we are “like a smoke that appears for a while and then vanishes.” So instead of pulling a Hugh Hefner, and saying, “Next month we will go into the city and we will multiply our riches,” she spent her life seeking out what is good, and then pursuing it alongside the body of Christ with however much time she had.

We get an image of what James is talking about in Luke chapter 12, when two brothers come to Jesus, and they’re arguing over their inheritance. Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who had a good harvest, and then another one, and then another one.

So he keeps building bigger barns, and he finds a way to store each new harvest without spoiling, and eventually he’s got all this capital just piling up in his barns. And he says, “I’m set. I can retire.”  But one night, God comes to him and says, “You’re a fool. You’re dying tonight, and none of the wealth you’ve amassed will help you.”

Jesus says, “That’s how it is with those who store up treasure for themselves and are not ‘rich toward God’.” It looks conscientious from the outside. But it’s a bait-and-switch.

It stems from assuming that we’re “self-made.” But the truth is that whatever wealth we have or don’t have, is a gift from God. The “wisdom of the world” says “hoard your wealth, because you’ve earned it.” But James says to weaponize our industriousness, so that during the very short time period where we have a pulse, our industriousness benefits our neighbors and each other. 

We get a glimpse of how this works in Matthew chapter 6 and Luke chapter 11, when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, and he says, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sin, as we also forgive those who sin against us.”

And it helps us understand James a bit better, because the prayer that Jesus modelled for us says “Give us our daily bread.” And that’s the opposite of the old man with the storehouse. If you’re a first-century Jew listening to Jesus, the term “daily bread” is going to hit you differently than if you’re a twenty-first century American.

Because if you’re a first century Jew, living under a foreign empire, you’ll spend a lot of time rehearsing the story of the Exodus together, in the synagogues, at home, etc. You’re waiting for a day when God will bring about another Exodus to free you from your oppression.

So “Our Daily Bread” isn’t just a generic term that refers to the food we eat every day, although it does mean that. If the story that you’ve grown up hearing is the story of “The Exodus,” of Israel’s time wandering in the wilderness and waiting for the Promised Land, then you’ll be intimately familiar with the story of “The Manna that God provided” to Israel in the wilderness. During Israel’s 40 years wandering outside the Promised Land, God didn’t leave them to starve. He gave them, “each day, their daily bread.” Like, literally – it rained from the sky. It rained bread. That’s how they ate.

And so if you’re an Israelite, wandering in the wilderness with Moses, you’d pray, again, each night, “Give us our daily bread again tomorrow. You brought us out of Egypt, don’t abandon us to starve in the wilderness.” So when Jesus tells us to pray that God would “Give us each day our daily bread,” God is doing something like what he did in the wilderness. He is providing “Our Daily Bread,” one day at a time.

That kind of rages against what we’re used to. But even today, in the middle of the abnormal prosperity that we’re temporarily able to enjoy, “Our Daily Bread” is still a gift from God: The non-perishable items that Elyse and I have stocked in the far drawer of our kitchen – leftovers from Hurricane Florence – those are “a gift from God.” I paid for it, with money, from my job, and that makes it easier to sustain the illusion that I’m somehow “self-sufficient.”

But the truth is that no one on planet Earth is self-sufficient. We are all sustained for a time by God’s blessing. We all live on “Daily Bread,” given to us “each day,” by “our Father in Heaven,” and then we die. That’s the timeline. And for James, that changes the way that we use our abundance.” It changes the way that we think about what we have.

I am “like a smoke that appears for a while and then vanishes,” so during my short time on earth my job is to steward my resources toward the mission that God has given us. And that’s a long-winded way of saying, “I’m going to die, so the inviting people into the kingdom of God is the things that my life is about.”

That means that whatever our jobs are, whatever we do for fun, whatever our income, we are all “local missionaries.” And as local missionaries, God “walks alongside us,” giving us “each day, our daily bread” to sustain us as we plough forward with “the Great Commission.” That’s why, in the same prayer, Jesus tells us to petition God, that “His kingdom come,” that “His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

And that’s a clever thing to tell us to pray for, because by petitioning God to see his will done “on earth as it is in heaven,” we are volunteering for the role of being his agents in bringing that about. We are “opting in” to the Great Commission simply by praying for it.

So James says “Be patient until the Lord’s coming.” And that’s a strange way to summarize everything we’ve talked about. Because when I think about being “patient,” leveraging my time, energy, and resources to bring about the spread of the gospel to every corner of the earth, and every corner of Louisburg, North Carolina – is not exactly what comes to mind. But James says, “Strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

Maybe in the old days “being patient until the Lord’s coming” meant sitting down, trying to “ride out the waves” that would splash up against us as life battered us.

But James is writing after seeing his adopted brother crucified by Rome, and then raised from the dead three days later, to tell everyone that “The wreckage brought about by our Fall is being undone.” That “We can be reconciled to God.” That “The world is being turned right-side-up.”

And so for James, “Be patient until the Lord’s coming” means something different than it would have beforehand. To “Be patient until the Lord’s coming” means to take the reality of our temporariness, and turn that into urgency in spreading the gospel. That’s why Mary Foster wants a revival service instead of a funeral. Because even in death, she wants to “make disciples of all nations.”

We are “like a smoke that appears for a while and then vanishes.” In between now and when we vanish, we will “patiently wait for the Lord’s coming” by inviting everyone we know to join the family of God. We pray that “God’s will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” volunteering ourselves as people who will surrender our time, energy, and resources to pursuing God’s will in Louisburg, North Carolina.

But, as always, I want to address the folks who haven’t thrown yourselves on the mercy of Jesus. We want to invite everyone we know, and don’t know, to join the family of God. We want invite everyone who hasn’t become God’s beloved son or daughter to be adopted into God’s family alongside us. And if you haven’t thrown yourself on the mercy of Jesus, then that’s you.

We do something called the “altar call,” here. That means that while we sing, I’m gonna stand at the front waiting for you. The altar call is a symbol. Walking from your pew to the altar will not do anything. The altar isn’t magic. Walking down the aisle isn’t a ritual you perform the earn God’s approval. What happens when you come down to the altar is that we have a conversation. I’ll walk you through the process of surrendering yourself to the mercy that Jesus holds out to you. We want to spread the gospel into every corner of Louisburg, North Carolina, and it’s entirely possible that you are one of the corners we want to spread the gospel into. If that’s you, come down to the altar and talk to me.

Let’s pray.

‘The Wisdom from Above’ – James 3:13-4:12 – February 24th, 2019

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.

Adulteresses! Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? So whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy. Or do you think it’s without reason the Scripture says that the Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously?

But He gives greater grace. Therefore He says:

“God resists the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.”


Therefore, submit to God. But resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts, double-minded people! Be miserable and mourn and weep. Your laughter must change to mourning and your joy to sorrow. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Don’t criticize one another, brothers. He who criticizes a brother or judges his brother criticizes the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

Let’s pray.

*

To paraphrase the eminent theologian, “Larry the Cable Guy”: Sin is like “having a dream that you’re drinking the world’s biggest Margarita” – which none of us would ever do, I know – “and then waking up to find salt around the edges of the toilet lid.” Sin is exhausting long after it’s thrilling. Because the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” that James talks about might “come naturally to us,” but it’s also painful.

James says, “Whoever is wise and understanding among you should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness.” And that’s an interesting phrase: You should show your works by “good conduct” and “wisdom’s gentleness.” I think somewhere, deep in ourselves, we’re desperate to be wise, and to be around people who are wise. There’s something in us that’s just desperate for “wisdom’s gentleness.”

It reminds me of a man I lived down the street from growing up, named Rick Carey. He was my physics teacher as a junior, and he’d gone to my church my entire life. He played Jesus in every single “Passion Play” we’d ever done, so everyone and their mom knew about Rick Carey.

But I didn’t get to know him until I was a senior. Because that year, my friend Seth Borkowski – which is a fake name I made up to protect the not so innocent – told me his parents were getting a divorce. His mom had discovered that his dad, Jeff, was having an affair, and when she confronted him about it, instead of doing any of the groveling, and excuse-making that you see in TV shows, he said, “The reason I’ve been cheating on you is that you aren’t young enough, or pretty enough, or thin enough, and she is.”

So Jeff moved in with his mistress, and the rest was history. Except it wasn’t, because the next time I saw him, he was sitting alone at his Seth’s wedding. Because the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” that used to thrill him had nothing for him in the long run. To quote the eminent theologian, Taylor Swift, “Sin is a nightmare dressed like a daydream.”

But after Seth’s dad left, Rick Carey, who had just retired as the physics teacher, essentially adopted him. He said, “Why don’t you start coming with me to the gym every morning.” So my friend started getting up at the crack of dawn and heading to meet Rick Carey to work out for hours on end. And then he started going to his house after school. And then they started reading books together, and studying the Bible together; and then Seth started going to more and more family gatherings with the Careys, so he started to become a part of Rick’s family. Nothing in the world will replace the family that you’re born into, that you hope holds together, but Rick became a kind of surrogate father when Seth’s biological father couldn’t see past his own “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.”

And it made a universe of difference, because the presence of somebody driven towards “good conduct” by “wisdom’s gentleness” gave Seth an anchor. And that’s one of the reasons that this Seth and I are no longer members in a particularly vulgar metal band called “Cannibal Catfish” – that was a thing that happened at one point; there are recordings, I might show them to you – and instead, today, Seth’s a deacon at his church, he just got married, and he’s discipling other young men who are going through the same sort of things he went through, with that same “gentleness” and “wisdom” that Rick Carey once poured into him.

Because James says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.” And like James says in chapter 1, “Any of us who are lacking this wisdom can ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to us.”

Because almost nobody is like Rick Carey. The people “whose works can be seen in their good conduct working through wisdom’s gentleness” are rare. But they don’t have to be. God’s not watching from on high, wincing at our lack of wisdom. He’s not “tallying up” each instance of ungentleness, just waiting to “call us to account” for each one.

James says it’s quite the opposite; that “God gives to all generously and without criticizing”; He’s eager to “sew the fruit of righteousness” and “peaceableness” in us, that we would “reap wisdom’s gentleness.”

And that’s not something I would ever think to ask for. Right? It’s not even on my radar. Like, when I first became a Christian, I would pray for things like “boldness,” I’d pray for “The Courage to ‘Stand Up for Jesus’,” or I’d pray for the ability to recite large sections of scripture from memory (which is good), or I’d pray that God would make me into someone who can “turn every single conversation into a gospel conversation.”

Because those are the kinds of things that are held up as virtuous in our particular cultural moment. And those things are virtuous. Those are important. But we need more than that. According to James, the gentleness into which “the wisdom from above” will shape us is the thing that will set us free from our addiction to “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.”

So James says “Why are there wars and strife among you? Because of the cravings at war within you. Because you desire and do not have, so you murder and covet but cannot obtain.” And I don’t think that James is wearing the “anti-war activist” hat, here; I don’t think he’d object to liberating the concentration camps.

Because almost everyone agrees there’s a difference between a just war and an unjust war. Except for the Roman empire, under whom James and the Jewish Christians he was writing to were “occupied subjects.” For Rome, there really wasn’t a difference between a “just war” and an “unjust war.”

Rome had exactly one criterion regarding what separated justifiable and unjustifiable war, and that was profitability: What did they gain? When you laid it out in an Excel spreadsheet, did the math bode well for you? Most of our high school history text books were filled with limp euphemisms that blunt the really horrifying realities of what it was like to live as a resident of the empire if you weren’t “wealthy” or “well-connected.”

The Empire paid for itself on the backs of subsistence farmers.” It wasn’t taxing “surplus,” it was taxing livelihood. They weren’t taking food out of your “storehouse,” they were taking it out of your mouth.

So when Rome needed money, they conquered one of the loosely-confederated nation-states nearby, or they’d put out a “census” of all the people at a fee that would annoy the average citizen and eviscerate the average sharecropper, or subsistence farmer, or merchant, or carpenter.

And those were realities James and his audience of Jewish Christians couldn’t ignore, because they woke up to them every day. They were staring them in the face at all times, because among those vanquished by Rome’s “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” were the Jewish people.

Rome was not the first Empire to conquer them, but they were the ones currently occupying them, and so every aspect of your life, as a Jewish Christian in the first century, was shaped by the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” of the Roman empire, and it was illustrated most vividly by the fact that you couldn’t turn a street corner without running into a soldier whose one job was to make sure you stay in your place.

But James says “What causes wars and strife among you?” And it’s a rhetorical question, because he immediately follows it up with “Isn’t it the cravings ‘at war within you’?” And that’s another way of saying “The call is coming from inside the house.”

So the Jewish Christians are victims of an empire that does not care about them, will not let them go, is not going to help them, and only values them t the extent that they can use them as a “human grocery store” from whom to draft soldiers and exact unbearably high taxes.

So if you posed the question to a group of first century Jews or Christians, “What causes wars and strife among you?” an eager fella from the back row might raise his hands and say, “Rome!” and James would say, “Wrong, mostly.”

Because Rome was a serious problem, but James is going for a different “jugular,” here. He says “Isn’t your primary problem that your own cravings are at war within yourselves?” “So you want, but you don’t have, so you kill for it.” That’s like saying, “The empire is inside you, just as much as it’s outside you.” It’s like saying, “There’s an evil empire in your heart-of-hearts, and it plunders everybody around it because it wants and doesn’t have.”

That’s about the most cold-blooded thing you could say to a Jewish Christian living in the empire: That you are like your oppressors in ways you haven’t noticed, because you didn’t want to notice, because you share something terrifying with them –   

That same “upside-down-ness” that makes your oppressor oppress you will make you do things that terrify you – or should terrify you – and maybe it already has, and if you don’t repent of your “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition,” you will forever occupy what amounts to a lower rung on the same ladder that Rome occupies.

And you don’t want to. Because God’s dousing that ladder with gasoline and then tossing a pack of Ohio Blue Tip matches onto it. And he should. Because that’s not a ladder that ought to exist. 

And in a situation like that, it could be tempting to resist the world by using the world’s methods. And it’s important that you don’t do that. Because if Satan can’t bait you into joining into the evils around you, the next best thing is to radicalize you against the evils of the world in a way that makes you every bit as worldly as they are.

But the wisdom from above that James is talking about never joins into the world’s cruelty, or the world’s brutality. As usual, you can understand the things that James writes about best when you hold them up alongside the things his brother Jesus did.

For example – in what is now known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus preached to a group of occupied Jewish peasant farmers, and his audience was filled with people who, legally, any Roman soldier could grab, confiscate away from his farm, and then force to carry his “military gear” for up to a mile down the road.

By law, they could only make you carry their pack for a mile, and then they had to send you home. But that was not a “benevolent” law. It was basic economics: There’s no point in having an conquered nation of peasant farmers that you can confiscate for free labor if they all die of exhaustion within a few years.

So the law limited the distance they could carry your military gear to one mile so that the Jews wouldn’t just all die, thus rendering them of no economic value to the empire.

And so Jesus says “When someone makes you carry their pack a mile down the road, carry it two miles.” That’s not “pure benevolence,” either.

Because “Going The Extra Mile,” as a general rule, is a good thing, and you should do it. But when you “Go The Extra Mile” for someone, you’re trying to help them in ways they might not have had the courage to ask you. You’re trying to bless them.

But when Jesus said “Go The Extra Mile” for these Roman soldiers, it wasn’t exactly a “blessing.” Because Rome took their Free Labor Peasant Farmer Work Force so seriously that anyone who threatened to cause their labor force to dwindle could be punished with death.

That means that if any soldier forces, or even allows, you to carry their pack for more than a mile, they could land the death penalty. So by carrying their pack an extra mile, you’re putting their life in danger.

And if you’re a peasant farmer, and a Soldier confiscates you from your family farm and makes you carry his military gear for a mile, then at the end of the mile, instead of giving his pack back to him, Jesus says “Just keep on carrying it a second mile while you’re at it.”  

And it’s not because he wants the soldier to die – although you might want the soldier to die. It’s because now you’ve put the soldier in a situation in which he has to ask you for his gear back.

And when you ignore him and keep going, he has to demand his gear back.

And when you ignore him again and keep going, he has to chase after you – and he’s starting to look kind of stupid.

And then, when you ignore him yet again and keep going, he has to start begging you for his gear back.

Because now his life is in danger, because now his life is in the hands of somebody he confiscated from their field and forced to perform free labor. “Going The Extra Mile” turned the tables on Rome in ways that rioting in Jerusalem didn’t.

Because as more and more Jews began resisting their occupiers by “Going The Extra Mile,” eventually it became more trouble than it was worth to kidnap them and steal their labor. The “risk factor” began to outweigh even the “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition” of the soldiers who used to steal them from their land and force them to carry their packs.

So this is a bit of that “Wisdom From Above” that James talks about, that fundamentally changed the situation in which his listeners found themselves.

While extremist groups like “the Zealots,” “the Sicarii” tried to resist Rome using the world’s methods – through violent retaliation, stockpiling weaponry and gathering up homegrown militias – the Jewish Christians under James would resist Rome without harming anyone.

And while the Zealots, and other extremist groups, dwindled as they lost more and more recruits in one violent uprising after another, the Jewish Christians under the influence of James put a spoke in the wheel of Rome’s economy by resisting them with a wisdom that was “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy, and good fruits,” in such a way that it became less and less “economically sound” to directly repress them.

The Zealots wanted to resist the oppression of the world by adapting themselves to the world’s methods, to the world’s cruelty, to the world’s brutality. But unlike the “Zealots,” the Jewish Christians refused to simply be a “lower rung” on the same ladder as Rome: James says, “friendship with the world is hostility towards God.” “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes the Lord’s enemy.”

But the “wisdom from above” draws a “line in the sand” between the love of God and the cruelty of the world.

So you’ll draw a “line in the sand” between yourself and that “spirit of unbelief” that’s at work in our culture that says that “People are only as valuable as they are productive,” that says “The difference between a person and a non-person is in whether or not they’re wanted.”

And that’s obviously at work in the ‘live-birth abortion bills’ that were passed in New York, and narrowly struck-down in Virginia, but it’s not contained to that one issue. So we need a “wisdom from above” that “draws a hard line in the sand” between the cruelty that passes for wisdom in our culture and the true wisdom that comes from God, which is “first pure, and then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy.” Because according to James, “Whoever wants to be the world’s friend becomes God’s enemy.”

And there’s good news, because God is more merciful than we could ever have imagined.

James says that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And on the face of it, that might sound like bad news for the “proud,” right? We just talked about how God “resisted the pride [of Rome]” by “giving grace to the humble” in the person of Jesus Christ, who climbed on top of the “Mount” and told a crowd of disaffected Jewish farmers exactly how to resist Rome like God resisted Rome – and over the long-haul it toppled Rome’s economy.

But when “God resists the proud,” that can also be good news for the proud. Last time I saw Jeff Borkowski, he was sitting at a table alone at his son’s wedding while his ex-wife and his children ate together at the “family table,” but that doesn’t have to be the way that Jeff Borkowski’s story ends.

A few months ago, I read a “human interest” article about a guy who gave a sermon at his church. He was a “layman,” but it was a special occasion – because it was the 10-year anniversary of the day he remarried his wife in that same sanctuary after having divorced her for one of her friends. So he opened his Bible to the book of Hosea and introduced himself to anyone who didn’t already know him.

He walked through the story of how God told the prophet Hosea to go “marry a loose woman” named Gomer, and then to “stick with her throughout her years of unfaithfulness.”

So after Hosea married her, things go exactly the way that you’d expect, and every time Hosea comes home from working the field, he finds her with a different man than the day before.

And she starts to gamble all his money away and neglect their children. And eventually he comes home and he doesn’t find her at all because she’s gone so deeply into debt that her “loan sharks” threw her in the back of their van and put her to work at the brothel as an indentured servant. So Hosea goes home, gathers up every cent he’s got, and buys her. And he brings her home, and puts her to bed, and says, “You safe, now, and you’re home.”

And after this guy finished the story of Hosea, he talked about how after his own divorce, the Lord worked in both of them, sanding down their pride and softening their hearts toward himself and towards each other.

So one day his wife asked him to meet for coffee, so they met for coffee. And then she invited him again, and then again. And “coffee” started turning into fully-fledged dates. And then “dating” turned into going to church together. And after learning to trust each other again over the course of a few very slow, very deliberate years, they married each other all over again.

Because “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble,” and the God we meet in Jesus Christ is eager to transform the proud into the humble. So James says, “Submit to God, but resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” “Drawing near to God, and He will draw near to you.”

Like James says in chapter 1, “If any of us lacks ‘the wisdom that comes from above,’ we should ask God, who gives generously to all without criticizing, and it will be given to us.” So Jeff Borkowski doesn’t have to spend the rest of his life sitting with his head in his hands because he threw his family to the dogs; the “wisdom of the world” will make you a victim of your own foolishness, but “the God who gives generously to all without criticizing” is eager to give generously to you, and to me, and to Jeff Borkowski.

He’s eager to “soften our hearts toward himself and each other” with “a wisdom that comes from above.” And that wisdom will cut through our foolishness, and our cruelty, and our selfishness, and our unbelief. And it’s usually a painful process – where James says “our laughter turns into mourning and our joy turns into sorrow” – but it’s also a fruitful process, in which James says we “humble ourselves before the Lord and He exalts us.” God will make Rick Careys out of Jeff Borkowskis.

And as always, I want to speak directly to anyone who hasn’t thrown themselves on the mercy of Jesus: James says that “there is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and destroy,” and God is going to do one of those things to you. A few weeks back, we said “The opposite of hell isn’t heaven, it’s holiness.” Jeff Borkowski’s hell is being Jeff Borkowski. And he’s either going to be rescued from the fire of his own unholiness by responding in faith to the mercy we find in Jesus Christ, or he’s going to spend an eternity locked up with all the cruelest, coldest parts of himself.

But the “lawgiver and judge” that James is talking about is out to save, not destroy. Like John 3:17, Jesus says, “I didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it,” God gives generously to all without even criticizing. When you surrender yourself to Jesus, he doesn’t flog you for the years you spent as a scoundrel.

He invites you into his house to take off your shoes and sit at his table. So if you recognized yourself in Jeff Borkowski, if you’ve been stumbling around, drunk on the wisdom of the world, I’ll be waiting for you at the altar. It’s not magic. It’s just an altar. But you can come talk to me while we’re singing. Or you can flag me down afterward. I’d love to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of God, to be adopted into God’s family, forgiven of your sins, and given a “wisdom that comes from above.”

Let’s pray.

‘The Tongue Is A Fire (But It Doesn’t Have To Be)’ – James 3:1-12 – February 10th, 2019

If you have your bible, please turn with me to James, chapter 3, verses 1 through 12.

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.

Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.

Let’s pray.

*

So, when I first told my family I wanted to “teach the Bible” for a living, my cousin said, “You know, there’s more money in Scientology.” My parents were excited, but some of my extended family was confused.

But that confusion quickly turned into curiosity: Another cousin asked if I was going to break up with my girlfriend at the time. And I said, “. . . No?” And she said, “Don’t you take a vow of celibacy when you become a minister?” And I said, “. . . No.”

And that was the beginning of an onslaught of increasingly bizarre questions: “Will I go to hell if I smush my chewing gum under the tabletops at the mall?” “Will I go to hell if I stole paperclips from my teacher’s desk in 1997?” “Will I go to hell if I drive 35 in a 55 zone?” And I was like, “No. No. Yes.”

People will place more stock on what you say when you’re a “teacher,” so it matters deeply that you don’t speak carelessly. But that can be a bad thing, because the standard that “teachers” are held to by most folks is the standard that everybody should be held to: The same way that you should be able to trust your teachers not to teach falsely, other people should be able to trust you.

But that’s difficult, because lying is as easy as breathing – right? Not lying is a lot of work. Because our default mode is rarely to be honest – with ourselves or anyone.

A psychologist could give you about a million different reasons why lying is so easy, and telling the truth is so hard, but the short version is that telling the truth is labor-intensive in ways that “bearing false witness” isn’t.

Telling the truth requires more focus. It requires you to cut through your own tendency to rationalize the things that happen to you to feel better about yourself. You know what I’m talking about?

Like, if I went to the store today, and I bought a popsicle, then came home, put the popsicle in the freezer, and watched fourteen episodes Seinfeld, it should be easy to say that when Elyse asks me what I did today.

But our natural inclination isn’t gonna be to say, “I bought a popsicle and watched TV for seven hours.”  We’re gonna find a way to describe our day that’s, maybe, half-true. So instead of saying, “I watched seven hours of Seinfeld,” we’ll say, “I did some research.”

Instead of saying, “I bought a popsicle, for some reason,” we’ll say, “I got some groceries.” But you didn’t get groceries, you got a popsicle. You didn’t “do some research,” unless you’re researching “Iconic Sitcoms From The 1990s.”

So that’s a lie. Don’t kid yourself. But you probably didn’t think about it that way, because you probably didn’t think about it at all. You probably didn’t decide to lie. It just came out.

You concocted a story to gloss over what you actually did as a way of avoiding embarrassment, or keep from getting yelled at, or whatever, almost completely without thinking about it. Because lying is as easy as breathing. And that’s a problem.

Because that means that what James is talking about runs deeper than just “How you talk.” Like we talked about a few weeks ago, when James or Solomon, or anyone, says something about “How You Talk,” they’re not Just “talking about the vehicle,” they’re “talking about the pilot.” Because what comes out of your mouth is you.

So it’s like the old saying: “A cup can only spill what it contains.” When God rebukes you about the way you speak, it’s an invitation to let him change what you contain. A command to change how you use your tongue is a command to change you.

That’s why, in Mark 7, Jesus says “It’s not what goes into you that defiles you. It’s what comes out of you” (vv. 17-23). You say and do the things you say and do because they’re the sort of things you would say and do. If something spills out of you, it’s because it was inside you.

Part of the reason Jesus always faced off with the Pharisees in the marketplace was that the Pharisees were passionate about ritual purity – so they demanded that every Jew follow a stringent set of guidelines for what they would eat and how they would wash themselves before and after eating.

And it wasn’t just because they were nerds, it was because their job was to shepherd the people of Israel through the act of “loving God.” So you loved God by not eating pork – it seems strange today, but there were reasons behind it; they weren’t just spit-balling – and you loved God by ritually washing yourself before eating.

And if you read closely, you’ll see this wasn’t really the thing that Jesus took issue with. They had added to the Law in order to help people love God extra-carefully by not even getting close to the line that barred off what God had prohibited, but their big issue, as Jesus puts it, is that they’d emptied the Law of its actual meaning.

There’s a reason that when scribes would come to Jesus and ask him what the most important command is, he’d always quote a passage from Deuteronomy that said “Love the Lord, your God, with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then he’d chase it with a passage from Leviticus, which said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the Hebrew faith, that was called “The Shema,” and if a Rabbi asked a Hebrew child to summarize the whole Law in the middle of class, he would have recited the Shema, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And the key, here, is that when children recited “The Shema,” they weren’t two separate commands. In Matthew 22, Jesus says “the whole law and prophets hangs on these two commands,” because, as they understood it, these two commands hung on each other. You love God by loving your neighbor.

So Jesus and the Pharisees had problems, because the Pharisees made a lot of ruckus about loving God by obeying the dietary laws and following elaborate rituals to wash themselves, but they put next to no emphasis on loving the flesh-and-blood human beings that God had entrusted to them. And if the Law is summed up in “Love the Lord your God and love the people he created,” you can’t keep the Law if you don’t love your neighbors.

And James is picking up the same train of thought as his brother when he says, “With our tongues we praise the Lord, our God, and we curse people he created in his image.” What we say to our neighbors reveals what we really think about God. You see where James is going with this? What we do or don’t do for our neighbors reveals how were really feel about God.

Because if we love God by loving our neighbors, then our love for God (or lack thereof) is visible in our love for others. Because you speak from the overflow of what’s inside you. It shows who you are. And if the way you talk about yourself and others is deeply crooked, the issue is that you’re deeply crooked and need to be mended.

So James chapter 1, verse 18, says that “We have been given a new birth by the message of truth so that we might become the ‘firstfruits’ of God’s new creatures.” God has given us a new birth. He’s giving us a “new insides.” He’s changing what we contain, so that different things “spill out” of us.

He’s turning us into a people who love their neighbors, not just in a sense that the world likes – where we theoretically love our neighbors, “deep down inside.” That’s a love that never does anything. It’s a love thing never manifests itself in what we do, or what we say. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t affect anybody’s life, and doesn’t help anyone, and doesn’t cost us anything.

This is a different love. God has “given us a new birth by the message of truth,” and it will make us into a people who “love our neighbors” in our speech; and loving our neighbors in our speech will change the way we see our neighbors day-in and day-out; and that change that God brings about in us will change the way that we act towards the people around us.

So we will become a people who love people visibly, and actively, in ways that cost us, in ways that change us, in ways that force us to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit. God will change what comes out of us by changing what’s inside us.

So James says that “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is able to control his whole body,” and if you take that super literally, that sounds kind of exaggerated. But the point is that your tongue is like the rudder of the ship, it’s like the bit you put in the horse’s mouth.

The way you talk guides the way that you act and think. You pull yourself in one direction or another based on the things that you say. If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t: When you get home from the office and you complain about your obnoxious co-worker; or when you get to the bar – I mean, the Men’s Bible Study – and you start complaining about your wife to men who have no interest in encouraging you to love her with patience and compassion; you’re not just making a decision about how you talk about them. You’re shaping how you think about them.

So it’s kind of like, years ago, when they first built this Community College in my area, they laid down the grass but they didn’t set up any walkways. And over the first two semesters the community college was open, students would walk along the grass without any guidance, and the ground would get lower and create a kind of unofficial pathway in certain places, because there were constant footsteps across the same spots.

And the Campus Planner would go and observe where the ground had consistently lowered, creating unofficial pathways were there hadn’t been one, and she had the contractors pave over those pathways that the students had created. Because the more you step over the same place, the more you burrow into the soil and create a pathway.

And in the same way, the more you return, and return, to speaking a certain way about other people, or yourself, or God, the more you’re “building a pathway,” and it becomes the pathway you return to on reflex, because it becomes what comes naturally to you.

And as it stands, we see ourselves and others through eyes corrupted by sin, and that changes our relationship with everyone. You don’t hear this from the pulpit that much, but sin makes you hate yourself. Am I right? And I’m not heading in the Joel Osteen direction. He’s right when he says that this is the Bible and you are what it says you are, but he’s not right enough.

Because when you see yourself through eyes corrupted by sin, you need more than just a boost in your self-esteem. Sin makes you hate yourself by slowly convincing you that in order to be significant, you have to do something important, or you have to be influential.

It’ll move you to find your identity in what you’ve accomplished, or how you look, or how much money you make. And when sin causes you to see yourself in that light, you’ll start to lie, to yourself and everybody. You’ll work hard to seem important, or powerful. And so the way you talk will reinforce the lies that sin plants in you.

And learning to see yourself differently means praying for a different set of eyes, so you can look at yourself, and you can look at other people, and you can speak God’s words over them instead of the world’s words.

So this is deeper than “self-esteem.” Because sin is at work in the deepest parts of us, we have to kind of “talk ourselves into” believing that we’re made in the image of God, and that that’s where we can place our comfort.

I went to church for almost seventeen years and didn’t have a good thing to say about God. And what changed, more than anything, was that I kept meeting people who talked differently than I did. And that sounds pretty insignificant. But I’m not just talking about people who “didn’t say the “F-word.” There were Church ladies I used to make fun of with other kids in the youth group – because we were just, uh, evil, or something. And they talked differently than me.

I’m not sure how to describe it, but Paul puts it into words pretty well in Ephesians 4:29 when he says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their need, so that it may benefit those who listen.”

There was a universe of difference between the way I talked and the way the church ladies that I laughed at talked. I have no idea what they said when they stubbed their toe, but what I do know is that encouragement just spilled out them. Gratitude just spilled on other people, because that’s what they contained. That was what they were.

They were grateful the God because of the great mercy they’d been shown, and that had slowly molded them into people who were grateful to everyone, for everything. To my knowledge I had done nothing for them, at least not on purpose, but I could feel their gratitude, towards me – for existing, for being here. It just spilled out of them in the way they talked.

And that messed me up. Because when the Bible talks about “cursing,” it’s talking about actual cursing. You can “curse” without saying any taboo words if the things that come out of your mouth are just cruel and ruthless. Or if you’re tearing people down with the things that you say, instead of building them up.

And I had a “cursing problem,” because the only way I could figure to be okay was to make other people less okay, like “okay-ness” was a zero-sum game where if I lost it was because somebody else won – like happiness was a “limited resource” that had to be “redistributed” according to merits, or power, or access.

And all I knew was that I didn’t have any of it, and I thought I might be able to “strip-mine” other people for it, so half the things I said were subtle insults, or bitter remarks; I would find ways to subtly chip away at your confidence, because I didn’t want you to love yourself, because I couldn’t love myself, because I didn’t want to love the Lord, because sin makes you hate yourself.

And I suspect that someone in here – I have no idea who, because only you know you in that way – has hated themself for years. And as a result, you’ve been “filled with curses.” They’ve “spilled out of you,” whether you meant them to or not.

James says that “The tongue is a fire,” but it doesn’t have to be. Because when we “throw ourselves on the mercy of God,” he saves us, forever, from our sin. There’s no wrath waiting for us.

But he also gives us “the holiness of Jesus,” a holiness Jesus earned on our behalf. So it’s “just as if we’d always obeyed.”

But it’s also a holiness we “grow into”. We become God’s children, God’s friends, God’s people because of the holiness of Jesus that God applies to us because of the death and resurrection of Jesus – completely unrelated to anything that we do. But he doesn’t stop his work there.

Because the holiness that God applies to us is like “a coat that doesn’t fit.” It hangs over our body because the arm holes are too big and the torso fits like a dress and the neck just swallows us up. But the Holy Spirit spends the rest of our lives “growing us into” the shape of the coat the Father drapes over us. So, one day, the coat fits.

The holiness of God, draped over us in Jesus Christ, becomes our own holiness. And one day we’ll recline at the table with God, and no longer be “filled with curses,” but instead what “spills out of us” is gratitude: Gratitude to God for the mercy he’s shown us in Jesus Christ, which “refracts outward” and turns into gratitude to everyone. “The coat God drapes over us” becomes the coat we wear at his table.

And on the other side of that, our tongues will no longer be a “fire.” Our tongues won’t be “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Our tongues will not be “a world of unrighteousness,” that “pollutes our whole body,” and “sets the course of life on fire.”

On the other side of what God is doing in our “new birth by the message of truth,” James says that we’ll be like “a spring that pours out sweet water instead of bitter water.” We will be like “a spring that yields fresh water, instead of salt water.”

And that will make us a restful people. Not just in the sense that we, ourselves, have a kind of rest in God that other people can’t have without him, but that we would be a people for whom other people can feel the rest of God emanating out of us.

Because they know that “the tongue is a fire.” Everybody has two black eyes, because the world just batters you, and they’re looking for rest. They’re looking for a deeper rest than they can find in things, or money, or a shorter work week, or spouse. They’re looking for a rest that only happens in the community that God creates, by giving us “a new birth, through the message of truth.”

So people will find the rest that they need in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for their sins and was resurrected so that could join in his rest in a way that they couldn’t beforehand.

And people will meet that Jesus as they are drawn to the rest that they find among us: God is going to change your heart, in order to change your speech, in order to draw people who have positioned themselves as God’s enemies into being God’s friends.

He’s going to make people into his friends through you. Expect that. Ask God to prepare your heart for that. Give yourself to the Holy Spirit to be changed, and softened, and molded into someone who invites other people into the rest that God can give them through Jesus.

Because that’s what the world needs from us. That’s what Louisburg, North Carolina needs from us. They need us to invite them into the kind of rest that absolutely nothing except the crucified and resurrected Jesus can give them.

And so even if you can’t relate to anything I’ve said, if you’re discouraged because you know in your heart that your default mode is to “curse men made in God’s image even while you bless the name of God your Father,” the solution is not to go home discouraged, and find some way to “self-medicate” so you feel better about yourself.

The solution is to accept the grace you already have. Accept the mercy that God has already shown you. Lean back on the forgiveness that you already have in Jesus Christ, throw yourself before the Holy Spirit, and submit to him as he shapes you into someone who loves their neighbor enough to offer them the rest that is in Jesus Christ. Invite people to join the family that you’ve been adopted into. God will make you love your neighbor, because he loves your neighbor.

And if you’ve never “thrown yourself on God’s mercy,” to have the holiness of Jesus “draped over you,” I’d love to be the one who walks you through that. So I’ll be at the front, waiting for you come while we sing.

And if you don’t come, I’ll be waiting for you next week. And if the altar freaks you out – like, if you’re afraid of fire, so the candles on top are just horrifying, you don’t have to “come to the altar.” You can flag me down, we can find a time to talk, we can walk through the process “throwing yourself on God’s mercy,” to be “given a new birth,” as James puts it, “by the message of Truth.”

Let’s pray.

‘The Faith of James and the Faithfulness of Jesus’ – James 2:1-26 – February 3rd, 2019

If you have your bible, please turn with me to James, chapter 2, verses 1 through 26.

My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become corrupt judges?

Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism?

Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?

If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder.

Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

Let’s pray.

*

When people think of James, the brother of Jesus, this is usually the passage they’re thinking of. And it’s kind of infamous. The Jewish philosopher Leo Baeck wrote that James is kind of a square peg that Christians hammer into a circular slot, since Paul in Ephesians, and everywhere, says that “We are saved by grace through faith, and not from works, so that no one can boast,” but James says “A man is justified by works and not faith alone.” Leo Baeck joked that James plays like a book written by someone shocked and horrified at everything Paul ever wrote, so it amuses Baeck that both authors even made it into the New Testament together.

I don’t have enough hands to count the times I’ve heard this text brought up in a discussion with somebody well-intentioned but confused. There are people, like a guy knew in high school, who insist that Jesus came to earth to reveal himself as the Messiah, and not much else. And every time I talk to this guy, the conversation goes about the same: I’ll talk about the way that the gospel writers frame Jesus as the fulfillment of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. So the strange rituals in Leviticus – the ones we’ve all been told to be afraid of – didn’t exist just to exist.

Because according to Paul, and Peter, and every New Testament writer who covered the subject, they were never meant to save God’s people from God’s wrath. The Old Testament laws were what Paul refers to as “shadows of things to come.” So they were like the shadow your body creates across the pavement on a sunny day. Your shadow’s not its own thing. Your body creates the shadow when the sun shines over it. So the laws, the sacrifices, the rituals in the Old Covenant were shadows cast by Jesus himself. The Law points toward a righteousness we see more fully in Jesus. The sacrifices point toward a sacrifice that we see fully in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The purity rituals point toward a perfect purity that we see fully in Jesus himself. But the thing that saves us is Jesus; the Law was there to “usher us towards him.”

And this dude from high school would nod, and kind of bark out some variation of “Too complex. Jesus came to say ‘I’m God, worship me or I’ll kill you’,” and then he’d leave to go scour the internet for 9/11 conspiracy theory videos. So that guy would always point to James and say, “See, Jesus is the Messiah, and if you want to be his servant, you’ve gotta earn it.” The problem is that if James were anything like my high school classmate described, the Synagogue leaders wouldn’t have kidnapped him in the middle of a sermon and thrown him off the roof of the temple.

There were a thousand people at any given time who claimed to be the Messiah, and they all had followers. But the Synagogue leaders didn’t throw you off the roof for following somebody who claimed to be the Messiah. They threw you off the roof because they perceived that you were somebody whose teachings threatened to draw people away from keeping the letter of the Law. That’s when they’d run to grab a ladder and an angry mob.

So James got murdered for teaching the same things that got Paul murdered. He got thrown off the temple-roof for teaching that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and that the salvation that Israel had been waiting for since the time of Abraham came through faith in Jesus Christ and absolutely nothing else. So we’ve gotta read this like James reads it, not like your weird aunt who keeps trying to get you to join her cult.

So what’s actually going on is that James has come to a point in his life where he just doesn’t have the patience anymore for people who say “You can show me your works, but I’ve got my faith.” He isn’t talking about Paul, here. He’s not taking a jab at being “saved by grace through faith.” James is taking a potshot at people who want to believe the gospel without believing the gospel. You know what I’m talking about? He’s taking an ax to the roots of the kind of “faith” that’ll never get you thrown off the temple-roof. Because James has a word for the sort of faith that doesn’t move you to serve the Lord by serving your neighbors: It’s called “Unbelief.”

That’s why, in verse 23, he writes about Genesis 15:6, when Abraham “Believed God, and it was credited to him as Righteousness.” It doesn’t say “Abraham obeyed God, and God begrudgingly rewarded him accordingly.” Abraham believed God, and believing God changed Abraham. Your faith is the thing that causes you to do different things than you would have done otherwise. So when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar, he said “I don’t understand this, but I believe God.”

And when “Rahab the Prostitute” hid the spies sent by Joshua and then helped them get out of Jericho alive, she didn’t “earn God’s approval.” She believed God. And her faith caused her to do something different than she would have as an unbeliever. She helped Joshua because of her faith. She “believed God, and it was credited to [her] as righteousness.” And believing God changed everything about Rahab. That’s why the next time we hear about her, Matthew says that Rahab quit the Brothel and married an Israelite, and that she had a son named Boaz, who had a wife named Ruth, who had a great-grandson named King David (Matt. 1:5). God changes the future by changing us, and he changes us by producing faith in us. Like chapter 1, verse 18 says, God has “given us a new birth through the message of truth and “made us into the firstfruits of his ‘New Creation’.”

*

So what’s ironic about James is that he’s controversial because of the way he talks about “faith” and “works,” but – as you’ve probably noticed – that’s really not the point of this passage. James is talking about some of the “works” that genuine faith produces, and the specific works he has in his crosshairs throughout chapter 2 have to do with the way that the gospel changes our relationship with our money.

And the problem he’s addressing is pretty self-evident: The world shows favoritism toward the rich. If you’ve watched the news this decade, then I probably don’t have to convince you of that. But sometimes churches do the same thing. When we imitate our culture, we develop a tendency to center our ministries around the wealthy and leave the poor at the margins, like the world does. And that makes sense, from a numbers perspective. Because you’re not gonna get the sort of tithes from a family of four whose combined household income is 22,000 /year as you would from the guy whose family’s owned the oil field for 150 years. So ever since the Fall, the world has catered itself to the rich, or the powerful, and it’s tempting to “follow the course of the world,” on this one.

But “keeping the poor at the margins” among us is one of the ways that the world will try and bait us into opting out of imitating Jesus.  Because when we keep the poor at the margins, James says we become “corrupt judges.” And in a real way, we become like the real-life “corrupt judges” who were infamous throughout the backcountries of Rome during James’s lifetime. They could be bought and sold, and their judgments along with them, so the poor never stood a chance in court. That’s why in Matthew 5:40, Jesus says, “When someone drags you into court to take your shirt, give him your garments as well.” Like, the poor couldn’t drag anybody to court. That wasn’t an option. Because whatever the courts said that they were, the actual realities at work in ancient Rome made it so that the courts worked for the rich, and that was just the end of the story.

So as a rich man, you could multiply your wealth by dragging farmer after farmer into court, essentially buying the verdict, and walking away with nearly everything they owned. Like, if they’re suing you for your shirt, that means they’re suing you for everything. And so when Jesus has a crowd of mostly “subsistence farmers” – that’s like families with small farms who produce just enough to live on – he gets up on a mount and he says “When the rich drag you into court to plunder you, don’t just let them walk away with your farm, and your produce, and your animals.”

The term used here for “garment,” or “coat,” or “tunic,” doesn’t really have an English word, but was kind of like your “long johns.” It was the first piece of clothing you put on. So if a rich man is suing you for your family farm, Jesus says, “Don’t just give him the farm.” When he’s taken the shirt off your back, don’t let him stop there. He says “Take off your long johns, fold them up, and hand them to him.” And then you’re naked, in front of the whole court, in front the bought out judge, in front of the rich man who stripped everything from you. Their culture was different than ours: Public nudity is illegal here, for good reason. It was just shameful. in ancient Galilee. When a rich man sued you to take away your livelihood and you stripped down to nothing and gave him your clothes, too, you’re saying “You’ve taken everything from me. Is that really what you want to do?” You’re inviting him to be a human again, in a world that treats him like a God.

Because, since the Fall, the world has catered itself to the rich, or the powerful, but James says that “God chose the poor in this world to be rich in faith.” He says “God chose the poor in this world to be heirs to the kingdom that he promised to those who love him.” God turns our favoritism inside out. So James says, “If you keep the royal law prescribed in scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” So James isn’t saying, “Eat the rich,” like the kids say. It’s not the French Revolution. He was inviting his readers to be the kind of community that the world had never seen before and couldn’t exist without the Holy Spirit working through our inadequacies to knit us together in a way that overcomes our greed, and our favoritism, and our prejudices.

So when James says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but doesn’t have works,” he hasn’t changed the subject. He hasn’t switched from “wealth and poverty” over to “faith and works,” as an abstract concept. He’s still talking about the poor man sitting by the footstool at the church-house. Like he says in verses 8 through 13, sin is never “arbitrarily breaking some rules.” Doing “something” wrong is always doing Somebody wrong. There are a thousand ways to love your neighbor, but there’s at least as many ways not to. So if you don’t cheat on your husband, but you do cheat people at the business you run, I’m not sure how much comfort you should take in the fact that you’re technically not an adulterer. You might sin differently than your neighbor, but your sin is always sin against the God who knit you together.

So he says “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?” This is the same guy who didn’t stand a chance in a Roman court. It’s the same guy who’d get sat by the footstool when a crooked leader was in charge of the church-house. And if I never say the F word in my entire life, but I sit back while the world tramples him, James will not be impressed when I defend myself by saying “At least I don’t have a foul mouth.” Without missing a beat, he’d say “You might sin differently than your neighbor, but your sin is always sin against the God who knit you together.” And the name that James gives to this particular phenomenon is “Faith Without Works.” And it’s better suited for the dead.

So to quote the earliest Baptists we have anything written down about, we’re saved by “faith alone,” and that’s good news because the faith that saves us is never alone. Saving faith always shapes us over the course of our lives into the image of Jesus, like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18. And you have to be careful, because that’s the kind of faith that’ll get you thrown off the temple-roof. But it’s also the kind of faith that “turns the world right-side up.”

Like, from a modern standpoint, Jesus had a bad business model. His ministry was itinerant, so he was trekkin’ around the backwaters of Galilee. And instead of courting the elites for financial support, he intentionally ministered to bona fide poor, folks who had to beg for subsistence from folks who barely had it themselves. The problem with an approach like that. From a business standpoint, is that the destitute make bad donors, because they don’t have any money. They can’t bankroll your operations, at least not alone. But Jesus sought out people like the blind beggar, Bartimaeus and healed him. And then he invited Bartimaeus to join his caravan.

That’s counterintuitive; that’s another mouth to feed. But what would happen is that poor widows, like the one in Mark chapter 12, would drop their last two coins in the collection box. And two coins is nothing, from a “numbers” standpoint, but it was as much as she could give. And instead of making a big show out the handful of wealthy donors who flocked him, like Joanna from Luke chapter 8, or Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus would lift up the poor widow – and her generosity would become contagious.

So the folks who weren’t having to beg for subsistence started imitating the poor widows by giving everything they possibly could. And then eventually the wealthy followers of Jesus, like Joseph and Joanna, started imitating the poor widows by giving everything they possibly could – you see where this is going?

And eventually you get to a point where in Acts chapter 2, the beggars aren’t beggars anymore, because the believers gathered in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus have started selling their land and pooling their resources to support the destitute among them. And eventually you get to a point where the destitute aren’t destitute anymore, because everyone who was able to followed Paul’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians to “Work so that you may have enough to give to those in need.”

And eventually, you get to a point in which Christians throughout the empire weren’t just supporting themselves and each other: By the mid-third century, they were supporting non-Christians at least as much as they were supporting other Christians: They started pooling more of their money so they could make additions to their houses – so they could double as free hospitals for the sick, regardless of whether they were Christian or not, or so that they could double as safe lodging for travelers.

And it got to the point where the pagan Emperor Julian complained, publicly, that the Christians were a tiny minority in the empire but they were supporting both their own people and the destitute pagans around them. So emperor Julian started turning pagan temples into food banks and homeless shelters just like the Christians had with their churches – so the followers of Jesus, under the leadership of James, and Paul, and Peter, and John, and their proteges, changed the empire. They changed the culture of Rome – they even changed paganism throughout the empire – not by crowding the government with Christians, like you might expect, but by serving their neighbors, their cities, better than their self-proclaimed opponents had the stomach to – because the faith that saves us also transforms us into something otherworldy.

God gives us a new birth through the Holy Spirit and makes us into the first harvest in his New Creation. We are ambassadors from a different kingdom, that operates on different terms than this world does. Because the “new birth” that God’s given us changes our relationship with our money. Jesus said that it’s “easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” but the Holy Spirit turns “rich young rulers” into generous disciples.

So over the centuries, the earliest churches came to embody the mercy that God had shown them in Jesus Christ so that everyone around could see it, be floored by it, and be changed by it. And James is speaking as an apostle of this Jesus, and as an apostle of Jesus he wants us to know that his brother was God in the flesh, and that he came to earth not just to “teach us a new way to live,” but to heal us from the sin and the brokenness that’s separated us from himself since The Fall.

So our fundamental problem is not that we’re “rich and greedy” and we need to “give away our money” so that we can have a relationship with God. That is not the takeaway from this passage. It’s that if we’re “rich and greedy,” that’s a symptom of our deeper problem; our greed is a symptom of our “Fallenness”; it’s one of the ways that our sin “works itself out in public.” If we show favoritism and discriminate against the poor, we are behaving predictably, because our hearts are upside-down. We’ve grown accustomed to the brokenness of the world, and we’ve learned to work it to our advantage, and that is one of the things that the Bible calls “sin.”

So what we need is to repent of our sin and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because when we “repent and believe the gospel,” James says that God “gives us a new birth by the message of truth.” And when God “gives us a new birth,” he slowly changes what’s “inside” us, so that instead of piling up our money, instead of looking for ways that we can beat out our competition and “climb to the top,” we start seeing our stuff as God’s stuff and we look for ways that God can use us to share God’s stuff with our neighbors. We start putting our ambition and our industriousness to use on behalf of our brothers, and sisters, and friends, and neighbors – and enemies. Because that was the most otherworldly aspect of the early church, as far as the pagans could see, right? You’d expect somebody to be generous to their friends, but because of the “new birth” that was given to us in Jesus Christ, we are generous to our enemies in ways that couldn’t possibly make sense to them and don’t even particularly make sense to us.

But I want to sidestep all the dangers that usually come with preaching a passage like this by being as clear as I can possibly be: Going home and revising your budget so that you make regular, costly sacrifices on behalf of the battered people that you meet in the world will not save your soul. Because the “good works” that James is talking about here are not something that “buys your salvation”; they are The Thing That Grows Out of Your Salvation.

Mount Zion Baptist Church is a church filled with generous people. Like, you threw Elyse and I a pounding last week. And I assumed that meant we were gonna get a bunch of fists thrown at us but instead we got a bunch of gifts. So nobody has to yell at you to be generous with your money, or your time, or your friendship, because God has already done a remarkable work in molding you into “a compassionate and generous people.” We work as “saved people.” And as saved people, God creates the faithfulness that works through us. He’s “given us a new birth by the message of truth,” and that “new birth” turns our relationship with money right-side-up.

That also means that what James is saying works two ways: The generosity that God creates in us is the result of our salvation, not the thing that saves us. And whatever generosity you pour out on other people as a lost person is still the generosity of a lost person. I don’t want to assume that everyone in here is a follower of Jesus. I don’t want to assume that every person in the room already “believes the gospel.” So if you’ve never thrown yourself on the mercy of God to be saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross, it’s important to understand that your generosity to the poor doesn’t “cancel out” the rest of you. If you’re banking on “your good outweighing your bad,” you should bank on something else.

Because your good probably does outweigh your bad. But that isn’t the way that “the scales” work. Joining the kingdom of God isn’t a process where you step up to the scales and then an angel checks to see if you volunteered with enough nonprofits to counter-balance that unfortunate magazine subscription you got. No amount of generosity will outweigh your contribution to the brokenness of the world.

So you need the same thing James needed, the same thing the Rich Young Ruler needed: You need the God you sinned against to become a human, live the life you should have lived, and die the death that you should have died because of your sinfulness. And the good news is that’s what happened. So you can stop trying to earn your way back. You can throw yourself on the mercy of God, and God will crucify your sin with Jesus and then raise you up with him, forgiven – fully, and freely, and forever – for everything you’ve done. You’ll be adopted into God’s family. So you can work harder out of gratitude than you ever could have worked out of fear. So I’ll be down at the front as we start to sing. Come talk to me. I’d love to walk you through the process of “throwing yourself on God’s mercy.” I’d love to walk you through the process of being “adopted into God’s family.” I’d love to walk you through the process of “turning over the keys” to the Holy Spirit so he can turn you right-side-up again.

Let’s 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.

‘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.