August 14, 2017

August 13, 2017 - Risky Gospel Part 2

Our Risky Identity: Empowered Dependence

Psalm 86:3-5 Be merciful to me, O Lord, For I cry to You all day long. 4 Rejoice the soul of Your servant, For to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 5 For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.

Mark 10:17-22 Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" 18 So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. 19 "You know the commandments:`Do not commit adultery,'`Do not murder,'`Do not steal,'`Do not bear false witness,'`Do not defraud,'`Honor your father and your mother.'" 20 And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth." 21 Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me." 22 But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Our focus throughout our Risky Gospel series is seeing how God equips us to be bold and courageous in our faith. The last message in this series looked at the parable of the talents, where we saw that God expects us to trust Him above all else and that we use our treasure of the gospel to build His kingdom. This is not always an easy task, for several reasons. Sometimes we are hindered by dangers and persecutions from outside ourselves, at other times we become our own worst enemies by self-inflicting sinful wounds on our hearts.  

We take a look today at one way that we can either be further empowered by God or we can create bigger problems for ourselves. The pivot point of our text today is our identity. Is it rooted in God or in ourselves? Our lesson flows from the curious case of a rich man who approached Jesus. What we learn ends up hitting home deep in our hearts.

At first, we see several indications of correct intentions from this man. In fact, four things strike us from verse 17 alone: 
·       Ran up to to Jesus – sought Him out.
·       Knelt before Jesus – sign of respect.
·       Called Him “Good”
·       Asked what he needed to do to “inherit” (receive at no cost) eternal life

Clearly, this man’s understanding of God’s Word was advanced. And, furthermore, he recognized something in Jesus that would help him in his life with God. This was far beyond the understanding of many at this time, even among Christ’s own disciples. With all these things spot on, one might expect this story to conclude as an evidence of great faith, as a lesson on true holiness. However, we all know how this story ends. With such a promising beginning how could things end up so differently? Answer: The young man’s identity was not in God.

Here we see a perplexing thought. A person can be acquainted with God’s Word yet be distant from God. A person can know the commandments of God and desire to follow them, and perhaps even do a good job outwardly at it, and yet be far removed from life in heaven. This man knew the Bible, followed the Bible, yet was in the same camp as the Pharisees and Sadducees when it came to faith. Outward signs can be misleading, and even dangerous, when it comes to a skewed identity.

As our text moves on we see the true reason why the man thought he was doing well in life. Verse 20 reveals the problem. Upon hearing a summary of God’s Law as the correct path to heaven, the man replied, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth." The man already knew the answer to his question. He was looking for something else. He didn’t want advice or instruction from Jesus. He wanted a pat on the back. He wanted to be made a stunning and noble example by Jesus. He wanted to hear, “Keep it up. Stay faithful to those Ten Rules. Live a clean life. Enjoy yourself. You’ll get there in the end.”

Have you ever been in a situation where you could recognize that a person was just doing something as a means to something greater? Perhaps you’ve been that person. Someone says they want to help you with a task, maybe trimming the bushes, mowing the law, or helping you move. Simple tasks, not a big deal, but important ways to help one another. But, in the end they get upset if you don’t react the way they want you to; if you don’t shower them with praise, or tell others of how great they were. They didn’t really want to help just to be kind. They wanted something more.

Jesus was in a similar situation here. This man didn’t want to learn. No, he had a preconceived agenda to be praised. You can almost see in your mind the expression on Jesus’ face as the text tells us that He was moved to compassion for this wayward man, that His Savior loved him even in this moment of self-absorption. And you don’t have to imagine the man’s reaction to Jesus’ final words, because the text tells us clearly. The man went away sorrowful. The words actually contain picture language that points to a cloudy appearance, like that little raincloud hanging over someone’s head in a comic.

This man was sad, not because he was confronted with his sins and was reflecting in a moment of Godly repentance. No, his sorrow was much more superficial than that. He was sad because his ulterior motive had been exposed. His pride was not stoked as he thought it would be. He didn’t want to think about having to sacrifice his great treasures of the earth. By the way, the word “great” in the last verse of our text does not speak to value, but quantity. The man had a lot of stuff, but compared to faith in Christ it was all worthless. The same could be said of the many earthly treasures we hoard day after day.

Suddenly, this text becomes real for us. This is a lesson we know well, we’ve learned it many times from this story, yet we continue to be plagued by the same problem. We look down on this man as someone who just didn’t understand such a simple thing, namely that Jesus is greater than possessions. Helping others is better than shopping for ourselves. Yet, is there a single culture in history more attached to materialism than ours? Hardly. This man’s sorrow continues to haunt us too. It’s true that the lesson is simple. But, it’s one we need day after day.  

We clamor and hound for the latest technology, often destroying relationships to get it or throwing fits when we don’t have what we want. We would rather save our money to get what we want, rather than invest in church. We plan and plan for vacation time and we save for long, expensive trips but we don’t take time to help a fellow person in need or offer an encouraging word to build up church members. Too often, we are investing in the worthless things. We look dejectedly at the Lord’s Word of where our priorities should be, because we too have “great possessions.”

It all comes back to identity. It’s easy to say that we treasure the Lord above all, but have we thought lately about what that really means? Time with the Lord means less time with the treasures of the earth. That is a fearful prospect to our flesh, but only if our identity is rooted in the wrong things. If it is about possessions, we will go away sorrowful. If it is about our own cares or dreams, we will go way sorrowful. Rather, our identity should be firmly in God. We should desire to follow and obey what He tells us. To our flesh, this is intimidating, but Christ has defeated our flesh. We are a new creation in Him. That means we trust His plan and we realize it is really the most prosperous for our lives. Paul writes, 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.     

Identity is important because it shapes the way we think about things. The reason the man thought he had kept all the commandments was because his self-identity taught him that being a good and decent person, but not perfect, would be good enough. He never thought of God’s standard that demands total perfection because he was not aligning his thoughts to God’s will.

Strachan calls this our “calculus.” When we put all the information together, what does it compute? What is the answer to the equation? You may have all the correct numbers, but if the calculus, the formula, is off, so too will be the answer. You could also think of it in terms of baking. Following a recipe is very much like solving an equation. You complete each step, in turn, at the right time, and the product is complete. But, some steps are based on the validity of those that have preceded them. If I make a mistake early on, it will change the outcome, regardless of faithfully I follow the recipe.

This is what we must understand about ourselves. The mistake of sin, early on, first in the Garden of Eden and also at the very onset of our lives, has distorted our identity, our calculus, our recipe. We have the instructions before us. The Law of God is clear and simple. But it doesn’t speak praise and honor to us. We have been changed from perfection. That is the reality of the matter and with that basis alone there is absolutely no hope. The only result that a self-based identity will lead us to is an inflated, self-absorbed, false image of our lives. It will cause us to believe that the basis of salvation resides in ourselves, even if we still believe God helps in some way. It will lead us to focus on preserving our own interests, instead of repenting and seeking God’s help to change.

Strachan calls this Narcissistic Optimistic Deism. It is a form of positive pride where we become convinced that it’s everyone else that needs to do things differently, not us. It causes us to demand things from God, rather than humbly submit to His Word. Is God the granter of all my wishes or the righteous ruler of all things? Does God exist to make me great or do I exist to glorify Him? In the end, basing our identity in ourselves, no matter how “optimistic” it sounds, saying things like: “you are fine the way you are.” “follow your dreams.” “Don’t let the anything, church or God’s Word, hold you back from your potential.” Saying all those things is really idolatry in the end. It is self-deification.   

We look at the ancient rulers who deified themselves. Nebuchadnzzar, the Pharaohs, the Caesars, Japanese Emperors. We think of that as rudimentary, archaic thinking, that a mortal could actually think themselves to be a god, or be worshipped by others. But that’s really how all narcissistic spiritual thinking works. It deifies the self. We may not build a towering image of ourselves and command others to pray to it. But, if we are constantly absorbed in ourselves, if that is where our identity rests, the result is no different because our complete calculus is off.

Rather than narcissistic optimistic deism, God calls us to empowered dependence. That’s the beauty of the gospel in Christ. It establishes our identity firmly on what He has done for us. And, yes, that is empowering. The grace of Christ is able to unbind you from the shackles of self-inflicted pride. It will lead you to appreciate others more. It will cause you to look to God as the center of the universe, not yourself. There is healthy humility in the gospel and it produces the beautiful completion of God’s plan for your life, in a way that only God can accomplish.

But, God doesn’t work by patting you on the back. He doesn’t expect you to do everything and then He will take credit at the end. The grace of Christ also leads us to depend on Him. That means that we aren’t good on our own. It means that our intentions, even when they are directed in the right place, are not enough to be saved. It means that trying harder is only digging a deeper hole. God’s great promise in His Son is that the most fulfilling, liberating, and joyful life is a completely free gift, but it generates dependence on Him, not independence from Him. That’s the same difference between identity in yourself or in God.

The pain of losing your self-identity is only painful because of your old-man flesh. God says, Romans 6:4-8 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.

What amazing hope! We are free from sin, but only through Christ. Don’t get going so quickly in life that you lose that identity. Try to solve the equation any other way and you will fail. Your calculus is off. The hardship and pain of obeying God’s will as a sinner on this earth is only temporary. Is risking eternal life and complete holiness really worth a few more moments of earthly ease, which in the end will mean nothing? Where your identity resides will determine your answer to that question. Today, and every day let us boldly confess. In Christ Alone. Amen.

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

August 1, 2017

July 30, 2017 - Risky Faith

This sermon is part of our Risky Gospel series, based on the book of the same title by Owen Strachan.

Theme: Risky Faith -  God’s Call to Service and Salvation

The theme of our third Pentecost season series is called Ricky Gospel. It is based on a book of the same title in which the author, Owen Strachan, a professor of theology and church history at a Christian college, challenges Christians and their congregations to return to a mindset of boldness in these trying times. Each of our Sundays will look at a different aspect of our lives, both here on earth and by faith with God, and how the Holy Spirit equips us to be courageous for and through His Word.

Our first topic is Risky Faith and we meditate on the Lord’s Word from Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents.  

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. 15 "And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. 16 "Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. 17 "And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. 18 "But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord's money. 19 "After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 "So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying,`Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.' 21 "His lord said to him,`Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.' 22 "He also who had received two talents came and said,`Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.' 23 "His lord said to him,`Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.' 24 "Then he who had received the one talent came and said,`Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 `And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.' 26 "But his lord answered and said to him,`You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. 27 `So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. 28 `Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. 29 `For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 30 `And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

I read a news article this past week about a young man who grew up in tough circumstances and grew to become a decorated Navy SEAL, one of the elite of our nation’s military. In the article, the man told of his past and many of the mistakes he made. He was raised by a single mother. He lacked the guidance and leadership a father would have offered. He quickly became caught up in crime and recklessness, just because all of his peers were doing the same. He was drifting and heading for disaster. But, deep inside, he yearned for order in his life. So, he enlisted in the military and under that intense training and authority, he was fashioned into the man he became and he became a great asset to both his family and to his nation. Reflecting upon his former ways must have felt like living a different life.

The military has done that same thing for countless young men and women. I’m sure you all know someone who lacked maturity or a vision in life, entered the military mainly because they were out of options, and ended up becoming a completely different person. Strict training and discipline can have that effect on a person’s life.

In a way, God’s Church serves a similar purpose. We are here to provide spiritual discipline from the Lord. Not the kind of discipline that involves punishment, but the kind that gives structure and meaning to a wayward person’s life. But, unlike the military, the Church cannot drive that authority into a person by sheer training. God calls us to use a different approach. This method is incredibly easy, yet also incredibly difficult. We are to preach the Gospel to change people. That is easy because it is a free message and the work is completely finished. It is difficult because it means we must trust in God alone, not even in ourselves.

A question enters now when it comes to boldness of that faith, or what our author calls riskiness. In the military, one can simply hammer out that boldness through training. Intense, repetitive, hard training can help a person cope with their fears and overcome enemies that they never thought they could handle. When it comes to the enemies of our faith, intense training in the Scriptural things helps, but it will not eventually win the day for us.

Many Christians and churches try the militaristic method of hammering Biblical ethics and piety through a person’s subconscious. This tactic takes the forms such as: withdrawal from earthly pleasures, adherence to strict commandments and laws, and forming a unique and tight-knit community that keeps outsiders separate. At times, none of these things on their own is wrong. There is a certain amount of Biblical merit for each and many would even characterize our church in such negative ways. However, what merit and priority the Gospel of forgiveness holds really dictates the Godliness of these habits. The church that does these things simply to produce something they deem worthy in an individual is participating in a failed enterprise. The church that does these things to preserve the most sacred Gospel and to create an atmosphere that facilitates Gospel-centeredness is absolutely following our Lord Jesus’ command.    

The parable before us is about value. Not value in trying to find a cheap deal, but value in trying to find something lasting and treasured. First, this was the last parable Jesus spoke as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Immediately following these thoughts Jesus predicted His final coming and then reminded the disciples that in two days he would die on the cross. Jesus was stressing the value of this message near the end of His ministry. 

Second, within the parable, an individual talent from that era would be roughly equivalent to $60,000 in our modern economy. Simply put, the master gave his servants a valuable investment. Likewise, God has given us a valuable blessing in the gospel. Actually, more appropriately, God has given us something invaluable, because forgiveness cannot be bought by any means. Peter reminds us of this treasure when he writes, “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:18-19).”

We often think of this parable as describing the talents God has given us to serve Him. Things like: qualities, skills, occupations, and even finances. We are all different and therefore we all have different strengths and weaknesses. But, this fits the church well for there are many tasks that need helpers and the Gospel message can reach people in a variety of different ways. However, the real “talent” of our parable, the true investment, ultimately goes back to God’s blessing through the gospel, not the ways we show gratitude for that blessing. It is the gospel that God wants us to treasure above all other things. It is the work of sharing the gospel that God wants us to be invested in. Everything goes back to the gospel, and therefore so also does our courage as followers of Christ. This parable is certainly an encouragement to use our gifts and talents to serve the Lord, but that theme is secondary to the Lord’s warning of losing the precious gospel. When we prioritize the Lord’s Word in life, there will be plenty of difficulties and hardships that arise. There is always a temptation to take the easy way out of hard situations. Herein, we see the example of the wicked and lazy servant.

The wicked and lazy servant was punished by the master because he desired safety and acceptance over the work he was given to do. Make no mistake, the wicked servant knew how difficult the investment of his master’s treasure would be. We’re not told that he had evil intentions, either. He knew that investing the talent was important and a worthy thing to do. Yet, in the end, he was deemed “wicked and lazy” by his master because of his inaction. What Jesus is trying to root out in this example is apathy and indifference in our lives.

We know how important the work before as a church is. But, we also know how intimidating it is. We need boldness. At times, we need to be risky in that we trust God even when the path is unknown or even terrifying for us. What the wicked and lazy servant really did was accept that a comfortable life in the fallen world was more powerful than his master. He knew the consequences of disobeying his lord, as do we. But so often we choose the easy way out in order to avoid conflict with the world.

-        We tell ourselves that society is becoming so wicked, that it doesn’t matter what we preach from God’s Word – people will always reject.

-        We convince ourselves that service to the church isn’t all that important, after all what does cleaning and vacuuming really do to advance the kingdom of God? Donating weekly offerings to a cause that doesn’t produce the results we want feels like a failed endeavor.
At other times, we know that a loved one has strayed or the Lord is moving us to step up and defend His name, but we don’t because the risk is too much. We may be ostracized by our friends or we may generate conflict in our homes.

In each of those examples, we choose our own path over God’s. We sacrifice His command to invest on the altar of our own cowardice. And in so doing we become wicked and lazy servants ourselves.    

Paul wrote to young Timothy, a pastor who faced the same challenges we do, encouraging him by this reminder, God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). We have an invaluable gift in the gospel. It is the “power of God to salvation.” It has wrestled away the hearts of God’s biggest enemies and it can continue to do the same today. But, if we cater more to our fears than to trust in God, we will lose the gospel’s power. Not because it has changed, but because we have.

The word “wicked” in our text indicates something that is completely without value. What a contrast to the value of the talents. The Lord places value on our heads by first giving us the blessings of the gospel but also by redeeming us through His shed blood. When we resist His will to trust, especially in serving, we are becoming unprofitable, the opposite of what He has called us to by faith.

Strachan speaks of this in how we make sense of the world by calling that which we seek in life our  “fundamental orientation” (calculus). If that fundamental orientation is safety at all costs, or comfortableness then we have lost the Biblical way. God does not call us to literally let the world go to hell while we wait it out on the sidelines. Rather, He tells us that one of the very reasons Christ came was to change us. Paul writes that we are “transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).” We no longer run in terror and shame from God’s will, we embrace it by faith and we seek it out. For the Christian, God’s Word is the fundamental orientation of life.

And why is that the case? Because God has placed value in and through His Word. That value shows us how God treasures each one of us and also the whole world. No matter who you come into contact with, the Bible tells you that without doubt, Jesus died for that person’s sins. Jesus placed a value on their life and he expects us to value it to. We don’t do that by hoarding the gift of salvation to ourselves. We don’t value them by commanding that they meet our standards before we accept them. We don’t value them choosing our own path of safety. We follow God’s Word.  

This parable is about service to God and one another. We should feel the Lord’s pressing word upon us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to support the work of the church and our ability to share God’s Word, and to be bold in our witness of that Word. But, most important of all, this parable is about salvation from God. Without this free gift there would be no treasure to invest. Without sins fully atoned for, there would be no reason to follow our Lord. What’s at stake in our Christian courage, our riskiness of faith, is not just projects at church or relationships with fellow members of our congregation. The very power of the gospel is at stake and the very reason why Jesus hung on the cross rests in the balance. 

This is not some desperate plea to be the best Christian you can or all will be lost. It is a humble reminder of the importance of God’s call to you – a call to service and a call to salvation. Amen.  

July 23, 2017 - Heritage of our Fathers: Part 2

Theme: How God Takes Care of Your Greatest Need
1.     He tells you the truth about your situation
2.     He accomplishes what you could not

I will praise You, O LORD, with my whole heart; I will tell of all Your marvelous works.” Psalm 9:1

Let’s play a round of “funny or annoying.” It’s just how it sounds. I say something and you think to yourself whether it’s funny or annoying. Ready? Blonde jokes. The super intense body-building guy at the gym who takes everything so seriously but really is only intent on checking himself out in the mirrors. That parent who always has his go-to joke, which you’ve heard 15 times. That person at work who plays really nice in front of the boss but is lazy and mean with everyone else. Chances are, even with just those few examples, we are going to answer differently. Some things in life are utterly hilarious to one person while at the same time completely annoying to someone else. We’re all different.

How about when it comes to the phrase, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” I’m sure you’ve heard it before; probably even used it before. Is it funny or annoying? Perhaps both. To the person who is doing it or saying it, it’s probably funny. To the person who’s being acted upon, it’s most definitely annoying.

Here’s a tougher question though. Is that phrase true? Is it actually easier to ask forgiveness than permission? Simplistically, yes. Getting permission for something is usually a headache. Think of a teen with their parents or a young entrepreneur with investors. Sometimes, a great idea to you takes a lot of convincing for someone else. Why not bypass the permission step and just do it? Surely, in many instances in life, that is a very attractive idea.

But, realistically, it’s not actually true. If we’re talking about true forgiveness, the kind that means something and doesn’t just sound good, it doesn’t work if we ignore obedience at the same time. We explored this idea a bit last weekend as we talked about hypocrisy. Is there a greater example of hypocrisy than a Christian who exalts the forgiveness of Christ yet ignores the boundaries of permission in God’s Word? James tells us that that kind of attitude really isn’t true faith in Christ, because “faith without works is dead.” That’s kind of a no-brainer right, faith that is hypocritical is not truly faith.

Then, what of sin? What about the main issue we all face, even though we confess faith in Jesus? How are we proven to be more than hypocrites? We wrestle with that theme in our text today from Romans 7:13-18, as we take part two of our series on the Heritage of our Fathers. We see today the great need we have before God and what He has done to take care of it:  

Romans 7:13-18 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.

Part 1: God tells you the truth about your situation
When most people think of God taking care of our needs, they immediately jump to the supernatural. They think of God’s aid as something as simple as snapping His fingers and doing whatever He pleases. Along with this notion comes a lot of pent up bitterness against God. After all, if He is able to accomplish anything why doesn’t He help everyone, exactly in their moment of need? Why all the pain, struggle, hostility, and unfairness that we witness in the world? God should be able to just wipe all that away.

It’s true that God could do that. In some ways, God has used the miraculous to accomplish His will. He has stepped beyond the limits of natural law and affected the outcome of events. But, those situations are really the outliers of how God normally operates and even when they happen, there is always a bigger goal on the horizon. Many of the miracles in the Bible were done, not so much because they were noble and right on their own, but that they served a greater purpose in the long run, often to confirm or protect the promise of a Savior in Jesus. Now that Jesus has come and salvation is fully accomplished, God doesn’t have as much of a need to go beyond the realm of our reason, though He certainly can.

I believe that one of the reasons that God often doesn’t just snap His fingers to solve mankind’s problems is because He wants us to be aware of what He is doing. He could choose to simply operate on a plane above our understanding. We would never know what’s going on and God would control everything, like a puppet master behind the scenes. But, this would not be very fulfilling for our relationship with God. God wants us to discern His will. He wants us to learn. He wants us to understand what we can about Him, until we reach heaven and we no longer have any limits on our understanding. And so, God condescends, if you will, His will to us. He helps us see.

We see this as the first part of looking at our great need. God is honest to us about the truth of the situation, and with that honesty will come struggle. Our text begins with Paul talking about how the Law of God is good in our lives. We don’t often think of the Law as good because it has a condemning message because of our sins. In fact, it’s the opposite of the Law, the gospel, that literally means “good news.” But Paul is pointing out the Law’s usefulness in our lives and in that sense it is good. Essentially, the Law tells us the glaring truth about who we are. Paul goes on in verse 13 that this Law, which is good, helps us to understand sin to be “exceedingly sinful.”

This phrase is a bit jumbled. What could Paul mean by saying that sin becomes exceedingly sinful?
Think of it as knowing something “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” The Law’s purpose is that we would know exactly what sin is. People naturally have different feelings and opinions about everything in life, just as we mentioned before. God knows this and He knows it will be that way when it comes to discerning His will too. That’s one reason He has given us His Law – to know without mistake what is good and what is bad, or to put it another way, to know what is sinful. Even when it comes to sin itself, God wants you to know it is exceedingly (without a doubt) sinful.

Earlier in verse 13 Paul also said that the Law does its job so that sin might “appear” sinful; literally so that sin would be exposed for what it is. “Appear” means to illuminate something, to shine to light on it and make it known. God removes all “shadows of doubt” through the Law. We know what is right and what is wrong, so long as we use the Law in truth. I hope you see the importance of this. We know how easy it is to make God’s Word say something it doesn’t. People regularly adjust the boundaries of the Law so that it no longer shines the light on that which God has called sinful. Imagine someone who changed the parameters of a ship navigator’s instruments. By themselves, the instruments would still work, but they would lead to a much different destination, even if one or two degrees were changed in a long journey. The same holds true with God’s Law. Change it ever so slightly, just one or two degrees, and it has drastic consequences on your destination. It will start to condemn things which God does not, or it will no longer condemn something which God does.

Part 2: He accomplishes what you could not

Okay, so we see how we should be using God’s Law. But, here’s exactly where Paul describes the next problem, we are carnal humans trying to use the spiritual Law. That’s like trying to use that navigation equipment with no training. In addition to being carnal (think physical, mortal) we are also sold to sin. We are slaves of the devil. We have no claim to our own personal freedom. It’s like having the antidote for a deadly disease right in front of you but not knowing how to open to the bottle. So is our struggle with sin. We see the Law, we understand the Law, but we can’t accomplish it on our own.

No wonder Paul says in the very next verse that he has no idea what he is doing. What Paul is describing is what we often refer to as the struggle between old man and the new man. Christians have both within their hearts. The old man is the sinful flesh that keeps us bound to sin, both the sins we have inherited from our parents that the sins we commit daily. It is an enemy that we can’t even detect on our own, let alone conquer. But, God tells us in our text, the Law is meant to bring that sin to light, to expose it, to show it as “exceedingly sinful.” But, what do we do with this tremendous gift? We fumble around with it, we misuse it, we ignore it, we reject it. And all the time, we know we’re doing this.

And yet, in the same moment, we are forgiven and renewed in Christ. We are given the new man, the life of faith. We are truly able to serve God in righteousness and holiness. Our acts are counted as worthy before God, as if Christ Himself were doing them because it is Christ who works in us. As chaotic as it sounds, the Christian life on this earth is one where these two extremes exist side-by-side. We are in a constant battle between the old and the new. To the world, this makes no sense. Paul’s personal confession here sounds ignorant at best, psychotic and schizophrenic at worst.      

Here’s where we come back to our phrase from the opening. Does the reality of the old man make Christians hypocrites? Are we simply running around telling others what to do all the time while we just ask forgiveness from God? Does a trust in the Gospel forego the desire for obedience? These are questions we should genuinely wrestle with because they show we care about our beliefs. But, they are also accusations leveled against justification by Christ. It was this very thing that caused many to reject the Reformers during the time of Luther. These individuals had discovered this profoundly simple truth – that God forgives sinners by His grace alone. Yet, many rejected such a thought because it didn’t make sense to them. In their minds, Christians would then ignore the Law of God, forget about trying to be obedient, and just use forgiveness as an excuse to do anything. To them, there would be no way to control the people any longer.

And right there, in their own position, they show their biggest mistake. The work of the Church is not about controlling others, it’s about sharing the simple truth. Leave the work of conversion and regeneration to the Holy Spirit. And when we start with the truth, we start where Paul did – at our need. Whether we want to believe in God’s grace or man’s work, one thing we cannot deny is that we have a great need. We suffer because of sin. We struggle with the old man. Paul took the time to point out these basics truths, not to confuse us, but to set us off on the right track. If this struggle is real for you, if you are aware of it, if you seek relief from it, then it proves that you care about more than just asking forgiveness. No one who ignores their sins thinks about the need for obedience. On the other hand, those who are plagued with despair because of sin are pressed down precisely because they desire to obey, but cannot. They suffer the same as Paul, and the hope is that they are restored the same as Paul.

On the surface of our text it may not seem like it, but accomplishment is a major theme. Verses 13,15, and 17 all use the exact same word, which means to achieve something.
Verse 13: But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me…
Verse 15: For what I will to do, that I do not practice
Verse 17: But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me

In each verse Paul speaks about what is being done in his life, but in each case he is helpless. Sin accomplishes death through the Law. He wills to accomplish what is right but can’t. Sin accomplishes what he hates. This is the crazy, psychotic cycle of sin. This is how Paul describes the inner battle; the same struggle we all endure. No wonder that Paul exclaims in verse 24 O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? His next words provide the answer: “I thank God – through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”

Jesus is the one who has accomplished what we could not. As the Father promised, so Jesus delivered, as One who “redeemed those under the law.” Paul reminded the Galatians of the cost, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree ") (Galatians 3:13). The Law is good because it continues to point us to obedience. It does not relax the importance of God’s commands. Yet, God, through sending His Son to earth, has made a way possible for salvation that does not rest with us accomplishing the Law. We continue to use it to expose, to illuminate the truth, but not to be saved. For that, we look alone to Jesus, who loved us and gave His life for us.

Today, we struggle internally with this battle between the old man and the  new man. But, tough as it may be, not all battles are without purpose. Our great need reminds us that we are not fools. We are not simply seeking forgiveness at the expense of obedience. We do not take the easy way out. For our great need gives way to our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He suffered the divine wrath for our sins. His difficult, nay impossible for us path, makes life eternal easy for us. But, lest we forget, let us always remember and treasure the great cost of our need; the debt our Savior paid by His grace. Amen.

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

July 16, 2017 - Galatians Series Part 2

Theme: The Difference Between Hypocrisy and Liberty
1)    Hypocrisy is self-motivated, Liberty is God-centered
2)    Hypocrisy helps yourself, Liberty helps others

Psalm 125:1-2 Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, So the LORD surrounds His people from this time forth and forever.

The Lord surrounds us with His Word today from Galatians 2, as we continue in part 2 of our series. Those words for study and consideration this morning were read as our second Scripture reading.

Dear fellow believers in Christ -

Residents of our Seattle metro area have long wrestled with traffic issues. Our area continues to rapidly expand. Roads are packed with cars at all hours of the day. Summer construction projects, which seem to be endless, only serve to further congest the flow. In such as a setting, there will inevitably be times when angry and stressed out drivers come into contact with one another, whether literally or figuratively. We call it “road rage”, and I’m sure we all have interesting tales to tell in that respect. 

No doubt, we all have also been on both the giving and receiving end of road rage. It never feels good either way. Sometimes, when I’m overcome with frustration at someone else’s driving incompetency, I think of a memory from my childhood. When I was in high school, I spent a summer helping construct a home. I worked closely with a construction professional who would pick me up every morning for work. He was an older man, from a small town, who was slow to anger. One morning, we were on our way in his old pickup truck when another driver pulled carelessly pulled out right in front of us in a busy intersection. It was completely their fault, and we easily could have gotten into an accident; and with his truck just destroyed their vehicle. I fully expected my boss to lay on the horn and yell something at the other driver, for surely in those moments we all feel justified to do that very thing. But, he didn’t. He stopped to avoid the accident, waiting for the person to react and keep going, and gave them a polite and forgiving wave with his hand.

As we got going again he commented. “I’d honk the horn if I never did that myself.” If only more people could have such an attitude with road rage.

That story reminds us that we should be careful about how we treat others, because things can change quickly. We could quickly find ourselves on the receiving end, rather than the giving. We shouldn’t look down on those in need, because one day we might need something. We shouldn’t make fun of those who struggle because one day we might not have all the answers. And as we see in our text for today, we should be careful about what we say we believe, because we could easily be exposed as a hypocrite.

Hypocrisy is despised by all people. The world sees it as a main hindrance to faith in Christ. After all, there’s all these Christians talking such a good game, but none of them actually live it. Hypocrisy can really push people away from Christ and we should always do our best show sincerity in our faith. But, what most people ignore is that there has always been a connection between pride and hypocrisy. Pride, although it is really at the root of hypocrisy, is often considered a virtue in our society. People see it this way because pride flows right into liberty. We are encouraged to take pride in who we are because we have the right, or the freedom to. But, what does that mean for sinners? Should we be proud about who we are? Should we ignore God’s calls to repentance just because we are free to ignore them?

God calls us to something different, something higher. Peter wrote: 1 Peter 2:16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 8:9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 1 Corinthians 9:19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more.

The way the world practices freedom more often mirrors hypocrisy than it does true liberty. People use their freedom to sin when God calls them to use it to serve others. People look down on others because they are free too, not realizing that we all suffer from the same thing. Paul tackled this very issue in his letter to the Galatians, and it becomes the focus of our thoughts today.

Part 1: Hypocrisy is self-motivated, Liberty is God-centered

In this letter, Peter was playing the hypocrite. He was abusing his freedom and knowledge as a more mature Christian, and in so doing, was also leading others astray. When it suited Peter’s desires, he would live with his Jewish heritage on display and compel other Gentiles that they too live that way. But, in other cases it suited his desire to forgo the Jewish traditions, and so he would. Paul pointed the hypocrisy out.  

But, wasn’t Paul just as much to blame? Chapter two begins with his explanation of how he did not compel Titus to be circumcised. But in Acts 16 Paul commanded Timothy, another young pastor, to be circumcised. Wasn’t Paul simply playing both sides like Peter was? How could he point out hypocrisy, yet pick two different paths to follow himself? In fact, the word for compulsion in verses 3 (describing Paul) and verse 14 (describing Peter) are the same word. They were literally doing the very same action.

The difference, as it is with many specific cases of applying the Word of God, rested in the intent. Paul’s focus was to preserve the “truth of the gospel.” Peter’s focus was to preserve his own interests. Timothy was in a situation which involved fellow Christians, who were Jews and who didn’t yet understand that circumcision was no longer a requirement of God. The knowledge of the gospel truth that Christ had fulfilled this command of the Old Testament had not yet had time to sink in. And so, Paul practiced the advice he gave to the Corinthians – take all stumbling blocks away from the gospel. Sacrifice your freedom for the betterment of others.

Titus’ situation was much different. He was dealing with false teachers. Actually, they were hypocrites themselves. Paul calls them “false brothers,” people who professed to be Christians but wanted to also hang onto certain restrictions of the Old Testament. In the context of Galatians these individuals are often called Judaizers. Their mission was to mix Christianity with Judaism and retain elements of both as necessary to salvation. It was, as Paul warned, a direct attack on the gospel. In this case, Paul blatantly stood for his, and Titus’, liberty in Christ and did not compel him to be circumcised.

Paul was dealing with circumcision in both circumstances, yet he came away with two different results, and each one was the right call. This was not hypocrisy, rather it was exercising Christian wisdom when it comes to freedom. In each case, you could say that Paul was helping each side out. With Timothy, he helped the weak brothers. With Titus, he helped the false brothers, by exposing their error. To allow them to continue living in their lie would not be a loving thing.

The impetus for Paul’s public admonishment of Peter was the necessity of the gospel. What Peter was doing on the surface was not unscriptural. The Bible doesn’t give us a command about who we should eat with. It is absolutely a matter of personal choice. But, that also means we can’t point the finger at others and start making demands. Peter went even further than this when he started making it a matter of God’s command. Essentially, he was adding to the Word. Paul’s basis for the rebuke is in the latter half of the chapter. What’s ironic is that Paul provides some of the clearest explanation of the direct gospel in the entire Bible. Galatians 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Peter was leading people away from Christ, Paul was trying to bring them back. The same is true of hypocrisy versus true, Christian liberty.

Part 2: Hypocrisy helps yourself, Liberty helps others

It’s in this same vein that we see the second part of our theme. Hypocrisy helps yourself, Liberty helps others. Peter probably thought he was doing a good thing by trying to play both sides. Surely the argument could have been made that he was just trying to preserve the peace between Jews and Gentiles. But, as soon as he went beyond the Word of God, his reasons didn’t matter, it was the wrong choice. The same is true of anytime we go against the Word of God. Don’t we often convince ourselves that one or two teachings here and there aren’t all that important, especially if they don’t involve the gospel. God’s point is clear – everything in His Word is connected and to change anything is an attack on the gospel truth. Remember, Peter was simply choosing who to eat with. These matters can start as non-religious things. They can attack the very foundation of our faith much faster than you think. Don’t try to outsmart God. What He says is true, take His Word for it and don’t try to change it.  

Paul’s rebuke of Peter further pointed out its seriousness. In verse 11, Paul says that he condemned Peter. Peter’s hypocrisy was not to be taken lightly. It was a sin that separated him from God and marked him as a condemned person. Here’s where pride reared its ugly head. Even if Peter may have been trying to help, he was doing the opposite. In this way, it’s even possible to be a hypocrite without even trying to. At the core of the two actions, we always see the same lesson, hypocrisy helps yourself, Liberty helps others. As soon as Peter deviated from God’s truth, it no longer mattered what his intentions were. That action was condemned by God.  

Our flesh does not naturally promote unadulterated freedom. Sinful pride seeks to preserve the self, first and foremost. Because of this, our attempts at freedom are often laced with sin. We use our liberty, both as Christians and as citizens, to demean others, to get what we want at all costs, to keep our sinful pleasures intact. This is not the way of Christ. True, Christian liberty seeks to help others. As Paul practiced it, at times that may mean foregoing what you have every right to do. In other circumstances, it means standing for the truth in the face of evil. Either way, you will need Christ to help you out, if you want the prefix of your liberty to be “Christian” then you need Christ.

It’s only the crucifixion of Jesus that destroyed the old barriers of sin – the sayings that tell you:
·       “You’re not good enough, you have to do this.”
·       “You have to be just like that person or God isn’t happy with you.”
·       “It’s okay to do it differently than what God says, follow your heart.”

These are all traps that lead us further into bondage of sin and away from serving God and others. Peter had been so careless in this regard that our text describes the effect of his actions in unique ways. In verse 13 Paul states that part of his rebuke of Peter was because he led the rest of the Jews to “act hypocritically with him.” This phrase is all contained in one Greek word and it is the only passage in the entire Bible that uses it. This was a serious action. In verse 18 Paul likened the hypocrisy to rebuilding something that had previously been torn down. In anyone did that literally, with building supplies, they’d be called crazy. That is the same for hypocritical Christianity. It is completely devoid of all logic.    

What we need to remember is that it is hypocritical to use our personal freedom to attack God’s truth. When we take a stand for our own desires, instead of God’s will, it rebuilds what Christ destroyed on the cross. When we make faith about requirements and piety of character, instead of the work of the Holy Spirit, it constructs a dwelling place for Satan, not God.

As grievous as Peter’s sins were and as grievous as ours have been, the gospel truth that we strive to protect heals all. That’s precisely why we strive to preserve it! Christ crucified is the antidote to all our sins. Paul didn’t correct Peter because of a power struggle in the early Church. He was looking out for Peter’s well-being before God. He was doing the most loving thing he could do for Peter. The same is true when we speak out against our own sins, and when we take the time to show the same care for fellow Christians that we see straying from the truth. Sharing the freedom of forgiveness in Christ is the best thing we can do for others.

No one likes being shown to be foolish by failing to uphold what they require of others. But, as Christians, we will always make mistakes that betray our confession. Let us not cover up our hypocrisy by changing the word of God to fit our lifestyle, but rest confidently and humbly in the forgiveness of Christ and have that be an example of faith in action for others. Amen.

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