February 27, 2011

Why Three Days in a Belly? - Feb 27, 2011

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Men at Work. Give ‘em a Brake. Work Zone Ahead. Out on the road, these signs let us know that there’s work being done, and there’s probably going to be people where we don’t usually expect them.

These signs make us alert that something is going on, but, they don’t actually tell us WHAT KIND of work is happening. To find that out we have to look past the signs.

When Jesus performed a miracle, it was like He was putting up a “God at Work” sign. When your friend came home cleansed of his leprosy, that meant God was at work. When Lazarus came stumbling out of the tomb after lying there dead for four days, that meant God was at work.

Jesus’ miraculous signs did their job. They made the people alert that something was going on. But, the people had to look further to know how just how big a project Jesus was working on.

Today, we’re going to examine the book of Jonah, and one of the most unusual miracles found in the Bible. Jonah spent three days in the stomach of a huge fish, and lived to tell the tale.

We’ll also see how this miraculous sign foreshadowed Jesus’ most important miracle. Jesus spent three days dead in a tomb, but rose back to life on the third day – proving once and for all that He truly was the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.

READ: Jonah, Matthew 12:38-41


I’m not going to pull a “Discovery channel” and try to tell you that everything about the story of Jonah can be explained by natural causes. It can’t.

To stand here and try to explain away the miracle of Jonah as some natural anomaly would be as ridiculous as trying to explain just HOW God created the energy and matter of the universe from nothing.

Instead of “how”, let’s ask “why”. Why did God make Jonah spend three days in the belly of a fish? I’d say it was to RESCUE, to TEACH and the CHANGE.

Jonah chapter two shows us that God actually sent the huge fish to rescue Jonah from drowning.

In chapter two, Jonah describes how he was sinking down in the ocean after being thrown overboard in the storm. He was as good as dead. Jonah 2, verse 2
“In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depth of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry” (Jonah 2:2 NIV).
Jonah describes how the waves crashed over his head as he began to sink down into the darkness. Tangled up in seaweed he was heading for the bottom.

But then in verse 7 Jonah says,
“When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple” (Jonah 2:7 NIV).
And before Jonah’s life was gone, a huge fish glided through the deep, opened its enormous maw, and swallowed Jonah whole.

God MAY have wanted to rattle Jonah a bit by rescuing him in this way. And that leads us to the second reason Jonah spent three days in the belly of that fish.

God had sent Jonah on a mission to rebuke the sinful Ninevites. But Jonah didn’t want to. It wasn’t that Jonah was afraid of conflict. Jonah didn’t want to go because he hated the Ninevites.

Perhaps they had raided the lands of Israel before. Perhaps they had been cruel to someone Jonah knew. We aren’t told why, but Jonah didn’t want these people to know the LORD. Jonah knew that the LORD would forgive them.

But God was concerned about Nineveh’s people. He loved the little ones who couldn’t even tell their right hand from their left yet. He loved the adults who were stumbling around in the darkness of sin. The LORD wanted to teach them what life was supposed to be like. The LORD wanted to be their God. He wanted to teach them to trust in Him for forgiveness and for everything else in life.

God had the fish swallow Jonah so Jonah could teach the Ninevites about His mercy and love.

And through His reaching out to the Ninevites through Jonah, God also wished to CHANGE Jonah.

After being spoken to by God, Jonah ran. After being tossed into the hurricane of the ocean’s storm, Jonah’s anger remained. After being miraculously rescued certain death by the hand of God through a huge fish swallowing him whole and three days later spitting him back onto the beach - Jonah was still bitter toward the Ninevites.

After all the mercy Jonah had been shown by God, he still hadn’t changed. In Jonah chapter four, Jonah sits east of Nineveh pointing. Pouting and telling God that he would be better off dead.

Sometimes the clay is hard in the potter’s hands, and needs to be softened up a bit before it can be molded into something beautiful.

Two things come out clear in this story: the hardness of the sinner’s heart, and the patience of God.

Now, let’s talk about Jesus.

Jonah didn’t mention the promised Savior in his book, but Jesus referenced Jonah when replying to the Pharisees. In Matthew 12:38-41 the Pharisees asked for Jesus to prove that He was the Promised Savior by doing a miracle for them right there and then.

Jesus told them “no”. The Pharisees had already circulated the idea that the reason Jesus could do miracles was because He was in league with the demons. They weren’t looking for the truth here, and Jesus knew it. They would find some way to twist and turn any miracle of Jesus into something to discredit Him.

Instead of doing an instant miracle, Jesus pointed them to a miraculous sign that was to come. A sign that would prove that He was the Son of God and the Savior of the world. The sign of Jonah.

Jesus would spend three days in darkness. Not in the belly of a fish, but in the belly of the tomb. Instead of being “as good as dead” like Jonah was, Jesus would actually BE dead. But after three days He would leave the tomb, alive. Resurrected.

Again, I’m not going to waste any time trying to explain how this could be a natural phenomenon. In our day of modern medicine people can be shocked and pumped back from the edge of death’s precipice, but they can’t be revived after days of being cold, rigid and breathless. The resurrection was simply a miracle. God the Father brought Jesus back from the dead.

And better than how, is the question WHY. Why did Jesus have to spend three days in the tomb? Hadn’t He already earned forgiveness for sinners? Yes! On the cross Jesus suffered the punishment for my sins, for your sins, for all the sins of the world. The Bible clear says this in passages like 1 John 2:2.
“2He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NIV).
Before Jesus died He said it Himself, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Our sins stand forgiven because of the sacrifice of God’s Son.

But here’s why Jesus spent three days in the tomb. On the cross our forgiveness was earned. By the empty tomb, our forgiveness was confirmed. The forgiveness earned for all sinners on the cross only becomes our possession through faith in Jesus. Jesus spent three days in the tomb so we’d believe.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, God gives us a test to use on people who claim to be prophets from God. If someone comes and says, “I’m from God” but what they predict doesn’t come true, we don’t have to fear them. They’re not from God.

Numerous times throughout His life Jesus told others that He was going to die and rise from the dead. At first, this statement was veiled. Turn to John 2, verse 18
“18Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:18-19 NIV).
As the cross and the tomb got closer, Jesus spoke more openly. In Mark 9, verse 31 Jesus told His followers…
“…The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Mark 9:31 NIV).
In Mark 10, verse 34 Jesus got very specific…
“We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise’” (Mark 10:34 NIV).
After Jesus was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had foretold His own death and resurrection. Then they understood and believed all that the Bible and Jesus had said. (John 2:22)

But the resurrection is more than a sign to make us believe. It is also a miracle that changes everything for us.

The resurrection changes our perspective on life. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we know that there is more in store for us than this life.

The resurrection of Jesus means that our sins have been forgiven. We don’t need to trudge along feeling guilty and burdened anymore. Our Creator has saved us. We are forgiven.

We don’t have to give in to our sinful desires anymore. The Holy Spirit who brought us to faith promises that He’ll help us to resist temptation, or to flee from it.

But just like Jonah, sometimes we’re so slow to change. So slow to change. So slow to accept that we’re no longer under law, but under grace. So slow to accept that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make Him love us less.

You know, sometimes they leave the traffic cones and signs out even after the work is done. You drive into the “work zone” and find that it’s all finished. That’s what the tomb is all about when we find it on Easter morning. It’s empty.

The miracle of Jesus resurrection says, “Hey! Something huge is going on here”. And behind the sign we see – the work is finished. Our road to heaven has been paved. Our sins removed, through Jesus. The tomb is empty because there’s no work left for us to do concerning our salvation.

The only work left, is the same work God gave Jonah. To help others see the empty tomb too.

Prayer: Father in heaven, you have rescued us from sin. You have taught us who you are, our Creator, our Savior and the one who sets us apart for your own plan and purpose. Help us to honor the resurrection of Christ. Help us to see this sign and believe the message behind it. That we are forgiven. That we have new life. That since we are forgiven, sin has lost it’s power over us. Help us to live the message of the resurrection. Help us to live up to the salvation you have given. Change us, Lord. Make us wholly yours. Amen.

February 20, 2011

Look and Live - Feb 20, 2011

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You might be wondering what in the world “Pre-Lent” is. My wife was when she proofread the bulletin last night.

In the ancient church calendar, the season of Epiphany ended three Sundays before the season of Lent began. Those three Sundays sandwiched between Epiphany and Lent were called Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday. Collectively they have been simply called “Pre-Lent”.

This year we’ll be using these three Sundays to prepare our hearts and minds for Lent. To do this we’ll use a Sunday to meditate on Christ’s Cross, one for Christ’s Resurrection and one for Christ’s Glorious return on the Last Day. Our sermon texts will come from the Old Testament.

Today, we consider the Cross.


Our sermon reading from the book of Numbers is simple. Boiled down to just three words it is about SIN, REBUKE and GRACE. It concerns the nation of Israel, so before we start reading, we need to understand what period of Israel’s history this takes place in.

Israel had been in slavery. They called out for the LORD to rescue them. The LORD sent Moses, and through plagues on the Egyptian people and many other miracles, God took the Israelites from Pharaoh to be His own people.

In the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, at the very foot of Mt. Sinai, the people saw God’s presence in smoke and fire and dark clouds. There, the LORD gave Moses the Ten Commandments and all the other laws concerning how the nation of Israel would be governed, and how the people would worship the LORD. By these laws God would set this people apart from the other nations of the world. This was the nation from which the Savior would be born.

The LORD promised the Israelites that He would lead them through the desert to a rich land that would be their own. As they traveled through the wilderness to reach this Promised Land, God fed them with miracle bread. The Israelites called it “Manna” because they didn’t know what it was. It appeared in the morning with the dew, and dissipated in the heat of the day.

When they needed water, God provided water. Sometimes God made undrinkable waters pure. Other times God made pure water spring out of rock for the people to drink.

When they reached the border of the Promised Land, the Israelites sent scouts to scope out the land and its inhabitants. When the scouts returned, they said the land was indeed rich, but they should go back to Egypt instead, because the people there were too large and too strong to displace.

Because they didn’t trust the LORD’s promise to make this land theirs, God proclaimed that only two of them would ever enter the Promised Land. The two scouts who had urged the people to go up and take the land. The rest of the people would wander in the desert for forty years until they were all dead. Only their children would enter the rich land that God had promised.

Our text for today falls near the end of the forty years of wandering. The Israelites are nearly ready to enter the Promised Land. In fact, they were on the way to the border when they hit yet another snag.

The best way to the Promised Land was through the land of Edom, but the king of Edom would not give them passage through his land. He even mustered his army just in case the Israelites tried.

So, they had to go around. That’s where we pick up our reading…

Numbers 21:4-9 (NIV)

4They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

Like I said earlier, you can summarize this reading with three words: SIN, REBUKE and GRACE.

First we see sin.

The people grew impatient. We can almost excuse this one, can’t we? Or at least understand it. I mean, these children had grown up in the desert. They have moved from one place to another, living in tents all their lives. They had to carry their own water, and gather their own food every day. There were no towns out there in the wasteland. And why were they forced to grow up in the desert? Because their parents didn’t trust the LORD when they came to the border of the Promised Land so many years ago.

But now, they were on their way to finally enter it. Then they wouldn’t have to live in dusty tents anymore. They would have walls, and rooms and real beds, and wells and gardens and vineyards. But all the sudden they had to go out of their way and travel all the way around the country of Edom.

Their impatience grew, and blossomed into the bitter flower of ungrateful discontent. They “conveniently” forgot how much they had been given by the LORD. They were alive in the wasteland because HE provided bread for them every morning. They SAID they didn’t have any water, but if that were really true, they’d have been dead already. In fact, if you back up from our reading, in the first part of this chapter God provided water for them right out of a rock at a place called Meribah.

Finally, their blossoming discontent sent up the acrid scent of open rebellion. They expressed their rebellion against God in words when they said – “And we detest this miserable food!”

Manna may not have been chocolate cake, but it was what was keeping them alive, and it was given from the very hand of God each and every day.

If we had been there, would we have acted in this way? I wonder. Sin has re-wired the human mind so that we are instinctively impatient. As children our impatience is amplified. As adults we’re have a smidge more, until we have a bad day, a slow internet connection, or find ourselves in an unexpected traffic jam.

And then, do we glorify God by bearing these setbacks and slowdowns with tact and grace? Or do we swear and honk our horns, forgetting that it is by God’s gracious hand that we even have cars, or roads on which to be impatient.

Sin has wired us for ungrateful discontent also. In this country, we are tremendously rich. Yet, we don’t consider ourselves wealthy. Even if we’ve got multiple cars, large screen TV’s and a cell phone for each child. We generally don’t live within our means, but just outside our means – which illustrates our desire for just a little more. And so the debts piles up, or the stuff does.

Even in the middle of plenty, we can be discontent. In our own way we say with the Israelites – “God, I detest this miserable food”. Sin has wired us for this response. But that doesn’t make it right. And that doesn’t make it okay.

When the Israelites sinned against the LORD, God rebuked them. We might be tempted to view this response by God in a bad light. Like He just got angry and wanted to wreck something, so He vented His anger on the whining Israelites. But that’s not what God’s rebuke is all about.

In the book of Proverbs Solomon writes…
“11My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
12because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11-12 NIV).
When the LORD sent venomous snakes into the camp of the Israelites, He did it in judgment of some – it was their death. But to others this was a loving rebuke. Rebuke is never a pleasant thing, but it serves a purpose. It’s like a slap to the face meant to shut our complaining mouths and wake us up to reality of our situation.

And it did just that for the Israelites. They realized that their implication that the LORD had led them out into the desert just to kill them was completely baseless. The snakes that slithered through their camp made it clear that if the LORD really wanted them dead, they’d be dead.

God wanted them to live. And not just live through the desert on their way to the Promised Land of Palestine, God wanted them to live in harmony with Him forever. Looking to Him as their great God and provider in this life, and in eternity.

The LORD’s rebuke was harsh, but it woke the people up. They abandoned their brash complaints, and turned to Moses with a heavy heart. They told Moses they were wrong, and asked him to request that God take these snakes away.

It’s too bad they didn’t do this in the first place. You know, ask God for help. If their frustration led them to assault the throne of God with PRAYERS instead of complaints and accusations, things would have gone much differently. May God give US the faith to respond to our frustrations with prayer and trust, so that we don’t have to feel the heavy hand of God’s rebuke.

The last paragraph in our text is my favorite. We’ve seen SIN. We’ve send REBUKE. Now we see God’s GRACE. Look again at verse 8…
“8The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived” (Numbers 21:8-9 NIV).
Simple, isn’t it? God doesn’t make it complicated. Those who look at the snake, live.

The Israelites only asked for the snakes to go away, God gave them more. He healed the already bitten. The doomed, would now live.

And what an unusual way to heal. God didn’t instruct them to treat themselves in some mystic way. He didn’t require them offer some special sacrifice of sadness or self degradation. Through His servant Moses, God simply gave them the gift that would heal them.

In the book of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul talks about all the different things that the wandering children of Israel went through on their way to the Promised Land. Paul says that these things were written down as a warning for us. So that we will not do the evil things that the Israelites did, and face the wrath of God.

We will sin, we’re wired for that. But when we do, and when we face God’s rebuke (harsh or gentle), now we know what happens next. God heals. He heals our souls through the forgiveness that came because God’s Son was raised up on a pole.

In John 3 Jesus says…
“14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-15 NIV).
The man-made religions of the world teach that God would have us earn our own forgiveness of sins. But the LORD says something altogether different and wonderful. He says, “Look and live”. Look to Christ’s Cross trusting that there He suffered for all your sins. Look and live.

As we go through the season of Lent, remember that the Cross is what it’s all about. Look and live.

Prayer: Father in heaven, lead us away from sin. Give us patience, gratefulness and contentment. Teach us to see your hand at work in our lives. Teach us to wait on your plan. And while we wait, teach our mouths to praise you and our hearts to pray to you in complete trust. And when we do sin, teach us to bring our sins to You. Teach us to look at the Cross of your Son and believe that there we are healed. Don’t let us flounder in self-justification or trying to earn our own salvation. Teach us to look and live. Amen.

February 13, 2011

First a Cross, Then the Glory

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This Epiphany we’ve been examining the ministry of Jesus in the book of Luke. Today we’ll be reading the first half of Luke chapter 9.

One of todays readings tells about how Jesus VISIBLY revealed His glory as God the Son. This was a unique event in Jesus’ life. Usually, He covered up His visible glory. He did this because His life was about humbling Himself, even to the point of dying a horrific death – so that sinners, like us, now stand forgiven of all our sins.

For Jesus, the dark road of the cross came first, then came resurrection and restoration to glory at the Father’s side. In today’s readings Jesus reveals that this is the same path His forgiven followers must walk – first the dark road of life, then resurrection and glory at the Father’s side.


Luke 9:18-22 (NIV)

18Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
19They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”
20“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
21Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

How would you like to be a celebrity? Maybe an important politician, a billionaire, a movie star or a sports icon. These things are glamorous, but celebrity comes with a price tag. We’ve all seen pictures of celebrities moving through a bustling airport with a hat on, big sunglasses and baggy clothes. For celebrities, simple travel requires a disguise.

Celebrity opens some doors, but closes others. Imagine being a single celebrity seeking a meaningful relationship. Any date would inevitably come with all sorts of preconceived ideas about who you are, drawn from the movies you’ve been in, or the sound bites that the media has plastered on the front page of countless newspapers and magazines. People would figure that they know you, but really, they wouldn’t. And maybe they couldn’t know the real you without a lot of work.

Now imagine the celebrity status that Jesus had to face. He was the predicted Savior of the world. His entire life had been foretold by God’s prophets long before He was ever born. And even though the prophets had conveyed a perfect image of what the Savior would be like, the people who read these prophecies often misinterpreted the details, constructing their own version of the Savior. They thought they knew Him, but they didn’t.

This was a big problem for Jesus. The whole purpose of His life was to save sinners from divine punishment for their sins. To do this He had to suffer and die in their place, and he also had to get the people to realize that He was the Savior, so they would believe and be saved. But how could He teach them anything, when they already THOUGHT they knew what He was all about?

Jesus’ solution to the problem of celebrity was to duck it. To avoid it. He spent 30 years of his life simply growing up. Living in the little backwater town of Nazareth. Not doing anything particularly astonishing. Not preaching. Not healing. Not proclaiming Himself to be the promised Christ.

When it came time for Jesus’ ministry to begin in earnest, He was perceived as an everyday-Joe, just like everyone else. Even when Jesus started preaching and teaching and healing he kept it low-key. In fact, He didn’t even call Himself the Christ. He called Himself the “Son of Man”, an obscure Old Testament reference to the Christ.

When Jesus cast demons out of possessed people, they sometimes tried to ruin Jesus’ “disguise” by yelling that they knew Him to be the “Holy One of God”. But Jesus shut them up quickly with a stern command.

When Jesus healed a leper, the Bible says He told the man not to tell anyone what He had done. This was Jesus’ regular mode of operating. In one town when He raised a little girl from the dead. He did this miracle in private, with only three of His disciples and the parents of the girl as witnesses. Afterwards He told the little girls parents to keep quiet about it.

All of this secrecy was meant to sidestep the obstacle of celebrity. It was meant to enable the people to see the Christ for who He really was, and what He really was really about before they even knew it was Him. But still, the people misunderstood Jesus.

When Jesus asked his disciples who the people thought He was, there was a range of answers. Some said He was John the Baptist. Others, Elijah, the prophet from the Old Testament. Some figured Jesus must be some other Old Testament prophet back from the dead.

The people were actually doing pretty good. They recognized that God’s hand was at work in the ministry of Jesus. They were on the right track.

After Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, many would come to believe that He really was the Christ, and their Savior from sin. Those two events were the events that Jesus’ ministry was constantly headed for. Crucifixion and resurrection.

These events were foretold clearly in Old Testament prophecies like those found in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. But until those events came to pass, Jesus insisted that the apostles remain quiet about His identity. Like it says in verse 20...
‘20“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
21Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life”’ (Luke 9:20-22 NIV).
The Old Testament prophecy said these things had to happen to the Christ. Even so, they had a hard time accepting that Savior whom the Old Testament sometimes depicted as being so glorious, would win the victory for them through dying a humiliating death.

Even after Jesus had been raised from the dead on Easter morning, people found this message hard to accept. The apostle Paul wrote,
“...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23 NIV).
To the Jews, the idea of a Hero who dies a humiliating death was foreign to all their preconceived notions of what the Christ would be like. They figured He’d be a glorious king right away. They didn’t understand that the cross must come first, then the glory. Humble service, then elevation to glory by the very hand of God the Father.

In summary, Jesus avoided celebrity so the people could listen to His message with minimal distractions. He avoided celebrity to allow His crucifixion and resurrection could speak for themselves.

But, there was another reason Jesus moved humbly through His life on the way to the cross and glory. Jesus’ life was to be a pattern that His believers would follow.

Listen to the second half of our sermon reading.

Luke 9:23-27 (NIV)

23Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? 26If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: Jesus moved humbly through His life on the way to the cross and final glory. He tells us openly that if we follow Him, this pattern will be imprinted on our lives also. First comes self-denial and cross carrying, then comes final glory in the kingdom of God.

Jesus isn’t being cute here. He’s laying it all on the table for His disciples to see. The Christian life is hard. Just look at the figure of speech He uses to describe it, “daily cross carrying”. When a criminal was condemned to die by crucifixion, it was a horrible, humiliating thing. He was flogged and then forced to carry his own instrument of torture to the place of crucifixion. He was forced to take up and carry the very thing that would cause his death. This isn’t a pretty picture.

People today sometimes talk about carrying their own crosses. Christians and non-Christians alike might say, “Well, that’s my cross to bear”. We’ve heard people say that, right? Usually they’re talking about some problem or hardship in life that they can’t just shed. They have to carry it, and they accept that. But it’s hard.

It might be something like cancer. Or some other disease or physical problem. It might be a responsibility like caring for a loved one who is hard to care for. It might be some personal addiction like alcoholism or drug abuse that must be constantly avoided and fought.

That’s how people today talk about “cross carrying”. It’s a general term for any on-going struggle we have in life. But when Jesus speaks of picking up our own crosses, He’s zeroing in on the burdens that we bear BECAUSE OF HIM. He says, “whoever loses his life FOR ME will save it” (Luke 9:24 NIV).

What crosses do you bear BECAUSE you follow Jesus? What bad things happen to you BECAUSE you follow Jesus?

Maybe it’s being ridiculed for believing that God created the world in six day like He says in Genesis. Maybe it’s being called exclusive and judgmental because you believe, like the Bible says, that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Maybe it’s not doing what your heart tells you because you know that it’s not what Jesus would have you do.

The crosses that we bear BECAUSE of Jesus are hard because they involve DAILY DENIAL of the here and now, in favor of the future that Jesus promises.

Do you watch game shows? Television game shows often have a similar twist. There’s a point where the contestant can take the money they’ve already got and go, or they can risk it all for the jackpot. What would you do? Take a couple thousand, or hang in there for a chance at a billion?

Jesus presents the life of a Christ follower in similar terms. In the game show of life we can take the small payoff offered by the sinful world, or we can hang in there for the massive fortune of eternity with the Living God.

The only difference is that the eternal fortune Jesus promises His followers is guaranteed.

In this section, Jesus makes it clear that His followers can’t ride the fence. They can’t serve two masters, sinful self and the sinless God. We can’t live our lives with one foot dancing in the sinful world, and one foot standing in the kingdom. It’s one or the other.

Following Christ means rejecting our sinful selves, willingly picking up our cross for Jesus, and persistently following with final glory in our sights.

Jesus presents these truths without a sugar coating. But He also teaches us that the weight of these heavy burdens is nothing compared to what we would carry apart from Jesus.

In Matthew 11, verse 29 Jesus says…
‘28“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light”’ (Matthew 11:29-30 NIV).
The cross that Jesus places on His followers is light and easy when compared to the ghastly weight of our own sin that it replaces. Think about it like this. Apart from Jesus we would have to carry our own guilt and sin to the foot of God’s throne. And there, without Jesus, we would be condemned to bear that weight for eternity apart from God and all His goodness.

But through faith in Jesus, our cross of sin is removed. The cross of following Jesus ends in complete forgiveness and renewal on the Last Day. When Jesus comes in His own glory and the glory of the Father and with the holy angels, the faithful not be condemned, but embraced.

The writer of the book of Hebrews sums up all these ideas in Hebrews 12.
“1Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NKJV).
First a cross, then the glory. That was Jesus’ life, and the life of those who follow Him. First a cross, then the glory. May God give us all the strength of faith that we may follow His rough path with resolve.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we can talk to You now because after Your suffering and death in our place, the Father raised You back to life and glory. Help us never to try to live our lives with one foot in the world and one in your kingdom. Strength our resolve so that the piddly treasure and celebrity that this world offers look pathetic to us because our eyes are focused on YOU . Thank you for forgiving us all our sins by Your humiliating suffering. Lead us to gladly take up our own crosses, the ones we receive because we trust in You. Help us to lose ourselves in You, Lord Jesus, and thus gain that which has eternal value. Amen.

February 6, 2011

Faith Gardening with Jesus - Feb 6, 2011

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The main focus of Epiphany is seeing how Jesus’ words and actions proved Him to be the Son of God, and the Savior God promised to send in order to rescue sinners from hell. During this Epiphany we’ve been examining Jesus’ ministry in the book of Luke. Today we see and hear our Savior in Luke chapter 8.


I like to tell stories. As a teacher and a pastor I find that stories can be very effective at making a point or explaining a concept. Jesus felt the same way. The Bible records at least 40 different stories that Jesus told during the course of his ministry. Jesus used each of these stories to prove a point, or to explain a concept.

40 parables. That’s a lot, and that doesn’t even include all the little “example” stories that He used in every day communication. Like when the Pharisees were making a big stink about Jesus healing on the Day of Rest. Jesus told them,
“If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11 NIV).
Little story, point made.

For our sermon meditation today we examine Jesus’ parable about the “Sower and the Seed”. This parable is about the Word of God being spoken to sinners, and how different situations yield different results in the human soul.

Luke 8:4-15 (ESV)

4And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: 5“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. 6And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. 8And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
9And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12The ones along the path are those who have heard. Then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.

Here Jesus tells His disciples that His parables have a secondary purpose. They have a teaching function, and they also have a judgment function. Jesus says,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (Luke 8:10 ESV).
Jesus was quoting a section from Isaiah 6. In Isaiah, the people had rejected and mocked the LORD. So, He sent them a prophet, Isaiah, who they could not understand. He would speak wisely, but in a way the people wouldn’t understand. God was basically saying, “You rejected my word when you understood it, now you won’t even understand it. It will be within your grasp, but will remain a mystery to you.”

In the paragraph that comes right after our sermon reading, Jesus says…
“Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him” (Luke 8:18 NIV).
To those who rejected Jesus as the Savior, parables would mean little. But to the disciples, who believed in and followed Jesus, He explained everything. As He does for us also, through Luke’s Gospel. Now, let's get to the parable.

We know the basic outline.

A farmer goes out to plant some grain. He throws it this way and that way in the tilled field, and there are four results. 1) Some is eaten by the birds. 2) Some spring up on the rocks, but die for lack of moisture. 3) Some spring up in the weedy patch of the field, but don’t grow enough to produce anything useful. And, 4) Some spring up in the tilled soil, where they have everything needed and they grow and produce a great harvest.

Jesus does us a favor here. When explaining the parable to His disciples, He says…
“…The seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11).
It’s hard to get clearer than that.

It’s not quite so clear cut from there on, but it’s not hard to get our minds around this parable.

Each soil situation is a warning. Jesus is revealing attacking points that Satan will use to prevent the word of God from saving sinners and changing lives.

That’s why Jesus mentions Satan in his explanation of the seed that falls on the path. He says that the Devil comes along and takes away the word from people’s hearts so that they can’t believe and be saved.

Quick removal is the best way to avoid a really bad burn. Quick removal is also the best way to ensure a sinner doesn’t begin trusting Jesus for forgiveness. If the Devil can cause a person to MISUNDERSTAND, FORGET or DISREGARD the message of Jesus – there isn’t any way that person can come to believe in Jesus as the promised Savior.

Listen to that again. If the Devil can get a person to MISUNDERSTAND, FORGET or DISREGARD the message of Jesus - then Satan has won.

This is why spray painting “Jesus Saves” on the highway overpass isn’t converting thousands every day (that one is probably misunderstood, forgotten and disregarded).

I think DISREGARD is of particular importance to Christ followers today. We can communicate the message of Christ flawlessly. We can get all our teachings right, and explain them in unforgettable language. But, if our lives don’t match up with Christ’s teachings, what are unbelievers going to think? It’s easy to disregard the message of a person who talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.

This is just as much and indictment on my own life as any other Christian’s. Let’s make sure that we live lives which cannot be used to disregard the message of sin and grace.

The second situation Jesus relates in the parable of the Sower and the Seed is this: a person who comes to faith, but who stops trusting in Jesus because the word of God isn’t flowing into his life. A sprout needs water to live and grow. A follower of Christ needs the word to live and grow in faith.

Jesus told his followers,
“…All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV).
When I baptize a child into Christ’s family, I remind the parents that baptism is like planting the seed of faith. If that sprout isn’t watered, it will die. Jesus says, Baptize and then teach.

Scripture speaks of new converts to Christ as being “infants” in the faith. When Paul gives young pastor Timothy instructions about who should be elected overseers and deacons in the church, he specifically says, not new converts to Christ. They need to mature spiritually before they serve as overseers and deacons (1 Timothy 3:6).

In Hebrews it says…
“25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25 NIV).
Some Christians think that once they learn the message of sins forgiven through Christ, they can step away from God’s word and other followers of Christ. This reveals a lack of understanding. Knowledge is NOT faith. To maintain faith in Christ, we must be continually watered with the word of God. When possible, we must surround ourselves with Christ followers who teach and confess the truth of God’s word without error. Otherwise, withering faith is inevitable. And we all know what happens after a plant withers - it dies.

The third situation Jesus talks about in the parable of the Sower and the Seed is the plant that grows surrounded by weeds.

There’s water here. The plant IS growing. But the weeds are stealing so much of the water away from the plant that it can never hope to grow strong enough to produce a crop.

I think this is probably the biggest problem Christ followers face in modern America. We are surrounded by distractions that steal our time with God. The pace of life fills our list of responsibilities. Our busy schedule leads to making bad choices. Bad choices further steal from our time with God. And if we aren’t diligent in setting our priorities right, God’s word simply can’t reach our hearts and minds in a rich flowing stream.

Like I said, the water is there. The Bible on the coffee table, the devotion book on the shelf, the church down the street. But the noise of work and events and every day responsibilities reduce the voice of God down to a mere whisper.

In His explanation, Jesus identifies THREE things that steal God’s living water from people. Cares (or worries), riches and pleasures.

Satan doesn’t mind if you’re poor. He can still use your worries about how you’re going to pay those bills to crowd out God’s word. If you’re rich, Satan says, I can work with that too. And if you’re not really concerned about money and stuff, then Satan can use the blessing of pleasure, in whatever form it takes, to fill the time that could have been used for feeding and strengthening faith.

In another one of Jesus’ parables He talks about a man who has a bumper crop and decides to store it all away and just live a life of ease. The problem is, the man dies the very next night.

Worries, riches and pleasures fill this world, but only a rich relationship with God through God’s Son ensures a full life after this one, in eternity.

The solution to a weed filled life, is pulling those weeds out. Christians, we gotta weed our gardens. We gotta take out some of the busyness, and make space for the important business of meeting with our Creator and Savior.

When we cultivate a rich relationship with God, our problems become opportunities. The apostle Paul wrote…
“…for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NIV).
Paul said this because when he was feeling weak, that made him return to God. When he was weak that made him depend, not on himself, but on God who had taken his sins away through Christ’s cross and promised to provide everything else Paul could possibly need.

When we pull out the word-stealing weeds and make room for God, then the riches and pleasures which remain, change also. They become opportunities to thank and praise God.

The last situation that Jesus speak about in the parable of the Sower and the Seed is a Christ follower who grows mature and whose life is filled with the fruits of faith in Jesus - good words and actions.

This is the situation we all want to be in. But even though this last situation is the one we want to be in, Jesus still describes it as taking patience. That’s because growing a harvest from a single seed takes time. It takes water, light and time.

Few Christ followers would look at this parable and say, “The Good Soil, that’s my situation. I’m growing and mature and bursting with fruit.” When we examine our soil honestly, we find that we have rocks and weeds mixed in with the good soil. This shows us that after faith has taken root, we need Jesus more than ever. Only He can comfort us by telling us that we’re acceptable to God already through His own suffering and death on the cross. Only Jesus can say, “Don’t worry, I’ve already redeemed you to God, and I’m real good at removing rocks and weeds that remain in the lives of my people.”

Earlier, I told you that I like telling stories. One of my favorite gardening stories is about a named Samuel Coleridge.

Coleridge had some guests at his home and he had gotten into a conversation with a man who insisted that children should receive no formal religious instruction. Instead, they should be left free to choose their own religious faith upon reaching a suitable age.

Coleridge inwardly disagreed, but didn’t immediately argue the point. Instead, later in the evening he invited the man to see his sadly untended garden. Upon seeing the jumbled mess that Coleridge called his “garden”, the man exclaimed, “You call this a garden? There’s nothing here but weeds!”

“Well, you see,” Coleridge replied, “I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way. I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own production.”

At the end of telling His parable of the Sower and the Seed to the people, Jesus exclaimed,
“…He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Luke 8:8).
We’ve got ears, let’s listen to Jesus. Let’s not let the garden of our lives grow without directions. Let’s water our gardens with the word of God, weed them with care, and depend on our great God and Savior to bring forth fruit worthy of His Name.

Prayer: Father in heaven, you have planted the seed of faith in our hearts. We trust that your Son Jesus has take our sins away through his own suffering and death in our place. Continue to water this faith through your word. Help us to weed out the distractions that keep us from a vibrant and growing faith. When we sin and make bad decisions, remind us that our sins already stand forgiven through Jesus. Remove our rocks and weeds, and cause us to grow strong in the word, to your glory and our good. Amen.