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10-22 - Mary Magdalene

          I thought it might be profitable for us to take a few weeks to look at the lives of some characters from the Bible.  Looking through the life of another, we gather encouragement for our lives.  I would like to begin our series today with a woman we know from the New Testament as Mary Magdalene.

          Mary Magdalene is one of those exceptional characters.  Mary is exceptional because more has been written about Mary Magdalene in the four gospels than is written about a few of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus.  We hear nothing of Jesus’ Apostles named Simon the Zealot, James the son of Alpheus, or Thaddeus.  But we do here of Mary Magdalene in 13 accounts across all four gospels.

          Mary Magdalene is an exceptional character because she has been written about extensively in every age from the early church through the Middle Ages and into modern day.  The vast majority of what has been written about Mary Magdalene is in error or is just pure fiction.  One of the most glaring examples of erroneous stories of Mary comes from the Roman Catholic Church.  On April 25, 590, in a sermon, Pope Gregory I declared Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who repented before the presence of Jesus.  Labels given to people stick and for centuries Mary was portrayed in song, poetry, art, and literature as a prostitute.  The Roman Catholic Church did not change its view of Mary Magdalene until 1969.  Other ancient and modern writings claim that Jesus did not die on the cross but was revived in the tomb.  After being revived, Jesus and Mary Magdalene became husband and wife and settled down to live a quiet life together.

          Who then was Mary Magdalene of the Bible and what might we learn from her?  In short, Mary was an unwavering witness whose enduring testimony was that Jesus had risen from the dead and was rightfully her Lord and Savior.  I say those words as high praise and words that each of us would welcome hearing said of us.

          How did the story of Mary begin?  Mary’s story begins in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 8. Jesus was in and around the countryside of Galilee.  He had been to Capernaum and then to Nain.  Luke wrote, “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve [The Twelve Apostles] were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:1-3).

          Luke gave us our first reference into the life of Mary (called Magdalene).  Mary was a woman who had been exceptionally ill.  Luke said Mary was demon-possessed by seven different demons.  Every person we encounter in the New Testament who was possessed by demons was in grave condition.  Luke described a young boy, likely Jewish, possessed by a demon who would scream suddenly, go into convulsions, foam at the mouth, and would be involuntarily thrown to the ground by the impure spirit.  Luke also described a demon possessed man, likely a pagan, who had to be bound with chains, yet the man had the strength to break those chains.  The man lived in a cemetery screaming and shrieking throughout the night.  When Jesus healed this man, the man begged to go with Jesus.  But Jesus sent the man away saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him” (Luke 8:39).

We do not know the manifestation of demon-possession of Mary, but we do know that Mary would have been unable to function in life and considered by her family and friends to be beyond hope.  Yet somewhere in Jesus’ travels from village to village, Jesus encountered Mary, perhaps in the Galilean Jewish village of Magdala, from which she receives the name Mary Magdalene.  Adding the name of Mary’s town to Mary’s identity was important because at this time ¼ of all women in Galilee were named Mary.  Another ¼ of all women were named Salome.  It was in that encounter somewhere in Galilee that Jesus drove the seven demons out of Mary.  And like the man who was cured of demon-possession, Mary must have begged Jesus to allow her to go with him on his journey.  This time, it appears, that Jesus said, “Yes” and Mary became one, if not the first woman, who accompanied Jesus in his public ministry.  Mary had become a central witness to the ministry, the presence, and the power of Jesus Christ.  From a practical sense, we also learn that Mary used whatever resources she had or skills she had to provide financial support to help feed and house Jesus and others as they traveled.  Mary was “all in” for Jesus.

From this brief introduction to Mary Magdalene, we learn that Mary was once powerless to the forces of darkness and evil that entrapped her body, mind, and spirit. Yet in the presence of Jesus, the seven spirits had no choice but to flee.  Once the evil spirits were removed, Mary was again able to make decisions of her own free will.  But Jesus said there is at that moment of new freedom, a huge risk.  Jesus said, “43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45a).  The impure spirits had been ejected from Mary, her house was in order, swept clean, and put in order.  Something or someone must fill that space to prevent the return of the impure spirits.  Mary, now able to make decisions of her own free will, invited Jesus into her life making her house, her life, occupied, full, and in order.  Jesus healed Mary for sure by rescuing Mary from the darkness of the impure spirits.  But the full restoration of Mary, Mary being saved, did not occur until Mary also received Jesus to fill her life.  And the same is true for each one of us.  Jesus did not come to rescue us that we would be left “unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.”  Jesus came that we would receive him, that his Holy Spirit would take up residence filling the unoccupied space of our spiritual life, keeping things clean and put in order.  We do not want to be of a mind that says, “I am living a better life, a more orderly life, therefore, I good the way I am.”  No.  I know too many people who have behaved that way. The changed the way they are living to a better lifestyle believing that in doing so they were saved.  They were not.  They were simply, “unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.”  Where are they today?  They are not here because other forces came along and filled the emptiness of their lives with worldliness.  Mary Magdalene stands out to us as a brilliant example that we must be swept clean and accept fully the spirit of Jesus Christ to lead our life.

What did Mary do with that new life filled with the spirit of Christ?  We have learned Mary did two things right away.  First, Mary sought to hear the living Word of God so as to mature her life.  Mary traveled with Jesus from the point of her acceptance of him as the Messiah until the very end.  Now we believe that Jesus is not at this moment physically traveling the countryside sharing the word of God so we cannot go on that trip.  But Mary’s life teaches us that we can still travel with Jesus and listen to what Jesus said through the reading and study of the Bible, particularly the Gospels.  Jesus’ words speak to us of comfort, conviction, peace, hope, faith, love, compassion, identity, and destiny.  Everything we need to know to stay focused on the essentials of life with God can be found in and through the God’s Word.  But we must open the book.

Second, Mary entered the broad role of being a minister.  Mary ministered to Jesus’ physical needs for food and shelter.  But Mary also began to become known as the most significant woman among Jesus’ disciples.  How do we know that?  We know Mary was the most significant woman disciple because whenever names are given in the Gospels of Jesus’ women followers, Mary Magdalene’s name is usually listed first.  In ancient and modern writing, the most important character is listed first.  Mary Magdalene’s standing as the foremost woman disciple was not based upon her assignment by Jesus, it was because she held nothing back from Jesus or from those who followed Jesus.  Mary Magdalene was first because she was last, she was a servant to others.  We would do well to imitate Mary’s example by always looking for ways to minister to others.

The movements and activities of Mary Magdalene are not given to us until the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The Gospel writer Matthew recorded for us that at the cross, “55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matthew 27:55-56). Mary Magdalene was at the cross of Jesus.  Then after Jesus had died and his body was being placed into the tomb, “61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matthew 27:61).  Mary was a faithful witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, his death, and his burial. For Mary Magdalene and others who had followed Jesus, it was for them the day hope died and was buried in the rock cold tomb.  And yet, Mary Magdalene remained faithful.

Mary Magdalene was not only grateful for her salvation through Jesus, but she was also faithful to the life she had through Jesus.  When it had become dangerous to be associated with Jesus, Mary persisted in being faithful toward Jesus.  Mary stayed when Jesus’ apostles ran.  Mary watched over Jesus even though she could not change Jesus’ circumstances.  Mary witnessed for Jesus so that He would not be alone.  Mary taught us that our presence is worth much, much more than words.  Our presence communicates to the other that he or she is valued, precious, and loved.  Our presence brings not only the gift of ourselves but also in and through our presence we bring the gift of God.  We, therefore, should follow Mary’s example and be Christ to others even if it is uncomfortable or we might be subjected to mocking for being Jesus’ disciple.

Finally, we read in the Gospel of John an extensive story of Mary Magdalene.  John’s gospel often presents a situation from the perspective of one person as representative not of just that person but also other people like that one.  For example, in Chapter 3, we have a discussion between Jesus and one Pharisee, Nicodemus.  Chapter 4, we have the exchange between Jesus and one Samaritan woman.  Chapter 5 we have Jesus and one-man seeking healing at the pools of Siloam.  Chapter 8 involves Jesus and one blind man.  So in Chapter 20, John wrote as though Mary Magdalene going to the tomb alone but as we know from other gospels other women were present.  But John found the interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was best to describe the actions and the theological message.  And so John wrote, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-2).

Mary went way back to Jesus’ tomb to care for his body.   There is little doubt Jesus’ apostles knew Mary was going to the tomb but they would not go with her.  The Apostles must have thought, “Why go and see a dead body.  Why go and risk being exposed as one of Jesus’ disciples.  Why go and be reminded that hope had died and had been buried?”  But Mary thought differently.  Mary went in love to Jesus’ tomb.  When Mary got to the tomb, the body of Jesus was not there!  Mary ran to find Peter and John and share the news that Jesus’ body was gone!  At that moment, Mary, thoroughly distraught, did not know she was the first person to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

For their part, the bewildered apostles Peter and John ran to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty as Mary had said. We are told that the Apostle John saw the empty tomb and the strips of burial linen and believed Jesus’ body not present in the tomb was a God had intervened on Jesus’ behalf as Jesus had said he would.  But John did not understand the absence of Jesus’ body meant God had brought Jesus back to life, a resurrected life.  The apostles left and returned to hiding.  Mary stayed by the tomb.

When alone again, Mary would come face-to-face with her teacher, her Rabboni, her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Hope had not died, nor had hope been buried.  Instead, in a marvelous display of power, God caused hope to spring forth from a tomb in person of Jesus’ Christ.  Mary, now overjoyed at seeing the resurrected Jesus, ran to Jesus’ apostles with these words, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18a).  And with those words the good news was made known to all and with those words, the Biblical story of Mary Magdalene came to an end.  We never hear in the New Testament further mention of Mary Magdalene.

Could there be better words than “I have seen the Lord!” upon which to end Mary’s story?  Mary was once powerless over the forces of evil and darkness. So dire was her condition that seven impure spirits controlled her life.  Then as our hymn from earlier today said, “Then the hand of Jesus touched her, and now she is no longer the same.”  Jesus healed Mary bringing her out of the darkness and into the light.  Mary served and cared for others.  She experienced pain and suffering at Jesus’ death and confusion at the disappearance of Jesus’ body.  But once she met the risen Christ, Mary Magdalene’s final role was to proclaim loudly and clearly the good news, “I have seen the Lord.”  Mary would serve as an inspiring example for us to follow as we each seek to be a faithful believer of our Lord.  Amen and Amen.

10-15 Peace and Hope

We have been exploring the last few weeks the supernatural creation of a Christian and of the living organism called the Christian Church.  Last week, we looked at the model church in Thessalonica that the Apostle Paul said was founded upon Christians who were known for three things: faith, love, and hope.  Today, I would like to finish up this series on the church by drawing from the construct of faith, love, and hope so that we can see how these virtues are foundational not just for the church as an instrument of peace but for each of us to be at peace with God, ourselves, and with others.

If we were to explore the letters of the New Testament, we would find that the virtues of faith, love, and hope were central to Paul’s presentation of the gospel message and his encouragement of Christians and the early Christian Church. These three attributes of the Christian life and the Christian Church either together as three or in groups of two come up again and again in Paul’s writings.  Consider just a few examples.

  • 1 Thessalonians 1:3 - 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:8 - 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.
  • Ephesians 3:17 - 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love.
  • Colossians 1:5 - the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel.
  • 1 Corinthians 13: 13 - And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

In addition to these references, we saw the foundational nature of these attributes expressed by Paul in his letter to the church in Rome when Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hopeAnd hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5).

          Faith, hope, and love are the key ingredients, if you will, to living out a God-centered, a Gospel centered life individually and then corporately as a church.  Paul was encouraging Christians to see their lives lived through a combination of “faith in God’s grace, love given by God through the presence of the Holy Spirit, and hope in Christ for all things.”

Faith in God’s grace is that deep belief that no matter what God is good.  It is a deep belief that God has seen to our greatest needs, not our most desired wants, our most pressing need.  God did that by removing us from the world, giving us an identity as His children, and guaranteeing us eternal life.  And we have a hope that no matter what we may face we will endure and prevail in our relationship and our destiny with God. Faith, hope, and love are presented to us as indispensable.

          We also heard the words of the Apostle Paul that showed our faith, hope, and love come from the actions taken by God.  Paul wrote, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless (hopeless), Christ died for the ungodly (you and me). Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we (you and I) were still sinners, Christ died for us (to give hope)” (Romans 5:6-8).

Paul saw Jesus as the unmerited demonstration of God’s love sent to us in the hope.  God did not send Jesus as a reward for us getting our act together.  God sent Jesus, to proclaim the good news of freedom from sin for those who would believe in Jesus (faith) and that Jesus died to take our sins even while we were still not yet believers.  Jesus came in and as hope.  But why and how do faith, hope, and love make such a profound change to a believer’s life. It is because faith, hope, and love are the ingredients that produce an understanding that, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

Paul’s words are powerful because at first Paul was not at peace with God.  Paul believed in God, but he did not believe in goodness of God expressed through Jesus.  So adamant was Paul in his unbelief that Paul tried to destroy those who did believe in Jesus.  Paul incited people into mobs to kill believers.  Paul helped drag other believers from their homes and sent them to prison simply for believing in the goodness of God expressed through Jesus.  Then Paul’s life was touched by Jesus and Paul realized just how wrong he had been.  A remarkable thing happened to Paul when Paul came to understand God’s love and by faith Paul accepted Jesus.  Paul life of anger and hatred, self-righteousness, and pride gave way to a life of hope and together faith, hope, and love produced peace with God. Paul stopped his warring madness when he came to be at peace with God.

When I was considering this week the virtues of faith, hope, and love, I was reminded of a sign I saw on the desk of one of my coworkers years ago when I worked for the federal government.  The sign said, “Good, Fast, and Cheap.  You can have any two.”  The meaning of this sign was that if you wanted to purchase a product you could have it “Good and fast, but it would not be cheap.  Or you could have it Good and Cheap, but it would not be fast. Or you could have it Fast and Cheap, but it would not be good.”

As I returned my thoughts to the three virtues of faith, hope, and love leading to peace, I saw the wisdom in Paul’s writings that you must have all three faith, hope, and love to have peace with God first, peace with ourselves, and then peace with our neighbors.  Having just two out of the three virtues of faith, hope, and love is just not enough to produce peace.

Peace, or the lack of it, has been very much present on our minds as we have seen the horrors that come from people lacking in faith, hope, and love.  The murderous rage in Gaza with killings and kidnappings demonstrates on a global scale those terrorists are not at peace with God. The parades in New York City in support of those who killed and kidnapped shows the demonstrators are not at peace with God.  We know we don’t need to look at war to see people who are not at peace.  We have people committing acts of domestic violence who are not at peace with God.  Those who foster hatred pitting one group against another are not at peace with God. Why are they not at peace?  They are not at peace because they are lacking in either faith, hope, or love.  All three virtues are required to have peace, first with God, then with us, and finally with others.

For when we are at peace with God, we are then able to live a Gospel centered life that is free to do what God wants us to do.  In that freedom, we can be compassionate toward others and relieve their burdens and encourage them in a future in Jesus.  In that freedom and compassion, we can be forgiving people. Over and over, Jesus, God’s love gift to the world, urged all who would listen that to forgive one another.  To forgive is to be transformed from our natural self to the image of God, the person of Jesus.

Paul described a transformed life as one that had been “justified.”  To be justified means we are made right before God.  A way to think about it is that our record of sin has been exchanged for Jesus’ record of no sin, which makes it right for us to be in God’s presence.  Being right with God bring peace.

Now, what happens, how are we to think about things, if we do not feel at peace with God, ourselves, or with our neighbors?  Why might we not be at peace?  Most often the source of disquiet in our life, a lack of peace, comes from how we deal with suffering.  But we need to be clear about this point.  The lack of peace we experience does not come because we suffer, it comes from the way we respond to suffering.

Suffering is the condition of going through pain, hardship, or distress.  Suffering is part of the human condition.  No one ever lives their entire life without experiencing suffering.  Not even Jesus, God’s own son, escaped suffering, yet Jesus did not lose his peace with God amid the suffering.  And because Jesus did not lose peace with God, Jesus also did not lose peace with himself, and with others.  Jesus was able to live through suffering this way because he had the foundation of faith, love, and hope within him. 

In our New Testament reading from Romans today in which Paul spoke about faith, love, and hope, Paul also spoke about suffering.  Paul said, “We also glory in our sufferings.”  Paul gloried in his sufferings.  Paul accepted his suffering as part of his transformation into the image of Christ.  Although Paul did not wish for suffering upon himself, Paul did work through the suffering that came and gloried in his suffering as a unique moment of faith in God.  How is that possible?

Where suffering comes upon us, we often feel defeated and left to feel that there is no plan for our lives.  Suffering occurs in those spaces formed in our lives.  Suffering happens where something should be but is not.  We suffer over the death of a loved one; what should be is not there.  There is a space in our life in which pain can now reside.  We suffer when our bodies are ill; what should work does not.  We suffer when others choose vengeance towards us, trying to separate us from the comforting routines of life.  Space is created within our lives where distress can reside.

How then are we to have peace amid the suffering?  How was Paul able to glory in his suffering?  I believe it is possible to maintain our peace amid suffering by drawing from the well of faith, hope, and love of the Christian Church.  Suffering, as we know, strips us down and depletes us often physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  We can become exhausted.  It is when we are hurting that we need the uplifting presence of the church, other believers who are at peace with God.  The church is there to remind us that in our suffering, we can boast that God who is faithful, loving, and full of hope did not cause the suffering nor can such suffering chase God from us.  Suffering is a powerful faith moment.  Later in Romans, Paul came back to suffering and wrote, “18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). Paul realized that suffering is a force of life that separates the natural person from all he or she holds dear. Yet, not for the Christian who has been transformed by the love of God.  Paul said, “In all these things (sufferings) we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39). Suffering does not and cannot separate us from God and so we boast not for our sufferings but amid our suffering for God is with us.

Paul saw suffering as part of our transformation into the image of Jesus.  He said, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

The church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, through the exercising of their faith, love, and hope towards us in our suffering help us give way to perseverance; that inner strength that keeps us focused on the prize or the goal that lays ahead.  Paul would put it this way, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  Our church helps us renew our faith and reliance on God. Our church helps us to keep our eyes focused on Jesus.  That perseverance develops within us a character that is stronger in faith than the weakness our suffering brings to us. 

Sometime ago, I spoke with a mother whose daughter died in a traffic accident.  As some of you know firsthand and others could imagine, it was a devastating loss that produced much pain and suffering.  In the immediate aftermath of that tragic moment, this mother did not feel the presence of God and, in some ways, asked, “Where were you God?”  Suffering can cause us to question everything about our life.  Over the weeks and months that followed, as she received support from those who could share faith, love, and hope, this mother came to see again that God was not the cause of this suffering and that indeed God has been present walking with this person each minute, hour, and day of intense grief. This mother is now patiently working with God to sooth the pain.  This person is certain that their child is safely in the arms of Jesus and that they will be reunited again.  This is how one can glory amid suffering, but it most often requires the strength of the church to help us through our suffering.  It is for this reason that I see those who suffer most are those who are without church.

To live a Gospel centered life is know the love of God, to be transformed by it so that in all circumstances we may live a life of hope.  And even if we suffer in a world hostile to God we will never be separated from God. This gives us the patience, the power, to keep our eye on the prize, forgetting what is behind us and straining forward to the light and glory of Christ.  Therefore, we should live as people of hope and invite others to walk with us in the hope of Jesus our savior, and encourage one another along the way. Amen and Amen.

10-01 God's Covenant

          Last week, we began talking about being Christians and being part of the Christian Church.  We said that a Christian and the Christian Church are supernatural creations, meaning that we become Christians only through the supernatural work of God and that God is the supernatural creator of the Christian Church itself.  In today’s Scripture reading, we learned that the provision for our transformation as a Christian and formation of the Christian Church comes about through the establishment of a covenant by God.

          God is the God of covenants.  Although we read our church covenant this morning, we do not often use the word covenant in our daily life.  However, covenants, in Biblical times, were used often to establish relationships between the powerful and those under their power.  That is what ancient covenants did.  And there were two basic types of covenants. 

Just for a moment, let’s consider each type of covenant.  There was the Suzerain Vassal Covenant in which the superior, say a king, placed demands upon the inferior (vassal).  In return for meeting the king’s demands, there were promises of reward and protection. We understand this sort of covenant because in many ways it has the look of a business relationship in which the needs of each party are being addressed.

The other type of covenant was called the Royal Grant Covenant. In the Royal Grant Covenant, a gift is given from the superior to the lesser as a blessing.  In the case of the Royal Grant Covenant, everything about what is provided in the covenant is dependent upon the one who gave the blessing. And that blessing was given because giver wanted to do so, not because giver needed to do so.  A king, for example, through a Royal Grant Covenant would blessing those he chose to bless because he wanted to bless them.

These ancient human covenants give us insight to relate to covenants established by God.  One of the earliest covenants God made was with a man named Abram.  Genesis 12, verse 1, begins with God reaching out to establish a covenant with Abram.  “1The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.  2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).  God’s covenant with Abram has the feel of a Royal Grant Covenant.  The King, God, decided, without need on his part, to bless Abram. Everything that would be accomplished through the covenant would be done by the King, God, for the benefit of the recipient of the covenant, Abram.  The requirement upon Abram was simply that Abram would follow God’s plan to bless him. This is the typical pattern of God’s covenants; I, God, will accomplish My desires and bless you but you must follow the plan.

God would establish other covenants of this nature with the Hebrew people who would make up the nation of Israel.  We also saw in our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Jeremiah that God would make a promise of a new covenant.  There Jeremiah wrote,” 31 “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.  33 “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.  l be their God, and they will be my people…For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-33, 34b).  God had spoken of a time coming in which He would establish a new covenant dependent upon Him in which He would draw a group of people to Him to bless them.  We now know that it would not be the calling of a nation, it would be the calling of individuals, one by one, and that those people would be drawn together into church.  We gathered here today are fulfilment of the word of God spoken in Jeremiah.  We are the fulfilment of God’s word because we have accepted Jesus, the Holy Spirit lives within us, and we have been drawn together into the Christian Church.  How do we know we are the fulfilment of God’s word? Let’s look at just a few Scripture references to bring this point home.

Jesus said most simply, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Jesus would fulfil the promise of God in establishing a new covenant.  Jesus then said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).  The Son of God will fulfil the covenant by establishing the church, the collection of people He saved.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22).  The cornerstone of the fulfilment of God’s covenantal word is Jesus and the outworking of the Church is the outworking of the covenant.

The Apostle Peter wrote of the church, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).  The King, God, has drawn us, you and me, out of the world of darkness and into the marvelous light of Christ.  This was and is an act of mercy completely dependent upon God.

When we accept the mercy offered by God through Jesus to come into the light, we then come to see that God’s covenant, His decision of love us, to extend grace to us, and to care for us is not based on us being sinless or having accomplished some set of tasks. God extended His grace because we have accepted the completed work of Christ upon the cross for our sake.

Now what I just said that our status is based upon the completed work of Christ, is, in today’s world, an offensive statement.  Did you know that?  What offends people about the cross, and our preaching, and our existence as a church, is the idea that we bring nothing to the party and Christ must do it all. People are offended by that statement. They are offended because we live in a self-help obsessed culture.  We live in self-centered obsessed culture.  We live in a “I’m a good person because of the work I do,” obsessed culture.  And what does God call all these self-motivated efforts?  God calls them filthy rags compared to the grace of the covenant He has offered. This offends people’s pride and that is why the Church is persecuted.  People would rather define their god through their own standards and their own accomplishments than to accept a part in the covenant given by the one true God.

Now we are not immune to the culture around us.  That is why Church, the gathering of saved people, is so important.  Saved people need saved people.  We need to fellowship and care of one another to help us celebrate the joyful moments of life and to get us over the rough ground when things do not go as smoothly as we would prefer.  That is what we said this morning when we opened with the church covenant.

Saved people need saved people because we live in a disposal world.  We design one-time-use products.  We like them. Because when that product has been used or it does not work as we prefer, we throw it away.  The world does that with products and it does that with people.  In the world, when people or relationships with certain people are no longer preferred, our culture throws them away.  May be you don’t believe that is true.  Just consider a few examples:

  • Abortion – The termination of an unwanted pregnancy.  Abortion is ending a pregnancy that is not preferred. When I worked as a Court Appointed Advocate for abused and neglected children, I interviewed the mother of one of the children under my supervision.  The woman was in her late 20’s at the time I interviewed her.  By then she had had 3 children, all abused and neglected, and she had had 8 abortions.  Too often the world considers children, unborn and born, disposable.
  • Homelessness – Not in my backyard.  People do not choose to become homeless.  I have never met any child who when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” answer that question, “I want to be homeless.”  But homelessness happens and when it does society says, “I don’t want to see it.”  Not in my backyard.  One of the greatest risks for those experiencing homelessness is invisibility. By invisibility, I do not mean they become like the scientist in the movie who created a secret formula to make himself invisible to others. By invisibility, I mean there is a sense of being hidden away; it is as though they do not matter or even exist. Invisibility extinguishes hope. Noted author C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is always hope if we keep an unsolved problem fairly in view; there’s none [no hope] if we pretend it’s not there.”
  • The Elderly - On March 27, 2018, George and Shirley Brickenden, of Canada, were euthanized, killed, as they lay side-by-side in their bed at a Toronto-area retirement home.  George and Shirley were both in their 90s. Three of their children sat at the foot of their bed while two doctors simultaneously administered the lethal injections that killed George and Shirley.  The Brickendens had been married for almost 73 years and made a deliberate decision that they wanted to die together, at the same time.  Both George and Shirley were mentally competent and neither had terminal illnesses.  The condition George and Shirley suffered from was that they were in their 90’s and no longer felt as though they mattered.  George and Shirley were just disposable.

This is darkness of the world from which God has removed us.  God knows what the world is like with its sinfulness and darkness.  Because God knows, God established a covenant through Jesus to save us in the present and for all time.  God called us individually and for our preservation while on earth God gave us the Church, a place of light surrounded by darkness.

The Church, the Biblical Church, is called to remain faithful in any and every period of culture. Faithful to God’s word.  The Biblical Church is not concerned with imitating the latest fads of culture.  The Biblical Church is concerned about lining up its practices with the Bible and each member in imitating Jesus.  The Biblical Church is concerned about taking only the Scriptures at the final authority for faith and life.  The Biblical Church is not interested in what the denomination says or even what the pastor says because neither has any authority.  There is only God’s Word, God’s covenant that has authority over the Biblical Church.

Not all churches are Biblical churches.  How can you tell the difference between a Biblical church and a church that is not fully following the plan?  A church that is not following God’s plan is interested in reforms.  They are interested in reforming everything in the church and socially outside the church.  They are interested in changing what is old and making it work again.  That is what it means to reform something.  We take what is not quite working well and we apply our own energies to it and make it functional in some manner.

A Biblical Church believes in restoration.  A Biblical Church believes in the restoration of things back to their original condition, the way they were intended to be.  But a Biblical Church realizes that it cannot restore anything, here meaning people.  The work of restoration can only be accomplished by God.  The role those in the Biblical Church, the role then of this church, is to continually point the unsaved toward Christ.  Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).  That is the mission of the Biblical Church to bring the good news of Christ to them.

Why Christ?  Because the foundation of God’s covenant is Christ.  We heard this point made in our New Testament reading today from the Book of Hebrews, “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from …sins…” (Hebrews 9:15).

As the church, we must bear witness to the mercy we have received by being the light into the darkness of the world always calling others to come.  To do that, we must come together to be refreshed and renewed in our faith.  To do the mission of the church, we must embrace those who come into the Church even if that is messy at times.  We cannot be the church by ourselves.  That was never part of God’s plan.

I am glad you are here today. Because in a few moments, as a Biblical Church, we will partake of the bread and the cup.  It was in the cup particularly that Jesus said to his disciples, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25b).  We are part of that new covenant.  Come, let us be united as the Church God intended us to be. Amen and Amen.

09-24 - Having a Foundation in Church

          Today, I would like us to talk about the Christian Church and what it should mean to each of us.  At least once a year, I do a few sermons about church.  Why do we need to talk about church?  We need to talk about church because church is a creation of God for the betterment of humanity.  There are only three human institutions created by God.  The first institution created by God was marriage.  Genesis 2:24-25 says to us, “24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.  25 Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:24-25).  The second institution was governance.  After the days of Noah and the flood, we begin to see in Genesis 10, the emergence of nations.  The concept of human governance, human law, is that government is a force that can restrain evil.  Finally, we come to the third institution established by God and that is the church. Church is the only New Testament institution and church is foundational to the ongoing work of Jesus Christ.  The Church is intended to cut across all lines of governance because the church is universal and was created for us that through the church the living presence of Jesus Christ could be seen by all.

          Unfortunately, in our modern era, we have come to use the word church in several ways that were not intended.  We refer to church as a building, a physical structure.  We also refer to church as an activity, a time in which we gather for worship, song, prayer, and proclaiming God’s word.  Still further, we refer to church as an organization, an institution that makes decisions.  But the proper context for the word church given to us in the New Testament comes from the Greek word, ekklēsia, ek-klay-see'-ah, ἐκκλησία, which means any collection of people who have received salvation through Jesus Christ. The church is a group of saved people.

          And so, one of the things we discover and should keep in mind always is that church, a collection of people who have received salvation through Jesus Christ, is a supernatural creation.  Jesus taught that all who would believe in Him must be born again, not of natural descent, but of God.  In short, all believers are born a second time and in the second birth they are born as children of God.  It does not matter where you were physically born, the United States, Brazil, Ghana, Portugal, Dominic Republic, Pakistan, France, on and on, for when we are born again our identity becomes brother and sister to other believers.  It does not matter what color our skin we share because we all have one father, God.

          Jesus expressed this coming together of different people groups into one identity and one destiny this way, “16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).  Jesus established that harmony by whatever metric anyone wanted to measure people should exist in His church through obedience to Him.  Economically, racially, by sex, by education, occupation, age, and national origin did not matter because believers become part of a single group called ekklēsia, ek-klay-see'-ah, ἐκκλησία, or church. Think about it this way.  Someone says to you, “Hey are you going to church on Sunday?”  You could say, “No, I am going to do something supernatural by being the church.”

          Now having established church, this supernaturally created collection of believers in Jesus Christ, Jesus commanded, he did not suggest, he commanded that believers maintain the harmony he created and that they do so through love.  And that showing love to one another, keeping the harmony of the ekklēsia, ek-klay-see'-ah, church, would evidence to those inside and outside the church that Christ lived within them.  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34b-35).

          We saw how this supernatural creation began with our Scripture reading today from the Book of Acts. “42 They {The church] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47). 

We probably have all heard a sermon or two or three from this passage about the early church because there is so much evidence of harmony and love.  Pastors like to preach on Acts 2:42-47 because the Scripture paints a picture of what we long for across the entire Christian community.  The scene shows the greatest evidence of the love of Christ being expressed within the ekklēsia, ek-klay-see'-ah, ἐκκλησία, or church.

          But.  There is always a but with which to contend.  But that harmony of the early church was short lived because before long conflict came into the church.  Just four chapters later in Acts, the church was found be be in conflict.  Now I am not sure of the elapse time between Acts 2 and Acts 6 but I am guessing that there is not a lot of time between Acts 2 and Acts 6.  That harmonious picture in Acts 2 now showed in Acts 6 an ekklēsia, ek-klay-see'-ah, ἐκκλησία, or church in conflict.

          As a rule, we are raised to believe that conflict is inherently bad and should be avoided.  Today, we have some powerful tools to avoid conflict, not in healthy ways, but people use these techniques to avoid conflict. If someone says something that we do not like and they create a conflict within us or in our relationship with that person, we can unfriend them on social media.  We can block their text messages and phone calls.  We can cancel them out of our lives.  Relationships suffer.  And when, not if, that happens within the church, then we can see that the image of Christ suffers. 

It is, however, through conflict that we learn and grow.  Think about it this way.  You make plans to meet someone.  They say to you, “I will meet you in one hour at the corner of Spring Road and Russell Road in Quaker Springs, New York.” I suspect every one of us would be in conflict because it is unlikely that we know where that person intends for us to meet them or even if we could get there in one hour.  To resolve this conflict, we must learn something. We must ask for directions from someone or put that address in our trusty GPS app.  Conflict precedes all learning.  Unless we have a conflict, we can never experience an “Aha” moment.

          So then, we ought to look for a conflict in the early church and see what they learned and we might learn from them.  From Chapter 6 of the Book of Acts we find a conflict as we read, “The Hellenistic Jews among them [the church] complained [evidence of conflict] against the Hebraic Jews because their [Hellenistic] widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food [that is a conflict]” (Acts 6:1b).  That marvelous sharing of food with those in need we read about in Chapter 2 of Acts had come to an end by the beginning of Chapter 6 of Acts.  A serious problem had developed.  A racial division had occurred within the church expressed in the distribution of food to the Hebrew (Jewish) born Christians and the Hellenistic (Greek) born Christians.  That is a disturbing situation but one of the things I like about this passage is that rather than ignore the problem or pretend it did not happen, the church admitted to the problem, in writing!  Luke wrote down that the church of harmony in Christ had a racial problem.  We also see that that it does not say the Hellenistic Jews having been neglected immediately left the church never to return. Not at all.  The Hellenistic Jews stayed and complained.

          What did the church then do with this conflict?  The first corrective step was the leadership of the church acted. “2 So the Twelve (Apostles) gathered all the disciples together” (Acts 6:2).  The leadership of the church understood a racial divide would damage the mission of the church.  The Apostles understood that disharmony was a sign of disobedience to Christ’s call to love one another.  The Apostles said, “2 It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. 5 This proposal pleased the whole group” (Acts 6:2-5).  A specific plan was developed with responsibility for that plan to be completed by the church so that the focus of the church on preaching the word of God did not suffer while harmony was being restored.  Scripture says the plan pleased all, suggesting restoration of harmony was beginning.

          What did the church do next?  Scripture says, “They [the church] chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism” (Acts 6:5b).  This is one of those passages in Scripture that we read and might be inclined to say, “Oh, that’s nice that the writer of the Book of Acts included the names of the people chosen to address the issues with food distribution.”  But if we look a little deeper at the list of names, we discover those chosen by the church to resolve the lack of food distribution to the Greek widows were all Greek.  Stephen - Greek origin meaning “crown” or “garland.”  Procorus - Greek origin meaning "leader of the dance."  Nicanor - Greek origin meaning “people of victory.” Timon - Greek origin meaning "reward, honor.”  Parmenas - Greek meaning "stable; firm."  Nicolas - Greek origin also meaning “the victory of the people."

          The men selected by the church, all Greek, were charged with equitable food distribution to the Hellenistic (Greek) and Hebraic (Hebrew) widows.  The willingness of the church to make the Greeks, who had been marginalized, the overseers of the food distribution showed racial harmony requires observable mutual trust.  The supernatural church had returned to its origins and demonstrated that it could trust its own members to correct abuse within the church lovingly and without fear of retaliation. 

          What was the result of harmony restored? Scripture says, “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (Acts. 6:7a).  The church that had struggled with its own conflict gathered strength once the disharmony had been publicly acknowledged and dealt with by the church prayerfully and graciously.

          So, what does this story teach us today.  I think there are four things we want to take away from this story.

          First, to be a Christian, to claim Christ, is to also claim you have been born again in a supernatural way because the Holy Spirit of Christ now lives within you.  To be born again, you must first die to your old life.  Your physical birth origin has been replaced by your spiritual birth origin. Your identity and destiny are the same as one believer to another.  You and I, having been created supernaturally, now have countless brothers and sisters in Christ.  We should celebrate this new birth every day because having Christ in us makes us supernaturally different from those of the world.  Thank God we are saved!

          Second, to be a Christian, to claim Christ, is to also claim that you will follow Jesus.  One of the things Jesus said is that you and I should live our lives as part of the ekklēsia, ek-klay-see'-ah, ἐκκλησία, or church.  Why?  Because the church is the visible body of Jesus Christ today.  Now that is an exciting thought - that together our actions present Jesus to those who do not know Him.  And that is a frightening thought that - together our actions present Jesus to those who do not know Him.  This is what Jesus meant when He said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this [by the way you love one another within the church] everyone [those in the church and outside the church] will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34b-35).  We must act in such a way as to love one another.  And we cannot do that unless we are part of the visible active church.  We cannot live out the Christian life at home, sequestered from everyone else.  We must interact with the church in some way so that the church can be seen for what it is, a supernatural, God created organism.

          The third thing we can take away from Scripture today is that there will be failures in loving one another as Jesus loves us.  But here is the thing.  When disharmony arose in the early church, no one left their faith or the church and no one canceled another person.  I read this post the other day, “McDonald’s can mess your order up 100 times and you still keep going back…One thing goes wrong at church, and you quit!”  Things will go wrong in church and there will be conflicts.  But it is those moments of conflict that help us to learn and change and become more like Christ.  We must not quit.

          Finally, maintaining harmony, today the story was about racial harmony, was and is essential to the Christian witness.  Disharmony in the church must be identified, publicly acknowledged, addressed by leadership, require involvement of the church, and result in specific actions that empower and make those marginalized central to the restoration of trust and harmony.  God has shown that to us.  And what is the result when we act like Jesus and restore harmony to His church?  The number of disciples will grow rapidly.

          So, let’s be supernatural as believers and as a church.  Let us love one another so that Jesus will be seen properly and be a source of encouragement to those in the church and to those who do not know Him. If there is a conflict, be willing to point it out so it can be dealt with and that we can grow through it. Don’t ever quit church – you will become smaller if you do and the image of Christ in this world will become harder for others to see.  Follow Jesus faithfully as you participate fully in His church.  Amen and Amen.

09-03 Salvation


  Last week, we spoke about the imagery of the 23rd Psalm.  We observed that the psalmist began the psalm by speaking about God as though the psalmist had only heard about God. Later, the psalmist spoke to God only, this time as though he had seen God and all that God had done.  The change for the psalmist’s life came about in verse 4, as the psalmist witness something in the valley of the shadow of death. “4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

          We discussed that in the valley of the shadow of death, the psalmist life was changed a crucifixion the psalmist described in Psalm 22.  In that psalm, the psalmist foresaw and experienced the death of a man anointed by God.  As the psalmist emerged from that valley with an understanding of the death of God’s anointed one, the psalmist foresaw that that death gave rise to the psalmist’s own salvation by God.  And the psalmist described salvation in the way, “5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:5-6). 

When we read the Old Testament and its prophesies, we can see the prophesies as we might when we are traveling across some expanse, and we see mountains in a distance.  We see them, we can describe them in general terms, and give some sense of how the mountains make us feel.  And yet as we travel on and on we come to realize the mountains are a long way off and are more grand with much more character and shape than we imagined from a distance.  This is the experience of the psalmist.  He is describing the salvation promised by God in the best terms he is able to do as he surveys God’s ultimate work from a distance.  In this case, the psalmist has been in the valley of the shadow of death and foresaw the death Jesus Christ.  A death that would change the psalmist because through that death the psalmist came to realize that he would be cleansed of all unrighteousness, cleansed of all sin.

          This is what we spoke about last week.  This week I would like us to talk a bit deeper about the picture of salvation painted by the psalmist and witnessed in the New Testament.  What is salvation?  What do we mean when we say, “I am a Christian saved by Jesus.”  For whom is this salvation and, if I claim this salvation, how should that be seen in my life?

          First, what is salvation? The simplest definition of salvation is that salvation is a rescue of someone from destruction.  We might think of salvation as rescuing a drowning person. Allow me to illustrate.  About 35 years ago, I was at a party a co-worker’s house.  Some folks from the party were in the house, while others were in the backyard.  My co-worker’s three-year-old daughter came out of the house.  No one paid much attention to her.  A few moments later, I had a small splash coming from the direction of the inground pool. I turned and did not see anything but decided to look closer in the pool.  When I did I observed the three year on the bottom of the pool, trapped by the weight of the water over her head.  I jumped into the pool and pull her up from the bottom of the pool and carried her to the safety of the yard.  In one context, this little girl had been saved and we might think of salvation in that way.  But there is an essential element missing from this story of being saved that makes it different from salvation.  Someone who is saved from drowning will happily return to living life in the same manner as they did before they were saved.  They will do the same things, speak the same way, and think the same thoughts.  But a person who has been spiritually saved is different from a drowning person. First, to be saved spiritually is an act in which God is the rescuer who brings the person being saved from the great dangers of sin.  For sin harms the body and kills the soul of the sinner.  Sin robs the sinner of a life they had and robs them of the life, including the eternal life, they could have experienced.  A person saved by God no longer desires to return to their old way of thinking, speaking, and acting.  If you, are saved, your salvation from God and you are changed within and forever. To be saved is a joyful and freeing experience. 

The psalmist began to express this new life, this new understanding of being rescued by God this way, “5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5a).  The psalmist was speaking here in the present, in the now, not in the future.  In the present, the psalmist came to understand that psalmist was now different because of the work done by God in the valley.  The psalmist who had accepted God was a friend of God and God bless the psalmist life, here expressed as a table, a banquet for the psalmist.  There is much joy in having a banquet provided in your honor.  That is what the psalmist was trying to share with his readers, with us that salvation is a time of celebration.  If we have been saved, we should celebrate every day as a day of grace in God’s presence.

The second thing the psalmist came to understand was although there was a banquet for him, the psalmist had enemies.  Who are these enemies?  This is the psalmist way of expressing that there will be those accept God and become God’s friends and there are those who defy God, who have chosen not to receive the blessing God has offered the psalmist and become or appear like enemies of God. Those who defy God cannot participate in the banquet provided for those who accepted the salvation from God.  The enemies are those who have rejected God’s invitation, either quietly or openly, and they are opposed to God.  They will stand outside God’s presence and outside the presence of the believer.

          Jesus would later explain this point of being outside God’s salvation in a parable.  Jesus spoke about a king who hosted a wedding banquet for his son. The king invited everyone from the highest to the lowest in the land.  But only the humble people came at the king’s invitation.  The arrogant and proud stayed away from the wedding banquet. When the wedding hall was full of people, “The king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He [The King] asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.  13 Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:11-14).  The message is clear.  We must come into the kingdom fully by faith and accept the offer of the king.  Otherwise, we will be thrown out where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

          And what of this weeping and gnashing of teeth?  The point here is that there will be those thrown out of the kingdom, who are not saved, and they will weep.  They will cry and cry and cry unconsolably.  Through their tears they will say to God, “No Lord!  Please Lord!  I am sorry!  Please give me another chance!  I am so, so, sorry!”  But the door will be locked to their crying and their tears will never cease.  There also will be those thrown out of the kingdom because they refused God salvation and instead of crying they will gnash their teeth. People gnash and grind their teeth in anger and rage.  Through their tightly held teeth they will say to God, “How dare you!  How dare you keep me out!”  But the door to the kingdom will be kept locked to them and they will rage in anger forever.

          Friends, we do not want to cry in sorrow or rage in anger either in the present moment or for eternity.  The psalmist, having accepted the gift of salvation, saw that crying and raging anger were replaced because in a life marked by God salvation it is as though,“5 You (God) prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5a).  Please do not hesitate to make known your desire to be saved and receive the gift of salvation.  And not only will God bless you in this life with God’s own presence and grace to overcome all, but the psalmist says the blessing of salvation is like that of having God, “You anoint my head with oil” (Psalm 23:5b).

What does it mean to be anointed with oil.  To be anointed by oil was a sign of a designation of blessing and a setting apart for the work of God.  Moses anointed his brother Aaron with oil as a sign of Aaron being set apart for priestly service to God.  Samuel anointed Saul and David as a signed of their anointing to be set apart to serve God as earthly rulers over God’s people.  The psalmist saw salvation as an anointing by God for a setting apart for the service to the kingdom here and now.

Salvation then is not just about eternity.  To be saved by God is also about the here and now.  God saves us now so that we can become more and more like Jesus now.  And in our transformation into the image of Christ, God is given the glory for the way we live our lives on this earth. When you have accepted the salvation from God, there ought to be evidence of that in the way you live. And the evidence of the inner change should be as visible to all as a light is in the dark of night.  We should not glow dimly.  For Jesus said, “14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).  In this life, we are anointed by God to do good deeds in His name.

The anointing of those who have salvation in Christ is of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus told his disciples to wait for the anointing of the Holy Spirit before they began their ministry in His name.  We receive an anointing of the same Holy Spirit when we give our lives over to Christ and receive salvation from Him.  The Holy Spirit is given to lead us and give us the wisdom and knowledge to do those things God desires of us for our time here on earth.

You know there is an expression I have heard so many times, you probably have as well.  It goes something like this.  “I can only do so much.”  And this is a true statement.  Any one of us can only do so much.  There are only 24 hours in the day, there is only so much we are capable of, there are so many limitations as to what we can and cannot do.  But the expression, “I can only do so much,” is worldly thinking. If we changed that expression slightly by adding the power of the Holy Spirit then many of the limitations we were concerned with go away and now the expression becomes, “With the Holy Spirit, I can only do so much.” 

The Apostle Paul put it this way, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).  The anointing of the Holy Spirit matters because we then are gifted and empowered by God to do those things he desires and requires of us. Salvation means we are not rescued to be the same, but rescued to be different because the Holy Spirit empowers us to now think, believe, and act in accordance with God’s will and to do so much in the name of God.

There is one final piece to this scene of salvation painted for us by the psalmist.  It is contained in a short expression, “my cup overflows” (Psalm 23:5b).  Someday, when time permits, we will explore the full meaning of this phrase.  But for today, I want us to see that the psalmist was pointing out to us that with salvation through Christ, our cup, representative of our life, overflows because we are in the presence of God. Our cup, our life, overflows with grace because our sins are removed from us.  Our cup and life overflows with peace because our identity, who we are, and our destiny, where we are going, are settled questions.  We have become a child of God and that our destiny is one in which we will “live in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).  Do you feel that way?  Do you believe your identity and destiny have been decided because you are saved?  I hope so. If not, we should talk.

We know our identity and destiny are settled questions because the cup that overflows was represented in a meal Jesus shared with his disciples before Jesus was arrested and went through the valley of the shadow of death.  Jesus shared a cup with his disciples and said, “Take and drink from this cup all of you.”  The cup offered by Jesus was for the forgiveness of sins and establishment of a new relationship, a new covenant between the saved and God.  Jesus drank the bitter cup of suffering for sin so that we would not have to do so.  In a few moments, we will be drinking the cup in remembrance of not only what Jesus did for us but that our cup overflows because of God’s presence in our lives.

Come to the table and here afresh the words of comfort in being saved.  
“4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever” (Psalm 23:4-6)

08-27 My Cup Is Overflowing

          I was reading the other day that all the conversations we will have with each other will serve one of four purposes.  Allow me a moment to explain.

We will have social conversations with one another.  The purpose of a social conversation is simply to enjoy each other’s company, such as conversation we might have while sharing a meal.  And so, we try to keep the conversation pleasant, and we follow the unwritten rule of social conversation which is to say nothing offensive.  We simply want to enjoy the moment.

We have task-centered conversations in which people gather to pool their talents to accomplish some specific activity or project.  We have task-centered conversations such as we might have in the workplace where assignments are discussed, agreed upon, and deadlines set.

We also have informational conversations in which the purpose is to give and receive information.  An example of an informational meeting would be that we attend a class and are taught something and we ask questions on that topic to learn. Informational conversations provide us with the building blocks that allow us to make changes.  Without instruction we are unable to change our present circumstances into something better.  Some sermons are informational conversations because they equip us with what we need to know to make good choices in our life.  Some sermons are not informational at all, they tend to be social conversations in which the preacher tries very hard not to say anything offensive to anyone.  A conversational sermon is not a good sermon because one only needs to speak of Jesus in a public setting to realize that the message of the cross is offensive to many people.  So, to speak about Jesus is no longer a social conversation.  A sermon spoken without the possibility of offending someone is not worth delivering.  Preachers must preach a message of content that they might expect someone to be offended simply because information was shared about Jesus that they did not want to hear.

So we have three types of conversations so far, social conversations in which we are pleasant, task-centered conversations in which we are trying to organize ourselves to do work, and informational conversations in which we are being equipped to make changes.  The fourth type of conversation we will have with one another is a spiritual formation conversation.  A spiritually centered conversation is one whose purpose is to celebrate the presence of God in our lives.  A spiritually centered conversation is a freeing conversation because from it we come to realize what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through our lives.  In such conversations, we feel a release from whatever constrains us, whether it is fear, anxiousness, discouragement, apathy, or confusion.  A spiritually focused conversation energizes us to make ourselves available to do what God wants us to do.  Spiritually centered conversations make us aware of God stirring us up within for greater purposes than socializing, tasks, and education.  We are being changed into the likeness of Christ. When you celebrate God’s presence and you realize that holiness dwells in your soul, a tension develops within you between where you are now and where you now long to be.  Spiritually centered conversations are rare, too rare.  We need more preaching that leads us in spiritually centered conversations, and we need more conversations between each other that stirs the fire within us.

It is important for us to understand our conversations have a purpose to them and we have an opportunity and a responsibility to determine which type of conversation we should be having whether those conversations are social, task-centered, informational, or spiritually focused. And as we think about our conversations with each other and the purpose they serve, we must also realize that God wants a conversation with us.  God’s conversation with us comes principally from His Word, the Bible. 

Let’s think about the Bible for a moment.  What sort of conversation is the Bible?  I do not think the Bible is a social conversation. The Bible offends too many people. There are too many conversations about unpleasant topics like sin and hell for the Bible to be a social conversation. It does not seem to be a task-centered conversation.  While there are some dos and don’ts in the Bible, we are left free to agree to do them or not.  There is certainly a case to be made that the Bible is an informational conversation. Paul even says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  And Paul is right, Scripture is useful for informational conversations to equip us.  But I have met far too many people who treat the Bible as something to be studied as though one was studying history of the ancient peoples or literature.  Those who treat Scripture, God’s Word, as just an educational resource has the foundational building blocks necessary for a spiritually centered life, but if they stop there, that the Bible is an educational tool alone, they never live the life the Bible encourages.

The purpose of God’s Word then must be for God to have a spiritual formation conversation with each of us.  God’s Word is giving to us and should be read by us with excitement to see how and where God is present in our lives and how God is releasing us, freeing us, giving us tension as to where we are and where He wants us, and now we, want to be.  The Word of God should stir us up – that is its purpose.  The whole of gospel of Jesus Christ was to stir people up and to see that God was present among them.  Yes, of course, what Jesus had to say was informative but if we left what Jesus said as a lecture, we would have missed the entirety of what God was doing in and through Jesus.

So today, I would like us to explore God’s Word, to see in part the informational elements to it, but more importantly to focus on the spiritual formation conversation God is having with us through the Bible.  And I thought it might be useful to have such a conversation with a piece of Scripture that most people would know or at least heard before whether they were a believer or were here seeking.  And that conversation from God is Psalm 23.

Psalm 23 consists of beautiful words that have been spoken on occasions grand and small, in public and private, in joy and in sadness.  We have spoken of this psalm several times in our worship services, including today in our reading and in our hymns.  Psalm 23 begins with the gentle opening words, “1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3).  The words are soft and comforting.  The words speak about a God whom the psalmist has become acquainted. God is not unknown to the psalmist. The psalmist likened God to a shepherd who was good at tending his sheep making sure to lead the sheep where they would find enough to eat and drink. There is little tension in what the psalmist said.  The conversational tone is somewhat informational and educational bordering and may at first appearance seem like a social conversation because there is nothing in the psalmist words that are offensive or provocative.  We find the opening to this psalm quiet and serene.

But something happens in the verse that follows, something hard and dangerous.  There is a tension that overshadows the serenity of the scene painted in the first three verses.  The psalmist writes, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).  The quiet waters and green pastures are replaced by a valley, deep and dark, with a narrow trail where it feels like death is all around.  Evil has replaced the serenity and the psalmist looks for protection not for some God that he had heard about but from a God that He knows personally.  A God that he now longer speaks about as “the Lord,” “My shepherd,” and “He” but the psalmist speaks to this God directly as “You,” saying “You are with me.”  This God whom the psalmist once had heard of and spoke about is now a God whom he sees and knows.

The psalmist change in perspective parallel those of the Biblical character Job.  Job we learn was a man who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). Job was wealthy and had many children. Job was living in the land of green pastures and still waters.  Job was a careful man who offered sacrifices to God in the hopes that doing so God would continue his days and the days of his family in comfort and peace.  This is how Job imagined God, a God who blessed those who bless Him.

Then in a single, horrible day, Job wealthy was stolen, and his children died in a thunderous storm.  Job was, of course, devastated.  Job had left the green pastures and still waters and had entered the valley of the shadow of death.  It was in that valley that God and Job had a conversation.  It was not a social conversation, or a task-centered conversation, nor was it an informational conversation, though Job learned a great deal. Instead, the conversation God had with Job was spiritually formulative, it was transformational, and stirred Job in ways he never had been.  When that conversation between God and Job ended, Job said, “My ears had heard of you (God) but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5).  Job no longer spoke about a God he had heard about but spoke to the God he now had seen personally and profoundly.

Job and the psalmist each had a transformative experience in which the journey through the valley of the shadow of death made them aware of the presence of God and God desire for them creating a freeing tension within them. In that tension, with a spiritual conversation stirring his heart, the psalmist saw God with fresh eyes and the psalmist saw his own circumstances quite differently.  The psalmist wrote, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:5-6).  The psalmist saw God less as a shepherd and more as a savior.

Why did the psalmist change his perspective on God and change from talking about God to talking to God?  The change came in the valley of the shadow of death. Whose death was it that the psalmist experienced in that valley?  It certainly was not the death of the psalmist because the psalmist emerged from the valley.  Was it the death of someone the psalmist loved, like the case of Job when his children died?  It certainly could have been the death of a loved one through which the psalmist came to realize that God was present guiding each step of the way.  It is certainly true that we will not get through grief from the death of a loved one without God.

But I think though there is another possibility the psalmist is alluding to the valley of the shadow of death.  And that possibility gives rise to a deeper understanding of God.  I think we should consider that in that valley of the shadow of death, the psalmist foresaw a death that transformed him from one who had heard about God to one who had seen God.  That death stirred up the psalmist in such a way as to desire a personal relationship with a God above all other things in life. The death was the most profound death he could imagine, in fact, it was an unimaginable death.

I believe the death that the psalmist saw was the death the shepherd willingly endured for righteousness’ sake and for the sake of the sheep.  Why might that be so?  The death of Psalm 23 was perhaps described for us in Psalm 22, just one psalm earlier. The psalmist described the death this way.

A man stood accused and sentenced to death.  In that man’s own words he said, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.  All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.  8 ‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him.  Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’  14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.  17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. 18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Psalm 22:6-8, 14-18).  The psalmist is describing the crucifixion of a man but not just any man, but a man who would be anointed by God.  This man we would come to know later as Jesus Christ.  Before his death said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11) and “Jesus said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’” (Luke 24:44).  In being witness to this death, a death that led to the salvation of the soul, the psalmist was transformed.  The psalmist having witnessed this death of the shepherd was profoundly changed and expressed the gift of salvation coming from the valley this way:  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:5-6).  That is psalmist way of describing salvation brought to him after the death.

The psalmist had had a conversation with God.  Not one that was social, or task-centered, or informational.  The psalmist talked to God and in doing so had a spiritually centered conversation that changed his life.  It changed the psalmist life because the psalmist no longer spoke about the God, he had heard of, but he began speaking to the God he had now seen. A God who would himself taste death so that the psalmist could live.

The description of the death the psalmist saw was repeated for us in the Gospels of Jesus Christ.  Luke wrote, “33 When they [the soldiers] came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him [Jesus, piercing his hands and feet] there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they [the soldiers] divided up his clothes by casting lots.  35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him [Jesus]. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.  44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he [Jesus] breathed his last. 47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man’” (Luke 23:33-35, 44-47).

In Jesus’ own words, He said, “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning!  I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49-50).  Jesus upon the cross accomplished his mission for, “The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, for God had appointed Jesus to bring the Good News to the poor.  God had sent Jesus to proclaim that the captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18).

God through the accomplished work of Jesus Christ walked through the valley of the shadow of death for us.  In doing so, Jesus has released us, freed us, given us tension as to where we are and where He wants us, and now we, want to be.  This is the spiritual conversation God is having with us in the psalms and the gospels. This is the Word of God that stirs us up – that is its purpose.  The whole of gospel of Jesus Christ is to stir us up to see the God we may only had only heard about.

The psalmist did not let what had been stirred up in him by letting the experience pass by.  The psalmist was changed by experiencing God. We must not let what the psalmist foresaw, and what Jesus experienced for you settle quietly within your soul as a though the story of Jesus is one of green pastures and quiet waters. Instead, be transformed by it and enter the conversation with God as one that is intended to spiritually transform your being such that you desire God more than anything else in this world. Amen and Amen.

07-30 - Follow Me

          When I was a kid, long before there were electronic gadgets to amuse us, we had to amuse ourselves playing games together.  We played games outside.  Some games required us to use whatever we could had available to set up a game, such as someone’s shirt for first base for baseball game.  And sometimes we played games that required nothing but ourselves such as follow the leader.

          Following the leader was, of course, a simple game of choosing a leader, lining up behind that person, and then following closely behind the leader mimicking whatever the leader did.  If you did not do as the leader did, just once, then you were out of the game.  As the game progressed, someone who was a follower would complain, “I want to be the leader,” and the leadership would change. Eventually, we would tire of playing that game because the leader, whoever they were, did not improve the condition of those who followed, and the leader never had a destination in mind for the group.  We just followed the leader aimlessly around the yard.  The game stopped once the uselessness of the game became apparent. The words of the leader, “Follow me!” fell on deaf ears.

          Our Scripture today talks about responding to the call to Jesus’ “Follow me.”  There are about 20 such examples in the Gospels of Jesus saying, “Follow me.”  The gospel writer Luke recorded one of these moment this way.  Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:23-26).

          The game of follow the leader and Jesus’ words to “Follow me,” sound similar but once uttered, the similarity between the two begins and ends.  Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” is not an aimless call as it is in the game follower the leader.  The words “Follow me,” from Jesus are tied to the goal of becoming Jesus’ disciple. Today, outside of church, we do not use the word disciple.  Today, no business ever posts a sign that says, “Apply now, disciples wanted.”  But the word disciple was very well-known in Jesus’ time.  In Jesus’ time, it was common for young Hebrew men to become followers or disciples of a particular rabbi.  The young men would devote themselves to living with the rabbi and learning what the rabbi knew and doing what the rabbi did.  So devoted were disciples to their rabbi that there are stories that the students, the followers, would imitate everything about the rabbi to include the rabbi’s manner of speech and his manner of walking.  Think of it this way, if the rabbi walked with a limp, so too did his disciples.  In the world of craftsmen and artisans, people became disciples of a master.  This was another form of discipleship, a call to imitate the leader or master.

          So when Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must follow me,” his words were not a radical thought on their own.  It was expected to become the disciple of a master, or a rabbi, required following.  But Jesus said to follow him with the goal of becoming his disciple would require the follower to first deny themselves and take up the cross every day.  What did Jesus’ mean “deny yourself” and “take up your cross?”  Let’s look at each of these phrases separately.

          What does it mean to “deny yourself?”  Denial of self is very different from self-denial. Self-denial is when we willingly take up give things up. Many Christians practice self-denial when they “give something up for Lent.”  This is self-denial.  When I was growing up every Lent we would offer to give up going to school but we never got any traction in doing so with my parents.  So self-denial is a giving up of things, practices, or pleasures of life. Denial of self, on the other hand, is when we take ourselves and what we want to accomplish in this world out of center stage and we place Christ and his gospel at the core of all we are and do. Denial of self was expressed by Jesus to God want he said, “Thy will be done,” and not “my will be done.”  So the first condition for becoming a disciple of Jesus required an emptying of oneself to make room for Jesus and what Jesus had to offer.

          Secondly, Jesus said to follow him, required people to “pick up their cross.”  What did Jesus mean “pick up their cross?”  Just moments prior to Jesus’ call, Jesus said, “22 ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed’” (Luke 9:22b).  Suffering, rejection, and death constituted the cross, the consequence of the gospel that the master, the leader, was willingly to endure for his beliefs and goals.  We like to say, “Choices have consequences.”  Well it is important for us to also understand that goals have consequences.  To pick up your cross daily to follow Jesus was another way of saying, “You must be willing to take upon yourself the consequences of becoming a disciple of Jesus.” Said another way, Jesus said, “Anyone who intends to come with me must let me lead. You can’t be in the driver’s seat—I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how” (Luke 9:23 MSG).

          Now admittedly, thus far Jesus’ call does not sound very inviting because to follow him sounded like it would be a different sort of discipleship.  To follow Jesus would not be like following a rabbi or working under a master craftsman or artisan.  Jesus was promising consequences for following him and becoming his disciple. Let’s face it, generally in life, we want to avoid anything that sounds like a consequences almost no matter how trivial those consequences might be.  I think of myself driving to a destination that I have been to before. I will still put that destination into the GPS not because I need the directions but because I want to be alerted to traffic slowdowns and be offered alternative routes to avoid the consequence of sitting in traffic for a few minutes.  We seek to avoid consequences and yet Jesus’ call invited his disciples to willingly accept the consequences of following him.  Why would they want to follow Jesus?

Jesus answered the question of why follow him this way. “24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.  25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24-25).  Jesus’ explanation for wanting to be his disciple dealt with the most consequential matter for every human being, that is saving their life. All humans ever born or who will be born, share a natural, instinctive, inborn desire to live.  No one must be taught to want to live.  From birth, we know we want to live and keep our life going. From the first moment of birth, we already know to cry out for the breath to fill our lungs and we cry out for food to fill our stomachs.  And that deep seated desire to live never changes.  So when Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life,” he was saying that the consequence of becoming his disciple was to save their life and thus Jesus was speaking to everyone because everyone wants to save their life.

Everyone who heard Jesus words was listening intently, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.”  What was Jesus saying here?  Simply, “If you want to be the master of your life, if you want to live with the attitude ‘No one is the boss of me!’, if you want to be the center of your own life, because you believe you know how best to live, then you will eventually lose the very life you hold so dear.”  Jesus added, “25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25)  Jesus was saying even if you are so successful at being your own person such that you somehow acquired the entire world, would all that be worth your life?

Satan made an offer of the whole world to Jesus when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness.  Satan took “Jesus to a very high mountain and showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” Satan said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to Satan, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’” (Matthew 4:8-10).  Jesus understood he could gain the whole world but at the cost of life in who God intended him to be.

“But” Jesus said.  There is always a but.  Jesus said, “But whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24). In context, “But whoever loses their life by denying themselves, becoming my disciple, and accepting the consequences of living a life in and through Me, will save their life.”  The true consequence of following Jesus became clear.  The consequence of following Jesus is not temporary hardship but life itself.

The Apostle Paul put it this way, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:7-11).  Paul, in denying himself, came into the belief that things of this world are just that they are things.  And at some point the things of this world become rubbish.  But to know Jesus, to follow him into life with God is everything and that never changes.

Jesus finished his thought about the consequences of following him or not following him this way, “26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26).  To those who seek to save their own life, meaning they deny the person, the need, the knowledge of Christ, they will receive exactly what they ask for when they stand before God.  They will be on their own and their life with God will be lost.  The converse is true as well and Jesus said so in Luke 12, verse 8 when he said, ““I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8).  To be a disciple of Jesus, to follow Jesus as leader now is decision to be with God forever.

I started today reminiscing a bit about a kid’s game called follow the leader.  Like all kids’ games, there are no real and lasting consequences to playing it or not playing it.  There are no real consequences of winning the game or not winning the game.  Playing follow the leader is a game of following the person in front of you.  A person who may make silly motions with their body and has no destination in mind. But the words of Jesus about following him as leader have a serious tone to them and long-lasting and rewarding consequences.  Jesus challenged his listeners to save their lives by giving their lives to Him for safekeeping.  Who does not want to save their life?

When we accept Jesus’ call there are some consequences we must accept in our decision.  When we save our lives through Jesus, we must be willing to have others see that we are Christians, not just on Sunday, but every day and in every way. When we acknowledge Jesus, we can no longer remain silent about things which are morally wrong.  We must reject culture’s non-Christian values and views. We must not blend into society or be silent about our relationship with God.  We must not be ashamed of following Jesus even if that means being rejected by family, friends, co-workers, and strangers.  Afterall, to follow Jesus means that our life has been saved.  Let us be saved and live an abundant life of joy of being saved.  Amen and Amen.