December 20, 2017

Advent 3 - 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Keep Your Attention on Jesus
1.     1. As you move ahead look behind.
2.     2. Use and trust the unbound Words

2 Timothy 2:8-15 Keep your attention on Jesus Christ as risen from the dead and descended from David. This is according to my gospel. 9 I suffer for it to the point of being bound like a criminal, but God's message is not bound. 10 This is why I endure all things for the elect: so that they also may obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 This saying is trustworthy: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. 14 Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn't need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

A few weeks ago I was cleaning out some old boxes and came across a book from childhood. It’s a “Choose your own adventure” book where you, the reader, gets to decide the outcome. This particular book is called “Super Bowl Sunday” and the reader gets to determine the outcome of the game by picking which pages to flip to. For example, p. 38 ends with this choice, “to put the rookie quarterback in, turn to page 27. To put the veteran in charge, turn to page 52. Each scenario has a different outcome and there are several choices throughout the book.

As a child, these books appealed to me because of the excitement of trying to get it right. If one choice was wrong, you were out of luck. This aspect was certainly highlighted to a greater degree in books that involved imminent danger, like a treasure hunter in the jungle or an encounter with bandits in the Wild West. I enjoyed trying to stay alive but also seeing where all the results ended.

As we continue on our journey through Advent today, we see part of God’s Word that sounds like a “Choose your own adventure” book. Verses 11-13 lay out the options we have: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. There’s no jumping to different pages in a book to determine the way we are headed. God tells us plainly where each ends up but people are intrigued nonetheless with the options before them.

But, even in this adventure of life, a book is present. In the context surrounding these scenarios the Holy Spirit lays a foundation about that book. It’s the Bible – God’s Word, and it contains the key to finding heaven at the end of the adventure. We think about these things today because Advent is a season of looking ahead. God’s message to us today is that sometimes the best way to see where you are going is to look at where you’ve been.

Our text has elements to that effect immediately, with the very first word in fact. Some translations say “Remember,” ours says “Keep your attention on…” God is telling us to take notice of something that has already happened; something that is a matter of the past, or even a reality in the present. That reality is Jesus Christ. Two things are highlighted about Jesus. First, that He is risen and second, that He is David’s descendent. Here you have a fact about His divinity and a fact about His humanity. Keeping our attention on both is important.

During Advent we’re mostly confronted with themes of Jesus’ humanity. We’re approaching His birth after all, the moment He took human flesh – the period of history when His humanity became reality. But, His humanity was never the end, the completion. Jesus became human to fulfill a divine goal, something that He planned from eternity. The Son of Man was to be sacrificed so that the Son of God could be raised and forevermore exalted. There could be no resurrection without first a death, but once both are complete the resurrection takes precedence over all.

When you consider the choices before us the resurrection makes the difference between life and death. Whenever we are put in danger or are uncertain about where to turn, God leads us back to the fact of the resurrection. Even death, the definite end of any story, cannot stand against the resurrection. This is brought out in the first scenario, This saying is trustworthy: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him.

This is why there is a calling back to the past in our text. Verse 8, “Keep your attention on….” Verse 14, “Remind them…” The resurrection is complete. Just as we point back to the birth of Christ as it pertains to His humanity so also we can point to His triumph over death as it pertains to His divinity. To move forward we must look back.

It might seem like an easy formula to follow, but our lives are filled with dangers that would threaten our eternal outcome. We are tempted to deny God. We have sins that cause us to be found unfaithful before the Lord. These are things that either push or pull us away from the Lord. Many have tried to control these dangers on their own. But, there’s a reason why God says in another book, “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).” Many have tried to control the dangers on their own, none have succeeded.

So, God tells us, “Remember, keep in mind, Remind one another…” of My Son’s victory for you. If only we had something to keep this truth on our minds. Well, we do, don’t we? The Word of God. Here’s why the Word is present in our verses. As God commands us to remember Him, He also tells us how. We don’t have to walk the adventure on our own. We have a guide. Paul, by inspiration, calls it “my gospel,” “the trustworthy saying,” and the “word of truth.” The Word of God keeps our attention on Jesus and the undeniable truths that He has done for us. In every moment of doubt and peril, we can go back to the Word, and it immediately is “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” To move forward, we look back.     

But, even at this prospect, it shouldn’t surprise us that Satan is nipping at our heels at every opportunity to throw us off course. In his cunning manner, one way he does this is to take the very method God has given to bless us and use it against us. Paul tells us, Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn't need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

Words can be unprofitable too. Words can tear down just as easily as they can build up. This can refer to a person’s own opinions, the thoughts and words that they choose to speak on their own. It can also refer to God’s Word when it is used incorrectly. Think of a pertinent Scriptural illustration as an example. In both the book of Ephesians and Hebrews, God’s Word is pictured as a sword. This sword can pierce through our sinful ways and expose the truth in order that we trust God. This sword can defend us against Satan and his attacks. We can take the offensive against God’s enemies with this Sword, His Word, by preaching it with courage and conviction. But, the sword can be mishandled too, to our own destruction and to the damage of our hearers. This is one reason why Biblical training is so important. The world would have us believe that Biblical training is just a way for our parents to brainwash us into believing what they want us to, that eventually you grow out of God’s Word when you become wise enough to know better.

But training in God’s Word is like learning to wield a sacred and powerful weapon; a weapon that can hurt others if we don’t know what we’re doing. Sadly, many have used God’s Word to this end, as we have all too often. And yet, the power of the gospel has never been overcome. Even in the hands of fallible, mistake-oriented people, the power of the cross and the open tomb is present today. Although we tend to focus on the negatives of the world around us, let us not diminish the amazing miracle that God has preserved His grace for thousands of years by the same Word of truth, used by the same sinful people.

We continue to move forward this Advent with hope and joy in the coming Christ. Let us not forget to look back also, and re-focus on what Jesus has done. In our Gospel reading, we looked back at a stern lesson Jesus taught. He asked the crowds, “What did you come out to see?” This pointed question and the discourse that followed was a stunning indictment of their lack of preparation. When Christ was born, too many were left wondering about what it all meant. Even John the Baptist questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. The people had set up false expectations for the Savior and His Forerunner because they had listened to much to those who “fought about words and led their hearers to ruin.” Jesus pointed them back to the Scriptures for the Word of truth.

We don’t see our Savior today, so perhaps your question should be this, “What did I come out to hear?” As we are involved in our own Advent of preparation, what governs our expectations? Is our path about choosing our own adventure at all costs, instead of heeding God’s call? Have we digested the false opinions of people in the world, about who Jesus really is, what He really taught, and what is all really means; getting past the simple meaning of the Words? Have we been tempted to think the promise of the resurrection, of God’s faithful and unchanging Word, and of the Holy Spirit’s activity through such to just be imaginations and myths that our parents want us to believe?

There are many options to follow – but only two outcomes: Heaven or Hell. God’s Word is not a “choose your own adventure” book even though you are free to make it that if you wish. God’s Word is a call, an invitation to obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. That’s the path we are walking by faith. That is on our mind in Advent, Christmas, Easter, and always. That is our joy, peace, and hope. Let’s keep walking in it, forward, upward, to heaven. But don’t forget to look back often. Amen. 

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

December 11, 2017

Christmas Comparisons - Psalm 117

Theme: God’s Comparison is a Measure of His Compassion

It’s no mystery that tensions can exist between neighbors. Here we’re thinking of neighbors in the way our culture typically understands it, as the person who lives next door to you. Several sayings bear this out: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” “Good fences make good neighbors.” Not surprising, this tension can grow during the Christmas season. Perhaps your neighbor doesn’t shovel his sidewalk as often as you’d like. Or maybe she lets her dog make yellow markings on the fresh snow in your yard. Or maybe they want to have the best Christmas decorations in the neighborhood.

Yes, as surprising, or maybe not, as it sounds, Christmas decorating can quickly turn into a heated competition. Everybody wants to have the best, most noble, eye-catching display. Some people pour hundreds or thousands of dollars into lights and energy costs. I happened to see a news article this week about a woman in Arizona who was so tired of the neighborly competitiveness that she opted for a new and unique tactic. After he neighbor had spent hours getting all his lights in order, both in the yard and on the house, this woman simply crafted a large sign that said “Ditto” with an arrow pointing to her neighbor. It was a light-hearted way to deal with the situation but for some it’s not a laughing matter.

The fires of competition arise when we start comparing ourselves with others. This happens around Christmas, but it’s hardly relegated to just this time of year. While God never directly condemns making comparisons between ourselves and others, He often warns against what it can lead to. Perhaps most often of all, comparisons lead to coveting and discontent. We see what others have. We think the grass is always greener on the other side. We pity ourselves as if the odds are against us. And on and on the discontent grows and very quickly we start to blame God. Why do others get more than me? Why is that person’s life so much better than mine?

This conundrum comes forth in the Bible too. The Psalmist Asaph wrote of comparing his life with the wicked: Truly God is good to Israel, To such as are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the boastful, When I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psa 73:1-3)

Asaph was discouraged because of the prosperity of the wicked. He thought they should get what they deserved. It caused him to doubt God’s love in his life. It led him to be angry with God. Quite a different thought we get in our text for today, from Psalm 117: Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! 2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD! (NASB)

Psalm 117 is an interesting one. It’s the central chapter of the entire Bible and also the shortest chapter. We’re not told who wrote it, but it was contained in a volume of Psalms called the Hallel Psalms, named after the Hebrew word for “Praise the LORD”, where our English word Hallelujah comes from. These Hallel Psalms were special to God’s people. They were sung during the Passover preparation. They were even sung by Jesus and His disciples on Maundy Thursday in the Upper Room. Think of that for a moment. In that most trying of hours, the Lord Jesus most likely repeated the very same words and believed the same truths that are printed before you this morning.

We may not know whom the Holy Spirit caused to record this Psalm, but its message is simple enough. “Praise the LORD” bookends the qualities of God’s mercy, which is great, and God’s truth, which is eternal. The Psalmist worships God for these blessings. He speaks differently than Asaph because he is not concerned with what is going on around him. This unknown author is focused entirely on Who is above and what He has done. We might call this the difference between a comparison of the horizontal (what is going on in the world) and a comparison of the vertical (what is going on with God).

There is no shortage of opportunities to make such comparisons for ourselves. But we must ask, what is going to be best for our lives? Comparisons with others will lead to despair. Comparisons with God will lead to hope and praise.

This may seem like a no-brainer to you but I want to show you why it is so significant. We’re used to comparing our lives with God because He directs us to. He says, “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” Jesus said, “Be holy, as My Father in heaven is holy.” Paul describes eternal life, and the completion of love, as knowing God as He knows us today. This is nothing short of astounding. But you’re probably not blown away by it because you know it already. You’ve been living it and trusting it since your baptism. But, for those without Christ, this is a completely foreign concept. But, the key is that God does not just tell us to compare ourselves with Him in His commands, but also in what Jesus has done for us by free grace.

Look at any other world religion and God is a distant, sometimes unnamed, unknowable force. Even if a religion gets specific about god it’s certainly not for the purpose of comparing yourself to him. Take Islam for example. The goal in Islam is to follow Allah, the deity they call God. But, a person is forbidden to compare him/herself to Allah. It’s offensive even to depict Allah or his prophet, Muhammad in art. The disciple is continually told to keep a certain distance from Allah. The path for following him is to show greater devotion in following his commands; in the terminology of our thoughts today, to compare your obedience with others. Whoever is better is more devoted to Allah.

Now think of the great difference between those principles and the gospel of Christ, especially as we prepare for Christmas. We are looking forward to observing the moment in history when God entered the world, and not only that, when He became human. There is no closer comparison to us than that. God didn’t consider it blasphemy to be depicted in human terms; He chose it. He belittled His eternal, immaterial, holy presence to become exactly like us – people who struggle and strive in the filth of this temporary world. This is amazing and absolutely one of a kind. No other faith system has anything like this.

And the thing is, as soon as we get stuck in comparing ourselves to God, we are met face-to-face with Christ in the Scriptures. God dispels our fears and uncertainties about measuring our lives next to His perfect nature by using His own Son as a comparison of His own. That’s what the birth of Jesus was. God was stepping down into humanity and becoming one of us. But, just like all comparisons, when this one was made, several contrasts became apparent too. Jesus was like us, indeed. This surprised people. It continues to fascinate us with curiosity today. We sing hymns about the sublime majesty of God being in the body of a helpless baby.

But, Jesus was different too. With that great comparison of the Father’s mercy also came an honest realization of why this Child was born. We who were once made in the Father’s image, had fallen from His righteousness. Jesus came to right that wrong as well. Hebrews sums it all up in one verse: For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was like us in all things, except sin. And even in that point, He knew what sin was, He experienced it through He never committed it. Peter wrote: 1 Peter 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
This is the great mercy for which the psalmist praises the LORD. But mercy means nothing without truth. The harsh truth is that we caused the innocent Son of God to be nailed to the cross of divine punishment. We are not innocent by-standers in this great sacrifice. He came for our sins and our lives. When God promised the great comparison of His Son’s incarnation into this world, to be made human like us, He was thinking of you and of me. That Savior born in Bethlehem was here to walk my path, to carry my sorrows, to suffer my punishments, to extend the hand of compassion that I withheld. My life is compared to His in all points because He bought me back from the dead.

Now, we see the amazement. It’s one thing to compare the truths of the gospel with the other religions of the world. It makes an impact. It’s quite another thing, quite another plane of appreciation and thanksgiving, to know that I today have been redeemed by Christ. Everything I read about in the Bible that He did, He did for me. That is the comparison God wants me to make each day of my life. When I feel self-righteous, compare with Christ. When I feel beaten down, compare with Christ. When I am stubborn and indignant in my sins, compare with Christ. And when I make that comparison I see great mercy and eternal truth. I see Him for me, both in the standards which I failed to keep and the blissful promises I eagerly expect. This, my friends, is the vertical comparison – the purpose of the Christmas season when this comparison began and the simple theme of the shortest chapter of the Bible.      

Come back the 73rd Psalm. When Asaph compared his life with others, what conclusion did he come to? He said, “When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me-- 17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end. 22 I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. 24 You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:16-17, 22-24)

His conclusion was that he needed to go back to the fact that God was with him no matter what. Foolishness and pain were the results of comparing his life with others. This is true whether you think you have it good or not. As Luther once said, “We are all beggars.” The hope of the Christmas season and of life in general is not that I have more than others, not that I can do more than others, or not that I look better than others. The hope is great mercy, and eternal truth – wrapped not in paper and bows, but in swaddling cloths.

God is with you. God holds you in His hands. God guides each every day. God will receive you to glory. His gifts through the greatest gift – His Son. Praise the LORD! Amen.

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

November 28, 2017

The Last Day - Matthew 25:1-13

The Vigilant Believer…
1. Waits in Joyful Expectation
2. Stays Watchful and Prepared

Matthew 25:1-13 "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 "Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 "Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 "but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6 "And at midnight a cry was heard:`Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' 7 "Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 "And the foolish said to the wise,`Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 "But the wise answered, saying,`No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' 10 "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 11 "Afterward the other virgins came also, saying,`Lord, Lord, open to us!' 12 "But he answered and said,`Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' 13 "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

Is there a worse feeling in the world than waking up late for something? Have you ever experienced that feeling; perhaps sleeping through your alarm or forgetting to set it? It’s feels terrible. It leaves a pit in your stomach. I can tell you what’s even worse is forgetting to wake up for something you have to do but don’t want to. It’s one thing to miss something you’re looking forward to, it’s an entirely different level of pain to miss something you need to be at but don’t want to.

When I was in college, I would have to wake up for 6 am basketball practices from time to time. That meant in order to be on time I would have to actually wake up at about 5 am, if I wanted breakfast. For some of you that’s normal. Let me tell, for my college self, it wasn’t. I was not a morning person, and even more so when I had a 2-hour practice impending. And when something was coming up the next day like that I never slept well, either. It was just terrible.

Well, one time my first year of playing, I woke up at about 5:55 am. It was a horrible feeling. I didn’t want to go, knowing I’d be late. But, I knew it would be worse if I just didn’t show up. So, I went as fast as a I could, showed up late, received some well-deserved banter from my teammates (who had to run whenever someone was late), and that was it. It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and because it scared me so much it never happened again. I was sure to be prepared every time after that.

Jesus describes the same feeling in this parable, but with a much sadder consequence. Imagine how horrible it would feel to be late to heaven, too late in fact. There’s no lesson learned after that. That’s it. The message of the Last Day is fiercely upfront and simple. There is one day, coming in the future, when all will stand before God and face eternity. Of this truth the Scriptures are crystal clear. God expects us to prepare now to face that day. But not one of us can say we’ve been diligent in that task.

Part 1: Waits in Joyful Expectation

I want to ask you something different though. When you think of that Day, are you looking forward to it or not? Are you excited about heaven or is it just too hard to take seriously? Are you secretly hoping it’s not true, that God isn’t going to judge all, that somehow everyone will be saved? It’s not wrong to hope for all to be saved, but it can be dangerous to nullify the reason why Jesus died for sin.

Jesus spoke this parable to help teach His followers about vigilance, especially near the end. And yes, preparation is key, but joy is important too.

The ten virgins were waiting in joyful expectation. This was a wedding after all. What isn’t joyful about a wedding celebration? Jesus speaks about some of the traditions of that culture to show us what vigilance in our faith is like. The typical Jewish wedding took place at night. The groom would go to his home, or his parent’s home, wherever the ceremony was to take place and prepare it. The bride would wait with her bridesmaids at a different location. When the groom came to get her the entire party would travel to the ceremony, the marriage would be sealed, and the celebration would take place.

All of these things were occasions of joy. Preparation by both the groom and bride were necessary, as well as waiting, but it was all in eager expectation. Of course, that joy would be dampened if something went wrong, or if someone was ill-prepared. It’s not by chance that Jesus taught with this analogy. The vision of the Church and Christ being united like a wife to her husband is common in the Bible. God takes the most intimate, sacred, covenantal union known to mankind and says that it’s a taste of what true union with God is like. In the course of the parable Christ is the groom, believers are the virgins. On the last day, the marriage feast will take place; the two will be united forever.

But this happens at midnight, at a time of great darkness. In such a setting light will be especially beneficial and necessary. The entire lamp is faith, divided between the oil and the flame (think substance in the heart and manifestation in action). Notice how all the virgins have lamps, but when the bridegroom comes, not all have light. The claim of being a member of the wedding party is present, but some have tarnished that distinction by ruining the ceremony. They want acceptance but they are left out of the celebration because they no longer have light. Think of how John described Christ’s effect in the world, John 1:4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.

The oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit’s presence through the gospel, to keep the light alive and burning. Think of another Old Testament analogy of significance. When a king was chosen by God and crowned, he was anointed with oil, symbolizing God’s calling of that person. In a similar way the oil in this parable represents God’s presence in the heart. The light of faith is certainly helpful in all circumstances, but especially when things are most trying and desperate. Light is needed when it is dark, and Christ alludes the fact that it will be dark when He comes. Things will be difficult. Jesus warned in just the prior chapter, “Because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:12). In our epistle reading, Peter warned the believers of his day that scoffers will arise and mock them for being followers of Christ, for patiently waiting for the bridegroom’s coming. If Peter needed to warn the Christians 2,000 years ago, how much more so for us. The darkness is upon us. Lawless abounds. Has our love grown cold?

This is why joy is so important to our waiting by faith. It is always easier to wait for something you’re looking forward to it. The joy in the parable is apparent in the attitude of the virgins when they hear that the Bridegroom is approaching. The text tells us they “trimmed” their lamps. Literally, this word means to adorn, or the beautify. We might think of making something presentable. This type of action is done when the activity is important. We don’t bother to adorn things that we deem worthless. We do it when something valuable is at stake. The believer values the coming of the Savior. We desire to be presentable for Him, to adorn ourselves by remaining faithful through His Word. A living, vibrant, active faith is pleasing to God. And the effort behind all of this is because the Bridegroom loves us. John writes in his first letter of this love: Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1John 3:1-3).

Christ’s love for us leads us to joyfully wait for the fulfillment of His promises, for that day when He will return. There is no place for fear or anxiety in the believer’s heart because the Father’s love is there. The flame of faith burns bright with hope, and this hope is pure and pleasing to God.

Part 2: Stays Watchful and Prepared      

The second aspect of vigilance is probably the dominant theme of the parable. Jesus says at the conclusion, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” We are vigilant because we are joyfully expectant but also because there is an uncertainty to the whole matter. God has not seen fit to reveal the exact moment when Jesus will return. No one knows, no matter what they say or predict. This information has not been given to us. Therefore, there is only one other thing to spend effort and time on – preparing.

The first step of staying prepared is to be watchful. The idea here is to be awake, to be aware of what is going on, both by intuition but also by having a healthy respect for the gravity of the situation. It’s interesting to note the way that Christ used the call to watchfulness near the end of His ministry. Back into chapter 24 Jesus introduced it with another parable, by describing a thief breaking into a house. The coming of the Lord is like the coming of a thief – it is unexpected. So, be ready by watching. After our section, the theme comes up in chapter 26 as well. There, in the Garden of Eden, Jesus implored His disciples to “watch and pray” with Him. We know what happened, they fell asleep. One might call this moment a testing of the Lord’s command. He had just instructed them to be mindful of the situation and He then wanted them to put their faith into action. They failed, miserably, in the most important of moments. But not for lack of trying. Jesus summarized, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).”

Likewise, the distinction of the ten virgins was not based on intention. They all had the right intention. They wanted to be part of the wedding. They wanted to be included. Rather, the result was based on the status of their lamps, and that was based on their action, or inaction, to prepare. Sincerity for Christ will not save you. The dividing line between foolishness and wisdom, between faith and unbelief, is based on the truth. Either your light is burning or it’s not. This is the very essence of the final day. Your standing before God is not about the thoughtfulness or sincerity of your attitude. You can have the best of attitudes and yet still be lacking.

Those who slumber, slumber in the darkness. Keep your light burning. If sincerity is not enough, you will need something more. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Jesus is the One who first gave your light and He can keep that light bright. When you boil down this parable to the most important take away, it’s that light that matters. The virgins were not chosen or rejected because of how important they were. Likewise, it doesn’t matter who you are today. The virgins didn’t prepare and stay watchful to prove themselves worthy. They were already invited and ready to come to the wedding. Likewise, your sins are already paid for. You’re not to be busy atoning for yourself serving others to earn heaven. Don’t burn yourself with the flame of you lamp. And finally, when the Bridegroom came, the wise virgins did not trim their lamps the catch the fancy and attention of the groom. They did it to see Him; it was the consummation of everything they waited for. Likewise, you do not make yourself presentable to the Lord based on your merits. He is the One for which you wait because He is the One who loves you and has proven that love.

Don’t oversleep for Judgment Day. Heed the Words of Jesus to you: Watch and Pray. Be mindful of eternity. You won’t miss it, of course, but that’s not why we’re staying watchful today. Our vigilance is by faith. Therefore, it is one of joy and excited expectation for our Beloved. Amen. 

November 14, 2017

Risky Church - Acts 9:31

Theme: What does the ideal church look like?

Is the church dead? Is there such a thing as the perfect church? Is the current model of congregation and membership really viable in our modern age?

Mark Zuckerberg suggests that Facebook, now with over 2 billion users, can become the new church. It can fill in for giving a person a sense of community and togetherness that the decline in churches has left vacant. This line of thinking illustrates several problems:
1) The idea that church is only valuable if I get what I want out of it. Becomes self-centered.
2) The idea that church is only about giving people a sense of togetherness and something to share with each other.
3) Much more is lost in church decline than is gained in Facebook popularity.

The sad thing is that many Christians are the ones who first introduced these ideas about church. Like those closest to us, parents and siblings, church has become the easy scapegoat for pent up anger and bitterness. It’s always easiest to lash out against those closest to us and ever since America has existed we have had the church right beside us. People are taking advantage of this and apathy is the result. Churches now have to compete for attention and end up selling theology like used-car salesman. Factional rivalries between denominations often overshadow the gospel. People join and leave churches over petty, non-doctrinal issues, while ignoring the actual substance of soul-care they receive or leave.

Some are so fed up with all this they just choose a path of isolationism. Like progressive monks and nuns they still claim to be Christian but they isolate themselves from church. They say things like: “I can be spiritual without being religious.” “I don’t need to go to church to be close to God.” In their minds, the church has failed, and often they have a point, even if their response is foolish and dangerous.

Is the church viable? I continue to say yes, and not just because of my title or this robe I’m wearing, or because I’m standing here talking to you. I say this because we know the church has worked in the past, under much harder circumstances, and I say this because God willed the church into existence as His model. To summarize the ideal church, we look at a single passage from the book of Acts:

Acts 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

The book of Acts tells us about the formation of the Christian church after the Ascension of Jesus. There are several sections we could look at when contemplating what the church should be like. The verse before us came a transition point. The church had been firmly established in the regions that are mentioned: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. However, this was still a relatively small section of the populated world of that time. God had bigger plans.

One of the main reasons why the church’s global growth was stunted was because of Jewish persecution, led by Saul. This verse from chapter nine came immediately after Saul’s conversion. Now that God had brought Christianity’s foremost enemy into the fold, the time was right to expand with missionary work among the Gentiles. And God would use Saul, who became Paul, to do this work. But, despite the persecution that the Jewish Christians endured, they still had strong churches. They would use their model to bring the message of Christ into Asia Minor, North Africa, and eventually Europe. Soon enough, a new form of persecution, this time from the Roman Empire, would arise. But, just like the persecution of the Jews, it would only serve to build the resolve of the Christians.

This was certainly a tumultuous time for believers, but God used these circumstances for their benefit. They were strong. They relied on God for everything. They were eager to serve others and the share the gospel. To summarize, they knew what was important in life. The church was a simple thing for these Christians. It was a spiritual haven. For many who were beaten down in life, both physically and spiritually, the church was a welcome relief and comfort.

In our age, we are thankful to be spared of major persecution. Many Christians still face it today, but not in America. But, there’s a tradeoff to this blessing. We often get lazy and apathetic in our faith. We tend to forget what is most important in life. And as a result we often lose the true vision of what the church is. In the book we’re using as the basis for our sermon series, the author lists several things that church is not, but what many people think, or what many churches promote. Listen and see if any of these resonate with you, or if you’ve ever experienced any:     

·         Church is not a social club for gossip, albeit with pews and a slightly odd smell.
·         Church is not a place where you go to observe a whole bunch of rules that have no connection to everyday life.
·         Church is not a political organization dedicated to the preservation of “what America used to be” or to a social agenda overturning traditional beliefs.
·         Church is not primarily about feeling better, thinking more positively, achieving your best self, spiritually “winning,” or getting healthier.
·         Church is not a place where some people go during the week to observe some old rituals that nobody understands but that are considered valuable because they create togetherness and make people feel special.
·         Church is not a place where people who look like one another congregate and do all they can to keep others who aren’t like them out.
·         Church is not a spiritual smoothie bar where you go when you have a sudden and unexplainable rush to get close to God, only never to return.
·         Church is not a money-raising organization or a series of weekly seminars on success. The church is not a personal improvement organization such that you can climb the economic ladder, get a better job, and become fabulously wealthy just by going there.[1]

I think that in some way, all of these false perceptions of church apply to our current culture. Some more than others perhaps, but they all give us insight into why we have such a difficult time determining what church is, and why many opponents claim that the true church can never exist or is no longer relevant today. Each of these misconceptions take away from what God intends church to be, what He intended it to be from the beginning. When these modern thoughts about church are compared with God’s description in this single verse from His Word, the simplicity of church becomes quite clear. Simply put, it is to be a place where the Word of God is preached, for the peace, joy, and safety of believers.

Simple enough, but is it possible? Even in the churches that treat the Word of God with the utmost respect, failures are abundant. Yes, it is not only the mega-churches which emphasis entertainment over substance that have problems. Every church is operated by sinners, no matter how kind and sincere they are. Every pastor mishandles the preaching and application of God’s Word at times. No church has perfect leadership that never steers the congregation in the wrong direction. And there are plenty of opportunities to work for the Lord and to increase His kingdom that regular members fail to capitalize on.

In reality, the church seems to be a very broken institution. For many, that’s reason enough to not be involved. As we said earlier, it doesn’t mean people see no value in confessing Christ, just not in making that confession with others. Isolation is becoming more and more popular. But, it’s the very brokenness of sinful people that caused God to create a place for them to gather together.

It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for church simply means an assembly, a group that gathers together. Contrary to modern conceptions of church, you don’t need a magnificent building, hymnals, organs, potlucks and coffee, or community oriented projects to be a church. A church is just a group of people who gather. What separates the church from other groups that gather is what they gather around – the Word and Sacraments. Historically, these two things have been known as the “Marks of the Church,” that is to say that wherever the Word of God and Sacraments are used, church is happening – whether that takes place in a cathedral or in a person’s basement; whether 200 people are present, or only 2.

The more we focus on what we gather around at church, instead of all the other details about that gathering, the better vision of church we have. Take Zuckerberg as an example again. His view of church is that it is present to create a communal atmosphere. In his mind, church gives people an avenue to serve others by being kind to one another. And so, naturally, communities on Facebook could indeed supplant the church so long as they can do a better job of creating this communal vision.

Zuckerberg’s understanding of church is completely void of what we gather around. It’s more about what we do. Therefore, in his vision, there is no place for the substance – for the Word of God and Sacraments. But, notice what God tells us about the original church’s source for peace and edification. It was based on the fear of the Lord and walking in that fear. Whenever fear is mentioned, we need define whether we mean that in positive or negative sense. Negative fear is terror, positive fear is respect. Well, how do we fear the Lord?

Both. It is proper to feel terror from the Lord because He is righteous and we are not. God demands that sin be paid for and if we have no Substitute we must answer that on our own. But, we also have a reverence and respect for God because He reveals that we have a Savior who offered up that payment for us – because He loved us. Depending on what aspect of our lives we are looking at, there is a place for both kinds of fear.

This is where we get the division of law and gospel in the Bible. The law leads us to recognize the terror fear of God because it exposes our sins. The gospel leads us to fearfully respect God because of the great lengths He went to to save us. Christians need to hear both the law and gospel and that is why church must be a place to hear both. They are the what that we center on as we gather together.   

The fear of God is also the reason why God desires Christians to walk together. One pastor described church like a campfire. When the coals and embers are together they stay hot, but if you isolate one on its own it quickly dies out. If the proper fear of God through both law and gospel is our goal as a church, we can only do that together. The Christian who believes that they are warmer and stronger on their own is finding strength from something other than God because that method is completely the opposite of what God has designed.

The final aspect of our description of the ideal church really solidifies the need for individual Christians coming together. We’re told in the final word that the church multiplied. The fact that the church grew shows that Christians coming together is important. We are not meant to be isolated; we are meant to grow. You can’t do that on your own. Some today make more of growth than they should. They make growth the mark of the church, rather than the Word and Sacraments. They make growth the what that we gather around. Equally important to being on guard against isolationism is making growth more than it is, or having it be a higher priority than God’s truth. Only after the first Christians had proper fear of the Lord, which led them to walk in the Lord’s Word and receive comfort of the Holy Spirit, did they have growth. The same continues to hold true for us.

Can the church continue to exist today? Sure, if we want it to. If we are willing to listen to what God calls church and how He designed it. If any of those misconceptions we mentioned have dampened your desire to be in church, remember this simple description from Acts. Wherever the Word of God is used the ideal vision of church is possible. Let us humbly recognize our weaknesses as a congregation and where we can give a clearer witness to the true purpose of church, the eternal Gospel of Jesus. Let nothing get in the way of that and let God lead us where He wills. Amen.

[1] Strachan, Risky Gospel, 140-141.

October 24, 2017

October 22, 2017 - 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

The Difference that Justification makes on Sanctification
WITHOUT Justification: Anger, Denial, and Pain of the outward man
WITH Justification: Joy, Acceptance, and Compassion of the inward man.

You’ve probably heard of C.S. Lewis. He is perhaps the most famous Christian apologist, that is, someone who defends the Christian faith. During his lifetime he often used allegorical literature to show the validity of Christianity, writing through fiction to impress spiritual truths of the Bible upon his readers. In a way, Lewis’ approach was often like Christ’s, using parables to get the meaning across.

In one of his most famous books called The Great Divorce, Lewis pictures the possibility of people from heaven and hell getting a chance to interact with one another. He is upfront that it is obviously fiction, the Bible is clear that there is no connection between heaven and hell. But Lewis looks at what it might be like if it were possible, and especially for the purpose of investigating the reasons why people reject God. The book begins by describing a magical bus ride that transports a group of people from hell to heaven. The people are given the chance to stay if they like, as their conversations with residents in heaven are chronicled by the book. Each chapter looks at a different person and their interaction with someone in heaven. Some are strangers, some know each other from their lives on earth.

In one encounter a husband and wife meet one another. Their relationship is not immediately known to the reader but it is clear that they recognize each other. The husband, from hell, is pictured as a dwarf that is chained to a much larger person. As his wife, who is in heaven, speaks with him she asks for his forgiveness for all the mistakes she made in life. As she converses with him she is accompanied by a grand host of other people, representing those whom she influenced and strengthened in the Christian faith in the world. One can immediately tell she bears some responsibility that she was able to positively encourage so many others but that her own husband did not believe.

Her husband is pictured as a dwarf, not because he was one in real life, but because he is dominated by his anger and resentment. The larger, ghost-like figure that the dwarf is leading around is
a picture for his resentment which he carries around with him. As his wife talks with him there is a moment of hope that the husband can let go. The dwarf actually lets go of the chain for a moment, but in the end he is not willing to completely let the hatred go. Eventually, the dwarf gets smaller and smaller until he can no longer be seen. The man has been completely absorbed by his anger until it overshadows his very existence.

The narrator of the story revealed the moral at the end by saying, “The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven."

Lewis was obviously picturing here the danger of holding grudges and allowing anger to control our lives. He wanted to show the reader how it is the kind of attitude that leads a person to hell and even hypothetically given the chance to change, many would not. You might think it’s absurd that person in hell would deny a chance at heaven for any reason. But, that very thing happens every day here on earth as many refuse to turn from evil and have life through Jesus Christ. Lewis’ story is a somber reminder of the importance of justification by faith in Christ when it comes to sanctification in the Christian’s life. We read from 2 Corinthians 4:16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, 18 while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.       

If we understand sanctification as our Christian life by faith, our great struggle is a lot like the husband from Lewis’ book. We wrestle with two natures – the one according to sin and the one according to faith. Paul described it the same way to the Corinthians by using the distinction of the outward man and the inward man. Paul was pointing to even more though. The context of his discussion centered around persecution, which literally attacked the physical body, the outward man. Yet, the cause of persecution goes back to sin, the spiritual ailment that afflicts our natures and our hearts.

An even greater distinction is that the outward man perishes, whether referring to our sinful body or our Old Adam; and the inward man, the New Man of faith, endures. For the man in the Lewis’ book, he was overcome by the outward man. This was pictured by the sickly, ghostly man that he carried around bound by chains. Eventually, who he really was vanished under the weight of his grudge.

One of the saddest elements of Lewis’ depiction of this is the man’s inability to be honest about his situation. In his estimation everything was fine. In fact, he felt that is was entirely natural for him to be bitter toward his wife. As the narrator explained, he felt justified in “blackmailing” the entire universe, so that they would feel as miserable as he did. If it was up to this man, he would even veto heaven itself so that no one could be happy.

This story reminds us to the most important aspect of our sanctified Christian lives – they are built on justification by Jesus Christ. Without Justification, a person will never completely be sanctified. Without justification our response to sin is filled with anger, denial, and pain; first directed toward God and soon thereafter directed at others. And without justification, these symptoms of sin threaten to destroy who God created us to be.

In contrast, faith in and reliance on justification by Christ leads to a completely different life. Jesus consumes our anger, denial, and pain and replaces it with joy, acceptance, and compassion. Justification changes our lives; both in our relationship with God and in relationships with others. God would have us remember today that each direction is possible. Either the outward man is growing or the inward man is growing; it’s one or the other and our association with Jesus determines which one.

We know very well how great of a struggle there is between the old man and new man. We are created to follow the new man, yet we also inherit sin that would have us follow the old man. We know the natural law of God in our hearts, yet we also learn sinful behaviors from our family and from the world. Paul wrote about this struggle in one of the most personal sections of Scripture, from Romans 7: For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members (Romans 7:22-23).

The struggle is that we know what is right and we, by faith inwardly, want to do what is right. But, we fail again and again. Have you ever heard those horror stories about someone who undergoes surgery and seems to respond properly to the anesthesia but in reality can feel everything happening? The patient’s muscles are relaxed so they can’t move but they can still feel pain. What a terrible thought! That’s what our struggle with sin is like and the more you know about God’s Word the more painful your sins are. We know what to do but we are helpless on our own. It’s like feeling the pain without being able to do anything about it.

What’s interesting is that this prospect is not even the most dangerous element of this struggle. Not being able to combat sin is one thing, but at least you know you can be honest about the danger. And the Bible is absolutely full of hope through Jesus Christ. It’s a painful battle but at least you know what you’re fighting and Who holds the key to victory.

The much more dangerous element of our sanctified lives is in those areas we have a hard time being honest about. What are those things that we are in denial about? This was ultimately the downfall of the husband in Lewis’ story. He was numb to the danger. He had spent so much time justifying it in his own mind, by blaming others and making excuses, that he no longer felt it was wrong. He had actually convinced himself that he had the right to think something sinful; hence being chained to and controlled by his own grudge. And in the end, he wanted everyone else to feel his pain.

What are the areas that you might be numb to? We all have them, though we often do whatever we can to ignore them. What are some things that God might be calling out on, but you keep making excuses for? Could it be lack of contentment? Could it be unwillingness to obey His Word? Could it be dissatisfaction with your situation in life? Could it be like the husband, a long-standing grudge against someone? You are probably thinking of one right now or several. You probably feel justified in hanging onto it, like a chained pet you’re carrying around. It’s always there to reassure you if you feel convicted by God’s Word. It’s always there to offer good reasoning if a Christian friend exposes the problem. Some people are willing even to destroy their closest relationships in life to keep hanging on. Remember, either the inward man or the outward man is growing.

We get an even better example of this in the Bible, which shouldn’t surprise us, and it comes from two individuals in Luke’s Gospel. The first is the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable about worship. You know the story well. The Pharisee said, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even this tax collector.” For this Pharisee, the justification he trusted in was his own as he compared himself, not with God’s moral law, but with other sinners that he felt better than. His outward man was flourishing, his inward man was denied the true Gospel of substance.

The second person of Luke’s Gospel was Zacchaeus, not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. He was one of the first people that men like this Pharisee would have despised. Zacchaeus said, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold (Luke 19:8).” Rather than wanting the attention of others, Zacchaeus was focused on his Lord Jesus. And Jesus’ reply says it all, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; 10 "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."

Both men claimed to have sanctification. Yet, they found their source of justification in vastly different places. As a result, their sanctification was different too. But, not from outward observation. To many, the Pharisee was a better person than Zacchaeus. But, Jesus was looking at the inward man, the place where all Godly sanctification is found. Why did they end up in such vastly different places? The Pharisee was numb to his sin, Zacchaeus was honest about it. The Pharisee denied his sin. Zacchaeus brought it to Jesus. The Pharisee continued on in his pain and affected others with it. Zacchaeus continued on in forgiveness and renewal and affected others with it.

What a different justification in Christ makes in sanctification. Without Christ we wouldn’t be able to tell this difference between an action done in selfishness and sin and one done in humility and repentance.

We asked earlier about what areas you might be in denial about. As your pastor, I welcome you to come to me with those burdens and concerns, but you don’t have to. Every sin is a personal thing between you and God – go first and always to Him. We all have different answers to that question. But, one more worth asking is always the same for us: What has Jesus done for me? There is no doubt there. He suffered and died for your sins. In contrast to Lewis’ story, Jesus doesn’t just encourage us to deny ourselves, He gives us the power to do so. He has justified the world. He has paid the penalty. He has paved the way for you to receive His eternal blessings. What has Jesus done for you? He has justified you – declared you to be not guilty of those things for which you were guilty. This is His gift of grace, and through it our new man, inwardly, is created, renewed, and strengthened. Amen.

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

October 17, 2017

October 15, 2017 - Galatians 5

Text: Galatians 5
Theme: If we Live in the Spirit, let us Walk in the Spirit
  1. Recognize the danger of spiritual leaven.
  2. Uphold the offense of the cross.
  3. Use liberty to serve others

Our study of Galatians has been one of facing constant objections to the truth of Christ. In chapter 1 Paul warned the Galatians straight away about turning away to a “different gospel,” one that was focused on their own works and not on Christ’s work. In chapter 2 he talked about walking the difficult path between hypocrisy and Christian freedom. So often, unbelievers object to the faith because it seems to them that Christians just pick and choose what to do and not to do when they are diligently trying to follow God’s will. In chapter 3 the distinction between the damning message of the Law and the healing forgiveness of Justification by faith in Christ was on display. There really is no other teaching from the Bible that is more objectionable to people than complete and unconditional hope in Christ as Savior. And in chapter 4 we discussed the truth that God knows us and in the midst of all of life’s uncertainties this is our continual hope. People object to this because they want to control things, not trust in God’s control of everything. At each step along the way Paul is answering objections that were placed before the Galatians and frankly before all people.

Today we come to chapter 5 where Paul writes at the very beginning, “Stand fast in your liberty, by which Christ has set you free.” These are words that indicate steadfastness in the face of objections. We see that the theme continues. And in this chapter, we bring it to full attention because the topic Paul addresses here is perhaps the most often used objection against God’s Church. Christians talk a good game, but they don’t back it up.

In the words of our text, Paul says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” He is not talking about some generic spirit of man or some other religion. He is talking about the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. All believers live in the Spirit, according to our text literally “in connection with the Spirit” by faith in Jesus. As Jesus Himself elaborated upon in His ministry, God the Father promised to send the Holy Spirit as the special Helper of the Church. The Spirit would be the one to bless the proclamation of the Word. It is a neat connection because the Spirit is also the one who inspired the Word.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Christian who doesn’t claim to also live and walk in the Spirit. Here’s where the objection is leveled, though. Christians claim to have the Holy Spirit but they so often live contrary to Him. Evils and atrocities have been done throughout history in the name of Christ by His followers, sometimes even by the most pious of all, the leaders of the church. But, common, everyday Christians have plenty of faults too. In fact, according to outward observer, there doesn’t seem to really be much value to the Christian faith because sometimes even unbelievers are better people. The objection is easy to detect, and there’s not a whole lot we can say to defend ourselves. The ugly truth is that we are pretty poor at walking in the Spirit.

Part 1: Recognize the danger of spiritual leaven

Paul’s point is not just to remind the Galatians about this. Rather, within chapter 5 he has laid the groundwork for success in living according to the Spirit. The clues are subtle but once you take time to unfold the text they come out. The first clue we pick up is in verse 9, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” We’ve already established the certain fact that we are poor followers of Christ. That’s why the objection of talking as Christians but not living as Christians is so often leveled against the Church. Therefore, it should be readily apparent that we need help.

To aid us in our faith, God continually points us to His Word. He has given us the Bible to show us the way, what is means to walk in the Spirit. But, more importantly, He has given us the Bible to restore us when we fail. Having the instructions for success is definitely necessary, but on our own we have no power to follow them. What a horrible fate that would be; to know the path to life and salvation but never to be able to attain it! Many Christians have felt this pain as they have been fed lies about what it means to be a believer while they have been starved of the gospel.

With such a precious gift at our fingertips and upon our hearts, it’s not surprising that God would caution us to use it carefully and appropriately. Paul’s allusion to leaven as false teaching should sound familiar because he took it from Jesus. Right after the feeding of the 4,000 Jesus warned His disciples with the same illustration, comparing the teachings of the Pharisees to leaven in a lump of dough.

Paul seeks to bring the same warning into view for the Galatians. Remember what they were at risk of losing – it was the gospel, the very power of their salvation. Paul established that foundation yet again at the beginning of chapter 5, saying, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” The Galatians needed a wakeup call to remind of the precious treasure they had in the Word of God. They were not taking care of that Word. They were being wreck less and careless with it. And if they weren’t more careful, they would pay an awe full price.

Part 2: Uphold the offense of the cross

The price that already had been paid for them is precisely where Paul brought them next for their second piece of advice in “walking in the Spirit.” Verse 11: And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased. Here’s an ironic twist. Paul talks about how the cross of Christ is an offensive thing. We wouldn’t normally think of an offensive thing as being a blessing in our lives, especially in our culture. So often today the cry of offensiveness is thrown around by people to protest whatever they don’t like. The Biblical concept of offense is much deadlier. Literally, the word means to set a trap with the intent to harm or kill. As you can imagine, it is most often used of false teachings, the very thing Paul just warned the Galatians about.

How could it be appropriate to speak of Christ’s crucifixion in that way? Well, it’s precisely the effect that the cross has on the stubborn, sinful flesh. God uses His Son’s ultimate victory to trap our sinful flesh. It’s the reason why the message of the cross is so often rejected; it’s offensive to the unbelieving heart. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul quoted Isaiah to remind us that on our own there’s no way we would want to believe the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:9). He said it’s as if we are blind to it. To our sinful flesh the message of the cross is not only utter foolishness but it’s dangerous because it threatens to expose our sinful ways for what they really are.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, quoting Isaiah once again, of the same effect, this time with the illustration of Christ as the Cornerstone, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame." (Rom 9:33 NKJ) For the message of the cross to not be a death trap, we need someone to enlighten us – to wake our heart to trust and believe the gospel. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, the main subject of our chapter. And so Paul goes on to write, Galatians 5:17-18 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

To walk in the Spirit we need to be ready to uphold the offense of the cross; both in our lives and for others. People will hate us for it. They will persecute us. They will mock us. They will take our words and actions out of context. They will publicly and privately malign us. They may even stop being our friends. All because we seek to uphold the true Word of God and message of Christ crucified for sinners. Don’t be surprised if these things happen, expect them to happen. Your Savior suffered the agony of hell for your sins, and for those of the rest of humanity. Surely, a moment of reproach to honor His name is time well spent.

Part 3: Use liberty to serve one another.

Which leads us precisely to Paul’s final piece of advice on walking in the Spirit – verse 13: “through love serve one another.” What a hard thing it is to love your enemies. What a challenge to care for those who mistreat you, to look the other way and truly let it go. It’s so challenging, in fact, that the world tells us it’s not possible. And when they see Christians giving in, it reaffirms their objections to the faith even more. Haven’t we come full circle?

We struggle because our witness, our walk in the Spirit, is so weak. There are days when we don’t even feel like Christ’s own because we’re making so many mistakes. There are moments when we’re so distraught and confused that we even doubt the Lord who bought us. The chief moral is indeed what verse 14 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s also precisely at the command that our vain hopes of self-righteousness come crashing down like waves on the rocks.

I’m going to suggest a novel alternative. Instead of living our lives by our standards. Instead of setting our hopes in our goals and judging success and failure or right and wrong based on that, let us humbly follow Paul’s direction here. Remember what he says, “Use liberty to serve others.” There’s hope built into that command and Paul has set it up for our understanding. The verse first verse of the chapter, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.” Use liberty to serve one another.

This is not personal liberty. This is not “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This is not follow your own dreams and it will all work out. Stand fast in the liberty by Christ has set you free. This is the freedom of the gospel. The Holy Spirit does not give us faith so that we can be perfect followers who never make mistakes. Sin is a reality that no living person on earth can fully escape, and God knows this. The true mark of a believer, the purpose for faith, is to be free from that sin. We rejoice in the liberty that only Jesus can and has given us. And it’s through that same gospel that we serve one another, that we reach the highest pinnacle of walking in the Spirit where we partake of the garden of His fruits: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness, self-control.

The objections to sinful behavior are always there and they are legitimate. We offer no excuse of our own. Rather, we point to Christ. Amen. 

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