July 20, 2015

July 19, 2015 - Mark 6:7-13

Theme: Repentance Makes the Difference
1) To Show the Uniqueness of You Faith
2) To Show the Extent of Your Savior’s Love

Mark 6:7-13 He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out in pairs and gave them authority over unclean spirits. 8 He instructed them to take nothing for the road except a walking stick: no bread, no traveling bag, no money in their belts. 9 They were to wear sandals, but not put on an extra shirt. 10 Then He said to them, "Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that place. 11 If any place does not welcome you and people refuse to listen to you, when you leave there, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." 12 So they went out and preached that people should repent. 13 And they were driving out many demons, anointing many sick people with olive oil, and healing them.

What are the pillars of Christianity? If you had to summarize the basis of your faith into one or a few major points, what would they be? Every religion has its own defining pillars. One prominent one, Islam, actually calls their core beliefs the five pillars. Buddhism has the four noble truths. Hinduism has the caste system. Taoism has the duality of the yin and yang. Judaism has the Ten Commandments, as we well know, which Christians share with a Christ-centered understanding.  

When it comes to our faith in Christ, what is the main substance? What is the one defining quality of Christianity that sets it apart from all others? Our text shows us the answer, it’s repentance. Repentance is uniquely Christian concept, that is, true repentance. We’re talking about the type of repentance in which I fully understand and admit that I am spiritually helpless and sinful before God and I deserve nothing. Other religions have mere shadows of this. They all express sorrow for wrongdoing in various ways, but never the type of Godly sorrow for sin that forces me to admit that I cannot earn His favor on my own. Christian repentance is what Paul expressed in Romans 7: For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body (Romans 7:18,24)?

No other religion has this kind of teaching. Repentance is something that separates Christianity from everything else. And all other religions are more than happy to admit it. Think about it. If you were going to create a religious belief, how would you design it to attract followers? What kind of doctrines would sound the best to people, even to yourself? No one could honestly say that repentance sounds like an attractive thing! Our sinful nature hates the idea of having to admit that we are wrong, corrupted by sin, and helpless on our own. And yet, that’s what we confess each time we repent. Just by purely human standards, none of us would think that repentance would be one of the pillars of a successful religion.

And that’s precisely what we see in the man-made religions of the world. There is no inkling of Godly repentance, of complete and total reliance upon God’s forgiveness because of our own helplessness. Every religion outside of true Christianity leads one to rely on him/herself for spiritual prosperity. This shouldn’t surprise us, and it shouldn’t surprise us either that so many people flock to these religions! Because repentance is not a popular idea.

I think we often get things turned around though. We often get discouraged when we see so many different religions out there. Instead of trusting in God’s Word, we often allow mere statistics to discourage our faith. There’s something inside of us that inherently tells us that whatever the majority does is what’s right, especially when it comes to what the majority has to say about God.
But what would God’s Church be like today if Christians always did what the majority wanted? In many ways, we’re getting a glimpse of that in our own country, as so many, including Christians, are bending their faith to the persuasion of others. And at the forefront of it all is repentance. Track any deviance from God’s Word and it’s bound to involve repentance. That’s the first thing that people want to do away with. Like Paul encountered with the Greeks, our culture is the one that wants “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32).” If such is our philosophy, as it is for many in America, what’s the point of repenting? It’s the first thing out the door, and its absence gives us a right to condone anything.

Hand in hand with turning away from repentance are complaints of judgment. It’s almost a refrain that beats in our heads day after day because we hear it so much. Repent! Don’t judge! Repent! Don’t judge! Repent! Don’t judge! You can’t find a place in our culture where repentance is talked about in the public forum without someone who is quick to say, “Don’t judge,” or “you don’t have the right to judge.” It’s so common that even we Christians fall into thinking that Jesus doesn’t want us to judge others.

I understand that there’s a negative connotation when it comes to judgement. People automatically think of a hypocrite telling someone what to do or not do; the kind of story where Jesus told the people to consider the plank in their own eye before pointing out the speck in their brother’s eye. That’s not the kind of judging we want to be doing. True Christians do not talk big to others while ignoring their own problems. The type of judging that God approves is speaking about repentance, which is why the two seem to always be mentioned together. When you look at the words of our text, what is it that Jesus commands His follower to do but to judge sin? Does it get any clearer than verse 12? So they went out and preached that people should repent.

Repentance is foundational to the Christian faith! But how can you tell someone that they need to repent if you don’t bring a reason why? And when you give a reason, that’s a judgement! It’s true that some judgements are unjustified. Some are made for petty reasons. Some are born from sin and not the truth. Some are given in a selfish and unloving way. Those kinds of judgements will happen among sinful people living in a sinful world. But when a judgement of sin has the full backing and authority of God’s Word and demands repentance, God expects us to listen and He expects to speak.

It’d be one thing if God taught repentance in His Word but never gave humans the command or right to speak about it. If that was the case, all judgements we bring would be wrong. But here in our text Jesus not only gives His disciples the right to judge sin, He commands them to. He tells them that it is something He expects of them and our qualification to speak doesn’t depend on how people receive the message. When we are rejected for declaring a need for repentance, Jesus says to “dust of your sandals” and get back to work. It’s not easy. It flies in the face of what people expect from a religion, but it’s what our Savior wants us to do.

Take our Scripture reading as an example. Who would Amos have been following if he stopped preaching judgement and repentance? Is that what God wanted him to do, or the people who had hardened their hearts against the message? Furthermore, where would our faith be today if Christians before us had stopped preaching repentance? What would we have if they caved to the pressures of popular opinion? We’d have nothing! That’s what we need to realize in our lives. When we preach what people just want to hear; Christianity becomes a religion like all the rest. When we ignore the hard sayings of God’s Word, the stuff that grates against our sinful natures, we lose the very quality that makes our faith the only way to salvation.

In each stage of history, there has always been a large contingent of people who don’t want to listen to God’s call for repentance. Our current culture is no different in that respect. Even Jesus had to clarify His mission by saying: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Matthew 9:13).”

No I ask you, who do you want to follow? What is the defining quality of your faith that sets it apart from all others? And, are you willing to stand up for it, and defend it, no matter the cost? Who will you follow?

When you break it down, all beliefs ultimately fall into one of three categories.
1) Those who believe in a religion outside Christianity; a false religion based on a false god. These beliefs are usually pretty easy to notice and the differences between the true God and false gods and well documented.

2) Those who believe in Christianity but want to stay connected to the world. These are the ones who know the true God is and how He reveals Himself in the Bible but they worry about looking bad in the eyes of the world. They want to sit on the fence and play both sides when it suits their interests. The worst form of this belief is outward hypocrisy, but it could also be simple weakness of faith or ignorance of the truth. It is these individuals which Jesus described in the parable of the sower and seed as the ones who spring up quickly but whiter away because they lack proper nutrition in the truth of God’s Word. In place of trust in Jesus alone, trust for this group becomes the individual’s ability to walk the line between what the world wants and what God wants. Obviously, this is a perilous path because God contrasts the world in so many ways. Trying to please both leads to despondency and despair.

3) The third belief comprises those who stand on the foundation of God’s Word alone. They are willing and able to defend their faith and suffer consequences for it. They are not perfect, and they sometimes slip into #2, but they are not as easily swayed by the opinions of the world.

Which group fits your life and beliefs the best? The fact that you’re present at church is a good sign but it doesn’t guarantee the right belief. In reality, it should be much simpler. Really, there should only be two groups: those who believe in Christ and those who believe in something else. And ultimately, these are really the only two groups. But among Christians, there’s a wide range between #2 and #3, especially in our modern version of Christianity. Christians are always slipping in and out of indifference and unwillingness to defend the truth. No matter who you are, how well you know your Bible, how often you attend church, or how nice you are to others, we all have moments when stumble in our faith.    

But the difference between 2 and 3 is the very thing we’ve been talking about – repentance. Repentance is the first step in restoring a broken relationship with God. Repentance is the foot in the sand that stops walking the path to hell and turns to your home in heaven. Repentance reveals the true extent of Your Savior’s love. Repentance looks in to the deep recesses of your heart and sees the decay and rottenness there. It’s the least attractive of all religious practices yet the very one that is vital to salvation. Because when you see the severity of your sin through true, Godly repentance, you see with it the love of your Savior. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and send His Son to be the satisfactory payment for the sins of the world (1 John 4:10). Without repentance, you don’t see that love and you don’t have it.

We get hung up because we usually only think about the beginning of repentance; the point where I must confess my sins, and we leave it there. That’s why people resist repentance. This impulse is so strong that people even rejected Jesus because of it. Why did they reject the Son of God of all people! Was it because He was a sinner? No. Was it because Jesus wasn’t a charismatic speaker?  Hardly! Was it because Jesus didn’t do enough miracles? Now we’re just making excuses. It was solely because of the Words which came out of His mouth. His opponents didn’t like His actions either, but it all centered on His teaching because His actions flowed from His teaching, just like they do for you today. And the very purpose of Jesus’ teaching was repentance.

People were tripped up by that because they only focused on the beginning of repentance. They only saw their sins and their disobedience. But true repentance always sees Christ’s love as the backdrop. Let me remind you what Peter said just days after Christ left this earth as he spoke to some of the very ones who crucified his Lord: “Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, 20 and that He may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah (Acts 3:19-20).”

Repentance makes the difference, both when it comes to your faith as it’s compared to others and your sins when compared to the love of your Savior. It makes the difference because it always keeps the work of Jesus in mind. To close, I want to give you an example from Vacation Bible School this past week.

As a pastor, you want to be able to highlight something that makes your VBS different than others. Think of it as a selling point. With all the many Vacation Bible Schools out there, why would anyone choose to attend ours? Sometimes it’s hard to answer. Many churches are able to pour in tons of resources and money to their VBS program to set it apart from others. We don’t have the means to keep up with that. Our attractions are small and insignificant compared to other churches. But that’s okay, because in those cases VBS often becomes a theme park rather than a place to learn about God.

Talking about sin and repentance through Jesus is the draw for us. That’s not to say others churches don’t talk about this, but we live by it. It is our foundation. If there’s one thing I want kids to remember from our VBS it’s that they have a Savior from sin. You don’t need to have all the resources and money in the world to make that your mission and focus. But it also means you won’t always be the most popular either. Maybe it means you’re doors won’t be bursting at the seams every Sunday or every VBS day. But what would you rather have?

And even in VBS, repentance will make a difference. Just in passing this week I was listening to a little girl of kindergarten age tell her mom what she learned that day. She described how Jesus had to die on a cross for us; how He had to wear a crown of thorns that made Him bleed and how nails were put through His hands and feet, and eventually how His body was wrapped in cloths and placed in a tomb – all because of our sins. Her mom looked back with a grimace, no doubt wondering why such a topic was being discussed at a children’s Bible camp of all places. But the reaction didn’t faze the little girl, she kept right on proudly telling what she learned that day. And at the very end she said, “Oh, and mommy, He came out of the grave too.”

What’s that story mean without repentance? How will other little children and even adults learn if we’re afraid of saying anything? The world wants to call you out as judgmental. Who cares what they say! I have a Savior who bled and died for my sins. And I fully realize and appreciate that when I repent. Yes, I am a sinner and I need to repent! You are a sinner and you need to repent! That’s God’s judgement not mine. Who cares what the reaction is. Dust off your sandals, and keep going. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.      

July 15, 2015

July 12, 2015 - 2 Corinthians 12:7-10


Theme: Are you defined by your troubles or by Christ’s power?

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

It’s really a remarkable thing to see how humans respond to adversity. Humans have an amazing capacity to deal with difficult circumstances. God gives us in our bodies and minds the ability to take a lot of hardship, even though we don’t always do it. This resiliency in humans is recognized by everyone. From an evolutionary perspective, this quality developed from millions of years of struggle and conflict, and in the end the human species proved to be the most resilient of all. Even today, evolutionists praise the durability of the human spirit.

That explanation of the human ability to cope with hardships is only grasping in the dark for answers. God tells us where our resiliency as a species came from. He created us in His image and placed us higher than the animals and plants. Humans are God’s highest form of creation and have the capacity to endure, not because they are special of their own accord, but because God has given them this ability to live to the honor and glory of His name.

One of the ways this resiliency shows itself is by displaying strength in the midst of weakness. This often happens today in the case of disease. Humans show their strength by standing up to the difficulties that come with sickness and disease. It all comes down to what you are defined by. What is your motivation in life? How do you characterize yourself? Do others know you by your weaknesses or by your strengths? Human resiliency does not want to be characterized by limitations, instead it wants to display power and ability.

There’s no shortage of examples that we see from day to day that demonstrate this. In our culture of increasing communication the resiliency of humans is used as encouragement day after day. I remember one famous quote from a media personality who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He said, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.” That’s displaying strength and resiliency in the face of affliction. This individual showed the capacity to cope with difficulties, even those out of his control, by standing up to the challenge and refusing to be defined by his weakness.

We encourage such a positive attitude but we can’t deny reality either. Regardless of how defiant we are in the face of sicknesses, death is reality for everyone, there is no escaping it. David, a man who knew the reality of death well, wrote in Psalm 39: "LORD, reveal to me the end of my life and the number of my days. Let me know how short-lived I am. 5 You, indeed, have made my days short in length, and my life span as nothing in Your sight. Yes, every mortal man is only a vapor. 6 "Certainly, man walks about like a mere shadow. Indeed, they frantically rush around in vain, gathering possessions without knowing who will get them.”

Having a positive attitude in adversity is always best, but it’s difficult when reality lurks on the horizon. A resilient attitude, while commendable, doesn’t change the fact that we suffer from a problem that is beyond our control. We can deal with the minor problems of life. There are some sicknesses that we can now control to an extent through modern medicine. But all difficulties boil down to one problem, and that’s sin. We don’t even need to go into depth about all the physical problems that we don’t have a solution for, sin is the one cause of them all. If you don’t have a way to deal with sin, then it doesn’t matter what you have for any of the other problems in life, big or small.

A courageous and resilient human spirit cannot cope with sin. There is only one hope, and that is the work of Jesus Christ. If we deny Jesus, it doesn’t matter how courageous or defiant we are in worldly problems, because eventually we will be defined by our limitations. The only way to escape succumbing to our weaknesses, is to have the power of Christ. And the only way to have the power of Christ is through faith that is established and strengthened by God’s Word.

This is true not only when it comes the end of our lives, or the really serious problems of the world, but also in the little, day to day things. Any type of hardship that comes our way is a result of sin, and a reminder of sin. In this way, the little problems of day to day life are kind of like scars. They remind us of where we’ve been and what we’ve endured, but they also help us learn for the future. We think of the scars that come with sin and they are present with us every day, but we don’t have to be defined by them. Sin does not have to be the theme of our lives, because we have access to the power of Christ.   

Our verses today speak of how Paul refused to be labeled by the ailment he had, He was powerful in Christ even though he had a very serious physical problem. We’re not told the exact details about what Paul suffered from, because it doesn’t really matter. The entire point of this section is that Paul was not defined by the hindrances of sin. And when Paul spoke, he carried more authority than simply speaking from His human spirit. He had the authority and power of His Savior, because it was Christ’s power that rested upon Paul. By faith, when Paul’s weakness revealed itself, it was a testament to God’s strength and glory more than a testament to the effects of sin. God’s power outweighs our limitations.

How do we respond in similar situations? Are we content to leave things to God or do we allow ourselves to be defined by our limitations? Chances are we’ve never had a thorn in the flesh quite like Paul did. In the previous chapter we hear about many of the hardships he endured. He was a frequent resident in prisons. Five times he received 39 lashings from his Jewish opponents. He was beaten with rods on three occasions. He was stoned once. He was stranded in the sea after a shipwreck, and he confronted numerous other perils in his journeys. And yet, despite all of these difficulties, the one thing Paul singles out is this “thorn in the flesh.” It bothered him so much that he pleaded with the Lord three times for relief.

Have you ever endured so much? Personally, I know I haven’t. And yet, I’m usually more than willing to be defined by my limitations, insignificant as they are. The big temptation in focusing on our limitations is that we receive attention. When we dwell on all the hardships of life and tell others about it, we’re more likely to receive sympathy, and that feels good. It feels good to be recognized by others and to know that others are thinking about you, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. In this way, our society has really softened. It’s become much more popular to the defined by struggles rather than work through them. It’s much easier to complain until someone listens rather than going about your day doing the right thing without anyone noticing. It’s become so common for us to be defined by what’s going wrong in life, rather than being thankful for the many blessings we have.

We must confess that we have allowed sin and its effects to have a tighter grip on our lives than they should, especially for the selfish reason of gaining attention from others. We want others to look at all we’re doing or enduring and tell us how impressed they are at what great people we are. Often Christianity today is defined by what we are able to endure, rather than what Christ endured on our behalf. According to this definition, the status of Christianity becomes a measure of me as an individual and my own resiliency, rather than the Lord’s strength and power.

This problem was present in Paul’s life too, and he understood it. That’s why, even though he pleaded for relief from his ailment, he ultimately understood the purpose behind it. God was humbling Paul so that he would not boast in himself. As a Christian leader Paul probably received a lot of praise and thanks from his fellow believers. As an apostle, gifted with “an abundance of revelations” as he put it, there was a temptation to fall into the sin of pride. So, the Lord used this thorn in the flesh to humble Paul and reveal true power through Christ.

We may not suffer from the same problems. Paul certainly didn’t live in an age where being a Christian was easy. His immediate danger was not complacency as it is for us. Given all of his hardships he certainly didn’t live a soft and cushy life. But God teaches us the same lesson in our lives, even though our problems don’t perfectly mirror Paul’s. When you encounter hardships, do you ever stop to think about what God might be trying to tell you?
·         Is there a chance that you’re getting too soft in your spiritual life?
·         Might you be complaining a bit too much instead of being thankful?
·         Could it be that you are allowing yourself to be defined by the scars of life, rather than the Lord’s power?
·         Is it possible that you’re focusing too much on yourself, rather than staying connected to God’s Word?
·         Do you ever spend more time seeking your own attention rather than giving all the attention to God?

If you take the time to stop and think about it, it’s usually pretty easy to see what the Lord is doing. He may allow sicknesses and struggles to come your way, but He has a greater plan through them. Paul, through the Lord’s grace, was able to recognize the Lord’s plan in his life. You can do the same. Use this example from Paul for help. Learn from his past experiences, because you share in the same struggles. And more importantly, you share in the same solution to sin. Your life can be defined the very same way Paul’s was, not by your limitations, but by your Savior from sin.

When we plead to the Lord, we too can know as Paul did that He will never be silent. We may not always get the answer we are requesting, but God always responds. God will never return silent, He is continually speaking to us through His Word. That is where we find the answers to our questions. We often think that God will always work through the events of life. He is certainly able to point us to things or give us answers through life’s events. But the Word is the most powerful resource because God speaks to us directly through it. The problem we often have with the Word is that the more we use it, the more difficulties come our way. The stronger we confess, especially in the unpopular areas of God’s wisdom, the more the world will fight against us. To endure these setbacks, we need strength, and it doesn’t always feel like we get that from God’s Word. Often we are tempted to believe that God is silent. But, just as Paul said, when we are weak, Christ is strong. He displays His strength through our limitations. It’s not the glamourous fanfare that our sinful flesh craves, but it is the effective power of Jesus. We may not get the attention we want when we stand firm in His Word but we do gain a much greater gift – true spiritual strength.

Therefore, we echo the same theme as Paul, we find our boast not in ourselves, but in Christ. Not only should we be willing to suffer shame for being a Christian, we should expect it. Scars will always be present from a variety of foes in the world. And those scars remind us and learn from them. But they don’t define us. In Christ, we are much more than what the world does to us.

Even in the final days of his life, Paul was defined by Jesus. As he sat in prison, he wrote to Timothy: “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).” Many believe these were some of Paul’s last words to his fellow Christians. Even in a moment of what seemed like complete defeat, Paul was confident in the work of Christ. He was content to have his life “poured out as a drink offering” for the Lord’s glory. What a strange attitude to have in the midst of such affliction! Ever since Paul became a Christian, he encountered hardship after hardship. It was a never ending assault by Satan who must have been so angry that God converted Paul of all people, and turned him from an agent of evil to an agent of righteousness. What a rare gift of contentment! Where did it come from?

It’s in our text, it comes from God Himself when He said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” What a beautiful thought! The Lord’s grace is enough for us, literally we can be content with it, no matter what else is going on. God’s grace is not something we talk boldly about but in the back of our minds know that it holds no power. God’s grace is not like our natural human resiliency that looks good on the outside, and is commendable in human’s eyes, but has no strength against sin. Those who have Christ don’t lead double lives, one as a Christian and one as a regular person in the world. His grace holds the day. His grace is sufficient for us, in good times and in bad. And we are defined by it. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

July 7, 2015

July 5, 2015 - Daniel 5:13-30

Theme: WE ALL Can See the Writing on the Wall
1) WE ALL have a great enemy at our doorstep
2) WE ALL have choices for deliverance
3) WE ALL are numbered, weighed, and divided

Daniel 5:13-30: Then Daniel was brought before the king. The king said to him, "Are you Daniel, one of the Judean exiles that my predecessor the king brought from Judah? 14 I've heard that you have the spirit of the gods in you, and that you have insight, intelligence, and extraordinary wisdom. 15 Now the wise men and mediums were brought before me to read this inscription and make its interpretation known to me, but they could not give its interpretation. 16 However, I have heard about you that you can give interpretations and solve problems. Therefore, if you can read this inscription and give me its interpretation, you will be clothed in purple, have a gold chain around your neck, and have the third highest position in the kingdom." 17 Then Daniel answered the king, "You may keep your gifts, and give your rewards to someone else; however, I will read the inscription for the king and make the interpretation known to him. 18 Your Majesty, the Most High God gave sovereignty, greatness, glory, and majesty to your predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. 19 Because of the greatness He gave him, all peoples, nations, and languages were terrified and fearful of him. He killed anyone he wanted and kept alive anyone he wanted; he exalted anyone he wanted and humbled anyone he wanted. 20 But when his heart was exalted and his spirit became arrogant, he was deposed from his royal throne and his glory was taken from him. 21 He was driven away from people, his mind was like an animal's, he lived with the wild donkeys, he was fed grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with dew from the sky until he acknowledged that the Most High God is ruler over the kingdom of men and sets anyone He wants over it. 22 "But you his successor, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, even though you knew all this. 23 Instead, you have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven. The vessels from His house were brought to you, and as you and your nobles, wives, and concubines drank wine from them, you praised the gods made of silver and gold, bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or understand. But you have not glorified the God who holds your life-breath in His hand and who controls the whole course of your life. 24 Therefore, He sent the hand, and this writing was inscribed. 25 "This is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. 26 This is the interpretation of the message: MENE means that God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. 27 TEKEL means that you have been weighed in the balance and found deficient. 28 PERES means that your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians." 29 Then Belshazzar gave an order, and they clothed Daniel in purple, placed a gold chain around his neck, and issued a proclamation concerning him that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom. 30 That very night Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans was killed, 31 and Darius the Mede received the kingdom at the age of 62. (HCSB)

1) WE ALL have a great enemy at our doorstep

Yesterday our nation celebrated its birth and independence from the British Empire. Each year on the 4th of July is a time of great joy and excitement. We are blessed to have the freedoms of our land and it’s worthy to celebrate. But would it be appropriate to celebrate if our nation was on the brink of destruction? If a foreign nation had invaded our land and our nation’s Capitol was surrounded, would anyone be busy celebrating? If this was the case, the fireworks would be real, not fake.

If our nation was under attack, we would certainly have to question the sanity of any leader who chose to waste time celebrating. This seems like common sense, but it’s precisely the situation that the Babylonians found themselves in at the point of our text. Their nation was on the brink of destruction, the Medes and Persians had joined forces and were attacking their Capitol, and the Babylonians were feasting and celebrating at the command of their ruler, Belshazzar. The event described here was also recorded by a number of secular historians. They all record with great detail how on the night that the Babylonians were conquered by the Medes and Persians, they were holding a great feast.

It seems ridiculous to us, but what was the purpose behind this madness? We’re told how Belshazzar called his servants to bring the sacred vessels of the Temple of the LORD so that he could drink from them. His ancestor, Nebuchadnezzar, was the one who brought these items from Israel, when he sacked Jerusalem and carried off the Israelites to captivity. Belshazzar’s goal in all this chaos was simply to get drunk and to desecrate the true God in the process. We’re also told that he brought in a host of idols and carved images, of which the Babylonians had hundreds, to seek their approval. We look at this and say, “How foolish he was.” “What a sorry example of a leader – getting drunk and blaspheming God when enemies were at the door.” It’s true, Belshazzar was foolish, but we should recognize the similarities in our lives.

Wasn’t Belshazzar simply doing what all people do when faced with peril? They look for an immediate escape. They look for some way to hide from the impending destruction, and way to forget about it all. WE ALL have an enemy at our doorstep. Not an army of the world, but “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).” We do not fight against flesh and blood but the demon of darkness, Satan himself. 

2) WE ALL have choices for deliverance

What do we look to for deliverance? It’s easy to criticize Belshazzar, but we so often choose the same things. When Satan depresses us with evil and wickedness, we turn to the bottle so that easily forget. When Satan tempts us with sin, we give in because it feels like we’re finding fulfillment and purpose; it helps us forget about the real problems we face, which only God can conquer. We condemn Belshazzar for worshipping idols and desecrating God’s holy vessels, but don’t we do the same with misplaced priorities and poor time management? We make time for possessions and entertainment; we even change our schedules around for them. But we offer up excuses for church, Bible study, and mission work. We seek more exciting forms of worship, while forgetting the sacred vessels we have in the Means of Grace.

You’re not in the same situation as Belshazzar. You don’t have to worry about an entire nation looking to you for help. But your individual heart is just as precious as an entire nation. And you are faced each day with enemies at the door of your heart that threaten your faith. What will you seek for deliverance? There are plenty of options. There are plenty of escapes in the world to help you forget about the danger that exists. There are plenty of substances that will alter your mind and disposition so that you literally can’t think about what’s going on. There are enough activities in the day that can make life so busy that you don’t have time to think about sin or Satan. If you don’t think about it, then you don’t have to deal with it, at least for a while. At the end of a long and exhausting day it’s always easy to turn on a DVD or Netflix and forget about the world for a while. You can accomplish the same escape by reading a book and taking yourself away to a place outside of this world, where the pain and terror don’t exist. These are innocent activities on their own but they should never take God’s place in our lives. Too often we take leisure and entertainment too far and give them more credit for helping with our problems than they really deserve.    

This is really what Belshazzar did, just a on a bigger stage. He took some things that are good by themselves: wine, wood, stone, gold, the vessels of God’s temple, and he used them in a sinful way to try and get rid of his problems. He looked to them instead of looking to God. And all of the sudden, his actions don’t seem that crazy because we know what it feels like. He was simply looking for deliverance, a way out, and he tried what he thought was best.    

3) WE ALL are numbered, weighed, and divided

But in the end, none of Belshazzar’s attempts worked, because they lacked true salvation. The writing on the wall said it all: he (and his kingdom) would be numbered, weighed, and divided. Despite the temporary escapes that Belshazzar indulged in, he could not escape the Lord’s judgment, and that very night he was defeated.

The writing has the same message for us and for all people too. But we don’t to have to use just the words written long ago on the wall of the Babylonian palace. We have many more words from God. Paul wrote to the Romans and said “Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures (Romans 15:4).” I suppose this verse could apply to writing on the wall; it was written in the past and it was written for our learning. But it doesn’t give much encouragement. We, too, know with great certainty that we will be numbered, weighed, and divided. But where’s the hope?    

God “numbers” you by knowing who you are, even better than you know yourself. He searches your heart, He knows your thoughts, He counts the hairs on your head, and He calls you by name through the Gospel. There’s no escaping God; no matter who you are, whether you love Him or resist Him, He knows you.

God “weighs” you in the light of His Word. Think of God’s law as an old-fashioned scale, the kind you usually see in connection with civil laws. The Words of God’s law, recorded in the Bible, is the scale by which He weighs you. On one side is the standard that God sets and expects – true righteousness; no sin whatsoever. On the other side are your thoughts, words, and actions. Given such a picture, we receive the same sentence Belshazzar did: “you have been weighed in the balance and found deficient.” We are lacking because we suffer from the same ailments as Belshazzar. We must confess as the text states, that we have “exalted ourselves against the God of heaven.” We have “failed to acknowledge the Holy God.”  We have not “glorified the God who holds our life-breath in His hand and who controls the whole course of our lives.” All of those condemnations against Belshazzar equally fit into our lives too. Every time we weigh ourselves on the scale of God’s law, the result is the same – we are deficient.

The picture of weighing our thoughts, words, and actions before God helps us realize the spiritual danger we are in. No one can deny the authority that the law has over our lives. But the same picture also helps us understand our salvation. When you think of scales, don’t dwell only on the law. Think also of atonement through Christ. The idea of atonement provides a real picture of how the scales can be tipped back in our favor. In its literal meaning, atonement means to make “at one.” It’s an easy way to remember what Christ does for us. But when we apply this to the scale of God’s law, we also see a beautiful picture of true deliverance. Sin tips the scale out of balance and reveals our many deficiencies before God. But through Christ’s atonement on the cross, we are brought back on the same level as God; we are literally made “at one.” The scale is balanced again, not by our righteousness or works, but by Christ’s. When God now “weighs” us by faith in Christ, we are not deficient. As the letter to the Colossians states, Christ has “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14).” Yes, the handwriting on the wall speaks to us all, but for those in Christ, the message is one of deliverance and salvation.

This is the greatest and most important truth, because the third word still applies. There will be a day when God “divides” us. Jesus Himself described the details of what will happen on that day; from Matthew 25: “All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:’ Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’”

Belshazzar was divided from his kingdom and from his life here on earth the very night the words appeared on the wall. Our division has not yet come, but he serves as a reminder to us. At any point, life here can end, and we will be divided, either to the right or to the left. As with the first two words on the wall, this last one applies to us too. We must be ready. We don’t have to be fearful of this division day because we have salvation. Christ has made atonement for the sins of the entire world – those words of Gospel are clear, easily read and understood by all. Jesus has given us these words that we might have comfort and hope, not so that we may be discouraged and fearful. That’s why He closed His prophecy of the final day by saying that all those who have faith in Christ can “look up and lift up their heads” in these final days, because their “redemption draws near (Luke 21:28).”

WE ALL can read the writing on the wall, whether it be those few words in Belshazzar’s palace, or the words before every day in the Bible.  And WE ALL must take them seriously because they apply to us all. We have a great enemy at the doorstep of our hearts, every day. We have lots of choices for deliverance, but not all are equal. And we are numbered, weighed, and divided.

It all seems very complicated at times, but in reality it’s very simple. We can follow Belshazzar or we can follow Jesus. Both offer some type of deliverance. We can hide our heads in the sand and pretend the writing doesn’t exist. We can numb ourselves to the point where we don’t feel anything at all, and all our problems seem to float away. We can turn to other things to fill our time, to lend us purpose, to become our gods. We can even lash out in anger by blaspheming God and despising His gifts. Those were Belshazzar’s methods of deliverance, and we have access to them too. 

Or we can confront the truth instead of running from it. We can learn from what has been written instead of hiding from it. We can apply the law by confessing our sins. We can have real hope and salvation by believing in Christ’s atonement. We can’t escape from being numbered, weighed, and divided, but we don’t have succumb to it. In Christ alone, we have a path less traveled, but a path of true salvation. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

July 2, 2015

June 28, 2015 - Luke 17:1-4

Theme: How to deal with Offense – Given or Received

1               Be on your guard
2               Rebuke and Repent
3               Forgive

Jesus said, "I assure you: Anyone who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life. An hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live (John 5:24-25).

To those who are the living fulfillment of this promise, forgiven of your sins by Jesus Christ, dear fellow redeemed:

Martin Luther once used a simple illustration to describe temptation to sin, you may have heard it before. He said, “You cannot stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.” What Luther meant by these words was that no Christian can keep temptation out of his or her life, but that doesn’t mean they have to give into it.

Certainly, the birds of temptation are alive and well today. You definitely can’t avoid encountering temptation, maybe even more so than in Luther’s day. Our nation that was once highly religious and abundantly Christian has degraded significantly in the last few decades. Life for God-fearing individuals is as spiritually dangerous as it has ever been in the history of the world. Multitudes of once strong defenders of Christ are succumbing to pressures daily. Perhaps you’ve felt some of that pressure too.

But Luther’s words are just as true today as the moment he spoke them. They probably apply to our culture even more than his. No matter how wicked or sinful the world may get, believers always have power over temptation and the devastating effects of sin. The words of our text today, from Luke 17:1-4, show us how:

Jesus said to His disciples, "Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one they come through! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him."

The topic of offending others has been firmly entrenched in our culture for some time. You see talk of offenses every day, it’s so prevalent it’s almost impossible to avoid. In that sense, the opening words of Jesus ring true, “Offenses will certainly come!” But we must recognize a great difference between the common use of “offense” in our culture and the specific nature of what Jesus was talking about. In a way, the world has turned the Biblical idea of offending others inside out.

Today, offense means doing or saying anything that someone doesn’t like, regardless of the content and validity of what is said. The charge of offense has become the rallying cry for those who want freedom and license to do whatever they please. Anyone who objects to what is popular, even if they have a legitimate reason, is labeled as an “offender.” This approach is especially used against Christians who humbly desire to put God and His Word first and are willing to defend it. The baseless immorality of the sinful world doesn’t like God’s Word, or those who defend it, because it offends the sinful desires and inclinations of their hearts. In the world’s mind, true freedom is getting whatever you want, even if in reality it leads to slavery under Satan. And so, when the Law of God is used to reveal the futileness of sinful pursuits, people lash out with the cry of being offended.

It shouldn’t surprise us that God’s Law offends the sinful heart because that’s its very purpose. We know this personally because it’s the very why we’re so often reluctant to look inwardly to our hearts and confess our sins. Jesus Himself is even called the “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense” (Romans 9:33) because His teaching divides believers and unbelievers. You can’t be neutral about who Jesus is. Either He holds you up as your foundation by faith or you stumble over Him in the foolishness of unbelief.   

What the world does is use their own definition of “offense” to undermine what God says. The world tries to make believers feel bad about speaking the truth as if God is somehow upset by it. They claim that God wouldn’t ever speak against something that makes them happy or gives them pleasure. In the same way, the world distorts other Biblical truths like: love and judgment by deliberating ignoring what God says about those things and how He defines them. What Jesus says here is that every sin against God is an offense, regardless of how much pleasure it gives us.

When Jesus speaks about offending others in our text, He means something very specific. The word He uses means to set a spiritual death trap. Think of the type of trap that is used to lure an animal in, before the string is pulled and it is trapped. Jesus is talking about an action or belief that is harmful to your faith; not something that restricts your personal desire and pleasure. When these traps are present, Jesus wants you to realize that Satan is on the other end and they can only lead to destruction. Here we see how the world turns this inside out. Sinful desires and pleasures are actually the very death trap which Jesus speaks against. And yet, the world cries “offense” when Christians refuse to excuse sin.

What would happen if Jesus came into our culture and said what He did in our text? They would probably say, “You’re offending me, Jesus. Don’t judge me, don’t trample on my rights.” That’s what many say to Christians who use the very words of Jesus. But if God Himself can’t even speak clearly against sin, who can? The sinful flesh will always look for ways to turn God’s Word inside out. As those who know what God says about the offensiveness of sin, we repeat what Luther said. You can’t stop people from fostering and promoting false ideas but you can certainly avoid them in your life. And remember, this applies equally to us Christians as it does to the unbelieving world.

Part 1: Be on your guard

We can’t avoid offenses; they will happen. But Jesus tells us how we can deal with them. The first step is to “Be on your guard.” Like most spiritual truths, we can learn the best by looking first at ourselves. Literally, Jesus says, “Pay attention to yourself.” Again, we see how this differs from the world’s brand of offense. The entire concept of offense to the world, means that you focus on what others have done, instead of thinking about your role in the situation. The world always wants you to point the finger out, instead of in.

There are times when God wants us to reveal offensive actions of others. But one is only equipped for such a task when they are first able to look at their own heart. When you see those who constantly make demands for others, but are unwillingly to do the same for themselves, you should be able to discern where that attitude comes from. It comes from Satan. Satan doesn’t want you to look at yourself. He’s perfectly content to have you shuffle the blame and guilt of your actions onto others, as if it’s always someone else offending you and never the other way around.  

This is a big problem for the Church at large today. Too many Christians are telling the world whatever it wants to hear because they’re worried about offending people. When this happens, the Law of God becomes obsolete, and the Gospel becomes a license to excuse whatever I feel like doing. So many peddle the message that God loves and condones whatever you do or whoever you want to be and before you know it you never take the time to “pay attention to yourself.” Satan hates it when you examine your heart and confess your sins. Because when you do this you lose the philosophy of grandeur that the world exalts. When you look inwardly and stay on your guard you stay grounded on the Word; you stay a down to earth ordinary sinner who is saved alone by Jesus; instead of a someone who doesn’t need that “old fashioned” religion or that “outdated” Book. 

Do you really think that the squirrel, raccoon, bunny, or whatever varmint that falls into the death trap sees it coming and is okay with it? No, they think they’re safe! They don’t see the inherent danger! The greatest danger of spiritual offense that we have is in our own hearts. If we refuse to look inward because the world says we don’t have to, we’ll never see that danger. The world seems to think that the more we try to convince ourselves that something’s okay, the safer it will all of the sudden become. Jesus pronounces “Woe” upon those who do see the danger, and yet indulge anyway. Take a look at verse 2 of our text to see how Jesus feels about that, and to recognize it, you need to be on your guard.

Part 2: Rebuke and Repent

Jesus leads us into the next step of dealing with offenses by telling us what is to be done if the spiritual death trap ensnares us. It’s very simple, rebuke or repent. The only question is which one applies to you. At times, you will be the admonishing brother or sister, who offers a kind word of correction and discipline. In other settings you will be the one who needs the rebuke, and should follow it with repentance. Remember Christ’s opening statement, “Offenses will come,” you can’t avoid them, no matter how hard you try. But the solution is clear.

With these two actions Jesus teaches another easily forgotten truth about offense, another area that the world and your flesh loves to ignore. Offense goes in both directions. What I mean by this is that just as it is wrong to offend someone, that is to lay a spiritual death trap for them, it’s equally wrong to continually take offense to things that you shouldn’t.  

What Jesus shows us by this is that you don’t have to be the guilty one to fall into the trap. Being easily offended when Godly correction is offered and using that against others, is just as wrong as the offense itself. Likewise, purposely looking for ways to be offended, even when you don’t have the right, is wrong too. There’s always a sense of pride and entitlement when someone admits that they offended you. It’s a stroke to the sinful ego that is constantly looking for proof that you’re better than others. And when someone admits that they were wrong and you were right, it’s music to your sinful nature’s ears. And so, we often look for ways to be offended over the little things, because it makes us feel vindicated for our own insecurities.

Jesus reveals something absolutely astounding! Don’t give offense, and don’t take offense either. Be the bigger person. Show your spiritual strength. Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11).” Part of being a Christian is having the spiritual maturity to suck it up and deal with it when other people offend you. Don’t fall into the world’s line of extreme sensitivity. Put the best construction on matters of doubt, especially with your fellow believers. Don’t create grudges or hang on to them. You can do this because of what Jesus lists as the final step in dealing with offense, forgiveness.

Part 3: Forgive

Jesus talks about repentance with forgiveness because He’s addressing how we interact with others. We don’t want to give the impression that people can do whatever they please without consequence or remorse and take solace in the Lord’s forgiveness. We wouldn’t want to promote this anymore than withholding forgiveness when someone repents. But, you who have been enlightened by Christ, don’t have to wait for your fellow offender to repent before you forgive them. You can “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).” Christ didn’t wait around for you to repent before He forgave you. It’s true that if you refuse to repent you will forfeit His forgiveness, just as if brother or sister is unrepentant they forfeit your forgiveness. But Christ forgave you first. He took the first step. You can too. Paul says in Romans 5:6 At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Jesus didn’t wait for you to be worthy before He the first step to the cross and died for your sins. Treat your fellow brethren, even those who offend you, the same way. Show them the same love that Christ showed you.

Christ didn’t mope around feeling sorry for Himself because so many people mistreated Him. Christ didn’t hide in the shadows waiting to pounce on those who sinned. He’s not the one who sets spiritual death traps. That’s the work of Satan. Christ also didn’t ignore the problems that He encountered. He didn’t make excuses for sins. Those who follow Him will do the same. It’s not loving to ignore the spiritual death trap when you see it. Jesus is not some ultra-relaxed, easy going, hip deity who just wants you to relax and be cool in life. He’s the almighty God of heaven and earth. He is your Lord and Master. And He doesn’t want you to ignore true spiritual offenses of sin when you see them, either in your own heart or others. Again, if you want to know what Christ thinks about the seriousness of sin, offenses big or small, read verse 2.

Christ was the only One who perfectly used God’s Law and Gospel. Without Him, you wouldn’t know about rebuking, repenting, or forgiving because He first showed you. The key is, He also now allows you to do the same for others. You don’t have fall into the many traps that the world sets. You don’t have to sit idly by and watch others fall into the traps. Don’t be brainwashed by society’s definition of offense. You’re stronger than that. You’re mature in the Word of God. You have a steady foundation. You can’t stop offenses from happening, but you can do something about them; and you can keep them from finding a place in your heart. Why? Simply put, you’re forgiven by Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.