January always brings change. After all, it kicks off a new year. You get to throw out the old calendar and hang the new. Yet, January does more than mark a new month, it (1) changes your routine. Depending on your Christmas spending habits, how many you shop for, and the number of Christmas lights strung around your house, your expenses might be higher than normal. The winter season changes from cool to cooler and dark to darker. The family which has been migrating from house to house will soon return to their downstate responsibilities. January alters your routine. Not just that, January might (2) introduce a year of firsts. First anniversary not celebrated. First birthday without a spouse. First vacation not taken. First summer without the house. First year away. Even bigger events might occur; January may (3) start new life-changes. You will graduate. You will start college. You will be Mr./Mrs. You might move and have new neighbors and friends, as well as a new routine. Even if nothing life-altering lies ahead, January brings at least one change: (4) your birthday. You will be another year older and another year closer to some significant life-change, be it a new school, a new child, retirement, or Social Security [benefits]. January ushers in so many possibilities, so many adjustments.
That can be an unsettling truth. Change happens by force. You cannot stop time; you cannot control what events enter your life or how those events will impact your life. Change rolls on— either with you or dragging you. That’s not always a pleasant feeling.
So, how do you enter a New Year with confidence? How can you chase away those fleeting fears and anxieties? Look to your God. The Lord Does Not Change-- even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same.
Grace brought (the nation of) Judah home. ‘Grace’— that is, ‘undeserved love from God.’ For 70-years Judah lives locked inside the Babylonian empire. That’s 70-years of not working your fields, not running down the street to your hometown grocery store, not playing in your acreage. Every familiar comfort is gone. Your grandparents are the last ones whose eyes marveled at Solomon’s breathtaking temple. The king does not consider your Jewish interests; your culture just melts away. That was then, this is now. Now, 50,000 Jews stand in southern Israel (Nehemiah 7:66-69). Now, city walls are rebuilt (2:11-20). God’s temple stands reconstructed now (Ezra 3:7-13). Jewish leaders govern. All this— because God made it happen.
For Judah it was not good enough. Yes, life trended better, but it was not like it was in the past. The new temple was not splendid enough. National boundaries are not large enough. Leaders are not spectacular enough. Life was not as good as it was before captivity. It looked like God changed his blessings, that God chose to hold back the good life from Judah.
Know the feeling? Relationships change. Children tend to grow older. That means, your daughter will get a driver’s license and hang out with friends. Your [grand]kid will trek off to school. Your son will move away for a job. Your daughter may leave father and mother and be united to her husband and become one flesh (Matthew 19:5). That brings adjustment. Your daughter may not be able to stop her chores (like she used to do), leave her family, and appear on your doorstep every single time you call. Your [grand]son who lived at your house (when younger) will probably spend more time at his house. That adjustment is not always welcome. It becomes easy to complain how life was not as good as it once was. It becomes easy to complain that your family does not meet unrealistic expectations. To accuse your own child of no longer caring about you. You (and I) can act as though God has taken away a blessing.
Comfort levels change. Life may still feel nonstop busy. The calendar is littered with practice times and game days. Work calls for longer hours and extra days. School heaps only more work and deadlines. Maybe it feels as though every friend took turns inviting you to their house, to some restaurant, to their holiday party. Just when you finished one job, another three jobs popped up— in the rain, in the kitchen, at your brother’s. No matter how hard you tried, you just never could get ahead. That activity brings adjustment. You cannot sit and relax as you might wish. Schedules create stress. Responsibilities get postponed. You feel sapped. You feel overwhelmed. You (and I) can grow even tired just relying on ourselves. We can act as though God is no longer present to hear our cry or carry our burden.
Life changes. Another year brings age-related events. You love her, but she still dies. You exercise and eat well, but you must still downsize. You live a Christian life, but people still hate you. That brings adjustment. You try to control life, but your best-intended wishes fizzle out. You might think God either (1) cannot work things for your good or (2) choose not to work for your good (read Romans 8:28).
You see, worry erupts because we think God has left us. That God is not for us, but against us (consider Romans 8:31). That God does not have authority over heaven and earth (consider Matthew 28:18). That God does not hold us in his righteous right hand (consider Isaiah 41:10). Worry declares that God has changed and does not keep his Word. And if God has changed, then you (and I) can no longer rely on him.
Dear friends, do not confuse God’s changelessness with our change. Put this way: We change, and so we think God changes too! But, The Lord Does Not Change. Even in a changing world, God’s grace remains the same.
God himself says that: I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. He does not merely say this; he proves it.
Judah had every reason to be wiped off the earth. Before their 70-year exile, God exposes their wickedness, pleads with them to turn, and promises to protect them. Yet, no one treasures that Word. Then, even after exile, Judah sees how wicked they can become! Parishioners drag blind and diseased animals into God’s temple for an offering— animals not even fit for a king (1:8). Christian men marry women who worship false gods. That marriage introduces strange beliefs in Christian homes (2:11-12) and priests do not care enough to correct it (2:8).
Worshippers are afraid to give God too much money (3:8-12). God saves them and they respond by turning away! Yet, God keeps his promise—a promise to send Jesus through Judah (Genesis 49:10). That is ‘grace,’ undeserved love from God.
Even though Judah’s love changed, God’s love remains the same. He proves that by bringing his Son into the world. He proves that by sending his Son to the cross. He proves that by holding Jesus accountable for our lack of trust. He proves that by raising his Holy One out of death. He proves that by declaring you “Not guilty!”—and repeating those words each week. Each day he leads you to the foot of the cross and says, “My Son died for you.” The Lord Does Not Change. God’s grace— the love God richly lavishes on you-- remains the same.
That undeserved love affects our lives in tremendous ways. A new year is upon us, but you do not enter it alone. You live each moment under the protecting hand of a God who never changes his promises.
Think about how this looks in a changing world. Your congregation might have changed from the first time you started worshipping here. And it will— because time passes! Time adds age. That means people get older. When we get older, our situations change. We become adults and leaders, parents and grandparents, active and retired. Time brings change to appearance— and we may not like that change because it takes us out of our comfort zone.
Even though change happens by force, God has not changed. And if God has not changed, then his Word of promise remains the same. God will always point you to peace in Jesus. Regardless of how many people are here. Regardless of what the future holds for your congregation. Regardless if church is full today and empty tomorrow. God still speaks peace in this place, to you. That makes your future certain. What is there to worry about?
God’s Word will still work in the heart. That means, you do not need to worry about how long your congregation will remain. Ten-, Twenty-, Thirty-years? Longer? The Lord Does Not Change. That means, [F]aith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). God has not made it your job to create faith. It is not your job to bring people in, fill your church, make it big, and make the community notice it. Nope. God simply hands us the job of remaining faithful to his Word. In this New Year, you will have opportunities to do just that. To grasp it. To share it. To preach it.
God’s grace remains the same. Not only is its message unchanged, but God still deals with you (and me) in grace. God, in undeserved love, still hears your prayers. Whenever you have anxiety, cast it on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Even if your concern appears so insignificant, call on him in the day of trouble. He will deliver you and you will honor him (Psalm 50:15). How do you know? Because your unchanging God has promised: The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry (Psalm 34:15). The reliance on self shrinks. The reliance on God grows.
Your God gives you strength for whatever might come this new year. If you must say good-bye to a fellow Christian, be confident that person is in heaven. God’s grace remains the same. Jesus says that: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). If someone ill recovers, then rejoice! Appreciate the blessings God will still give through that person. If you feel completely overwhelmed, then Be still and know that One God remains in control (Psalm 46:10).
God spells it out quite clearly so that you (and I) have no reason to fear. The Lord Does Not Change. God’s grace remains the same.
What good news for a new year! All I know is that January brings change. A (1) change to routine, a (2) year of firsts, a (3) new life-changes, and, if anything, (4) another birthday. This year will undoubtedly require adjustments, but you need not worry. The Lord Does Not Change-- even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same. Because of that, you can be sure God’s every promise to bless you, carry you, and strengthen you will follow you always.
Enter this new year with confidence. You do not need to know the future because you already know the present. Your Lord Does Not Change— even in a changing world. God’s grace remains the same.
This is a winnowing fork. Several sharp prongs stick out at one end, and at the other end those prongs wrap together into the base of the handle. Today, we typically use these forks for pitching hay, but the winnowing fork has another purpose: it separates. So, you harvest your wheat and heap it outside on a flat, packed-down floor. You plunge this winnowing fork into the pile and toss a bunch into the air. Of course, that bunch thins out and the wind can blow through it. The stalks, the tough, chewy husks— the unwanted stuff— blows away. The heavier kernel— the good food—drops right down to your feet.
This winnowing meant business. See it and you know it was time to separate the good from the bad. That’s the picture John the Baptist paints for us today. Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand. That means business; Jesus comes to separate. He clears away hypocrisy and He gathers in the repentant.
That is the heart of John’s message. He stands in this barren landscape of a desert, preaching to equally dry, barren hearts: “Prepare for the Lord!” (Luke 3:4-6). ‘Get ready!’ for Jesus coming! ‘Get ready!’— because you will meet him. ‘Get ready!’— because he is perfect. ‘Get ready!’— because you are not perfect, and that leaves you unable to stand beside him. Remember, the Bible contains two major teachings. (1) God’s Law shows our sin. His every ‘You shall’ and ‘You shall not’ just cuts us to shreds; it exposes disobedience— and there’s no hiding that. God’s Law reveals a deadly sick soul, a soul that so desperately needs a Savior. You see, if we do not see how sick we are, then we do not see the healing we need. We reject the Savior God sends to heal. (2) God’s gospel, his ‘good news,’ reveals that Savior. That is why John trumpets: “Repent! Turn from what is wrong. Face what is right!”
That message spreads like wildfire. Crowds come out to him… So many are curious about this man and his ministry.
When John sees them, he says: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? He calls these people ‘snakes!’ More than that, ‘offspring of snakes’— or, ‘the offspring of the Snake,’ that is, the devil (see Revelation 12:9). These are Jews coming out! Descendants of Abraham. God promised that all nations would be blessed through Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 22:17-18); Abraham’s family would (1) include Jesus and (2) believers from every nation would enter heaven.
So, these Jews travel out to John. No, not because they want Jesus. They thought God’s judgment would automatically skip them because of their ethnicity. They trek out just to fulfill another religious act. They are really hypocrites: they claim to be God’s children, but want nothing to do with God.
John warns them of that. [D]o not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The heart of a hypocrite is hard like a stone. It takes nothing in. If they would not listen, then God’s Word would hit other hearts and bring those once-stony hearts to life.
John asks every single person—including you (and me): ‘What is the reason you are here?’ That’s a searching question. It challenges you to consider the object of your trust. Simply keeping your name written in a church membership book will not save you. Parents may have their child baptized and that baptism creates faith (1 Peter 3:21). However, baptism can be treated as a tradition or ritual; you consider it just another check-mark in the box of Christian actions. Faith is a living thing; it must be fed with God’s Word. Baptism is the start of your Christian life, it’s not the end of it. You are not saved because your family built the church. God does not forgive you because mom sat in that pew for so long. Your non-believing spouse does not go to heaven because you are here today. On the outside, you (and I) might look morally upright; you might be a poster-child for Christianity. Yet, you cannot fool God. God knows what is in your heart (read Psalm 139). He sees the object of your trust. God clears away hypocrisy.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! He will clear his threshing floor… and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Yes, even if that means you’ve sat in the pew for years. Yes, even if that means your family built the church. Yes, even if that means you were baptized, but never fed your faith. If God does not find trust in his Son as Savior, then he will cut you down and throw you into hell.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! The sight of that tool means business. Jesus comes to clear away hypocrisy. Yes, even the hypocrisy that can nestle into our hearts. We may treat worship like a ritual or tradition. We may disconnect heart from outward actions. We may even rely on empty-minded habits— like giving an offering or sitting in a pew.
God’s Word cracks that tough husk off of our hearts— because that Word highlights the One who intentionally lived his life for you (and me). Jesus is baptized, not out of tradition, but to step into our lives. He worships with a willing heart. He brings an offering to God out of sincere love. He knows obedience is the only way into heaven—and he has it! …and he gives it. To you (and me). Jesus uses the cross to break off our hypocrisy and create in us this living heart of flesh.
Jesus Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand! This is a sobering message, but sobering for a reason. Jesus comes to do business, and has done the work of clearing away our hypocrisy so that you now stand before God healthy. You are ready to meet your Lord. Soon Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. Again to do work; he gathers in the repentant.
“Repentant.” Remember what that means? To ‘repent’ means ‘to turn”— like making a U-Turn. God exposes the foolishness of living like a hypocrite. It cuts our hearts; we resent that way of life. If you shudder at that way of living, you naturally ask: “What is the right way to live then?” God tells you, “Live sincere.”
John calls this fruits in keeping with repentance. Turn from what is wrong, you naturally produce a new action. Picture that. Apple trees produce apples. This is natural. No one must flip the switch and ‘power on’ the apple tree. A farmer does not pray the tree produces apples and not oranges. A healthy apple tree produces edible apples. When God’s Word penetrates our hearts, it makes us turn to what is right, what is God-pleasing.
The crowds ask John: “What should we do then?”
John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Those are the fruits of repentance. All sorts of people in different types of work— God exposes their greed, their stealing, their bullying. It grieves them that they grieved God. That grief leaves a void. What fills that void? An action— a Godly one! This crowd shows their love for God by doing what is God-pleasing. You can see good, pleasing fruits of repentance.
Notice, John’s every encouragement takes the light off of ‘me’ and shines it on ‘others.’ Give. Be honest. Work faithfully. This way of selfless living only flourishes when I see Christ focused on “me” instead of “himself.” Jesus is the motivation to producing fruits of repentance.
What is at least one area where you produce fruits? Well, look at verses 15-16. The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The crowds are looking for Jesus and John does what is God-pleasing. He tells them about Jesus. Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. He gathers in the repentant.
These words are stern, but stern for a reason. You need Jesus if you want any hope of heaven! Do the people in your life know that? Or, are they hoping their good actions will win them life? Do they think God just saves everyone (even when this reading makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case)? Everyone has thoughts and opinions, but God has truth and facts. God reveals what will happen, and reveals it so that all are ready for that Great Day.
You (and I) currently have this marvelous opportunity to point others to Jesus— just like John did. Christmas Eve is still seen by many as a ‘religious holiday.’ That means, many still associate Christmas with God. That means, people are more likely to step into a church and hear this news about God.
So, this year we are running an advertisement for Christmas Eve in the Clare County Review and Clare County Cleaver. Thousands will have a chance to see our service times. They will have an opportunity to consider coming and hear this good news of Jesus.
Still, the best way to share Jesus is for you to share him with your words. Yes, that’s you inviting your neighbor. That’s you inviting your dinner-friend. That’s you inviting your daughter and son— just like John the Baptist did long ago. [W]ith many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
You have some very good news. Jesus comes! His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn… That’s the end-goal of life. Jesus gathers believers into heaven. What better news is there than that? Actually, what better news is there to prepare people for eternity? Jesus Is Coming, Winnowing Fork in Hand! He gathers in the repentant.
Maybe you have this in your barn or shed. This tool means business. You’re going to get work done. No wonder John uses that picture for us! Jesus gets work done. He Comes, Winnowing Fork in Hand. He comes to separate the good from the bad. He clears out our bad; Jesus clears away hypocrisy. What’s left is good— healthy and living hearts! Soon Jesus will Come, Winnowing Fork in Hand. This time to do a different kind of work. A work you are prepared for. He gathers in the repentant.
What makes a gift ‘perfect’? After all, that’s really what you’re looking for this Christmas season, right? You want to hand that special someone the ‘perfect’ gift. Or, maybe you would like to receive the ‘perfect’ gift. So, what are looking for? What makes a gift ‘perfect’?
Perhaps three qualities stand out. (1) It fills some physical, emotional, or mental need. A chore becomes easier. A friend is happier. A child knows he is loved. (2) Whoever receives this ‘perfect’ gift will benefit. Life gets better, not worse. (3) Finally, the receiver understands just how much he will benefit from this gift. Let’s summarize those points like this: What makes a gift ‘perfect’ depends on how prepared a person is to receive it. If you see no need for this gift to fill, then you will not understand why you need it or how it benefits you. That gift is not appreciated. It’s rejected. It’s forgotten. If you identify a need, then you understand how this gift fills a void in your life. You will appreciate it. You will treasure it. You will hold it up for all the world to see it as it really is: the ‘perfect’ gift.
Preparation is key in receiving the ‘perfect’ gift. So, God prepares us for his perfect Gift. He wants you to fully appreciate just what it is Jesus comes to do. So, he sends a special messenger to Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! You get ready for this gift by straightening out the rough places so that you can see the salvation of your God.
When you think about, not many were ready for the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph were really the only ones expecting Jesus to arrive soon. Angels had to broadcast the good news to a handful of shepherds (Luke 2:8-15). The Holy Spirit leads an elderly prophetess (named Anna) and lifelong believer (named Simeon) to Jesus (2:25-27; 36-38). A star guides wise men (Matthew 2:1-12). Really, Jesus’ birth is almost a well-kept secret. In fact, from age 0 to 30, you hear very little about him. He has not started his ministry. He does not have disciples. He has not performed miracles. No one knows the Son of God has come to earth! If no one knows he has come, then no one is looking for him. If no one is looking for him, then no one will pay attention when Jesus preaches. People would consider him as just another great teacher.
Enter John the Baptist. The Prophet Isaiah tells us that John is the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’
Isaiah pictures an old practice. In ancient times, kings sometimes traveled from their country to another country. Yet, you did not cruise down concrete highways or graded dirt roads. You had an almost impassible trip across an untouched desert with boulders, cliffs, and valleys. So, an official went ahead of this kingly procession. He hiked through cities and villages, trumpeting: “Hey! The king is coming! Get ready for his arrival!” Citizens prepared by clearing a path through the desert. They pushed aside boulders. They filled in swampy areas and low-spots. Steep inclines were leveled. They removed obstacles so the king could come to them.
John the Baptist is that forerunner of Jesus; his ministry starts first. Yet, John does not live in the desert to clear away boulders. Instead, he Prepares Hearts for the Lord. He clears out spiritual boulders, fills in despair over sin, and levels off arrogant pride. He straightens out the rough places [of the heart]. He gets us ready to appreciate God’s gift of a Savior.
He does this by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To ‘repent’ means “to turn”— much like making a U-Turn. So, imagine you are driving north on US-127. If you make a U-Turn, then you have completely changed direction; you are now heading south. That’s why John trumpets: “Repent! Look at your life. Turn from what is wrong. Face what is right!” That is the only way you will ever be prepared for Jesus. Because repenting means you must turn. It means you are not as perfect as you might think. It means you need a Savior.
Stand before the mirror of God’s commands. How do you measure up? Have you loved God with all your heart, mind, and soul? (Matthew 22:37-39). That means, you never once worried about your financial picture, about your health, or about the future because you trust you heavenly Father always provides and protects. Have you respected God’s Name? That means, you never cursed out of frustration; you never used the Lord’s Prayer as a good-luck charm for success. That means, you brought every single anxiety to God in prayer because God is capable of handling it. Have you made time with God a daily priority? That means, you made an honest effort to be in worship every opportunity— even if it meant skipping Sunday sports because they interfered, even when it meant waking up and you really wanted to sleep in, even when it meant turning off the television for a 5-minute devotion. Have you shown respect to your government officials— including the ones you did not vote for? Are you treating your body as the temple of God? Do you guard your heart from greed and give generously the work of your congregation? Are you free from jealousy and willing to admit when you are wrong? God demands that you be holy because he is holy (Leviticus 19:2). That does not include a “Yes, but…”
That’s the automatic impulse. We often think we are morally better than we really are. That attitude flourishes when we bend God’s commands. We know we should be in worship, but we make up the excuse: “God knows what’s going on in my life. He understands.” We know God’s blueprint for marriage, but we still say, “Well, God just wants me to be happy.” Maybe you feel you could give more generously, but still comes the thought, “Well, I have that trip and this new gadget. I just have nothing.” The heart constantly pumps out exceptions to God’s commands. It enters God’s courtroom, sits in his judge’s seat, and begins interpreting the commandments God set down. Then it acts as though God must approve our interpretation.
The devil has done such a good job of getting us to believe just that. That in the end, God will listen to us. That we have more authority than God.
That kind of attitude really does not want a Savior. It says, “God, there is nothing wrong with me or the way I live.” To live in the wrong piles up boulders of excuses. Pride carves out low-spots and hills so that God cannot live in us.
That is why John preaches: Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! Your God is coming. Yes, he came once as a little baby and conquered sin. Soon, he will come in his final victory march. Prepare Your Heart for the Lord. Straighten out the rough places. How does John straighten out those rough spots? With God’s Word. That is the tool God gives him. [T]he word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. John preaches law and gospel so that all may see the salvation of your God.
God’s law Shows Our Sins. It holds you (and me) up to God’s holy standard and says, “You have fallen short. Close enough is not good enough. Nor am I asking what you think. I am telling you what you must be.” (Roman 3:23) Stare at that law and you reach the conclusion that you can never approach God by yourself. The law Shows Our Sins, but God’s gospel Shows Our Savior.
“Gospel” means “good news.” John tells us good news: “Jesus walks into spiritually devastated hearts.” He lifts us from the valley of despair over sin. He removes the boulders of guilt. He levels towering hills of shame. Jesus, with his life, has made straight our hearts. With his Word, he carries the good news of salvation.“Salvation” simply means “to deliver” or “to rescue.” Jesus has rescued you (and me) from the hell we deserve. Look at Jesus and you see this is the One God has sent for your future. Jesus is God’s salvation.
How does Jesus’ work enter your life? Through baptism. [John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So, why does John baptize? For what purpose? For the purpose of forgiveness. John’s baptism washed hearts clean; it flooded life with forgiveness.
You see, baptism is not something you are doing for God. You are not declaring your commitment to be God’s follower. Nor do you have to be re-baptized because you were too young to remember it. Baptism is something God does for you. God comes to you. God enters your heart. God smoothes outs sin and paves a road that welcomes the Word.
Your baptism has marked you as God’s child. If God’s child, then different from those who want nothing to do with him. It means you will stand out. You might be the only one in your family who worships. You might feel a little uneasy when Christmas concerts intentionally omit any mention of Jesus. People might look at you weird because you have a church home. You may feel out of place. You may feel this pull to behave more like the world, than as God’s child.
Martin Luther wrote in his 95-Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Remember, “repent” means “turn.” Each day you compare your words, thoughts, and actions to God’s commands. When you do wrong, you see it. You admit it. You confess it. You hear God’s forgiveness. God’s Word turns you from what is wrong and faces you to what is right. You turn to see the salvation of your God; and you see that God has delivered you from hell and soon will deliver you into heaven.
That makes a ‘perfect’ Gift. Yes, Jesus is ‘perfect’— and remains perfect, regardless of what anyone thinks of him. Yet, he is your perfect gift. God’s law reveals our sin. We see the need for forgiveness. We see the void of life. The good news is that God has straightened out crooked hearts and has smoothed out the rough spots.
Preparation is key in receiving the ‘perfect’ gift. So, God prepares us for his perfect Gift. He wants you to fully appreciate, to grasp just what it is Jesus comes to do. So, he sends a special messenger to Prepare Your Heart for the Lord! Keep clinging to this perfect Gift. Straighten out the rough places so that you can see the salvation of your God.
Do you think Christmas is coming this year? Yes? How do you know? After all, today is not Christmas. So, how can you be sure that Christmas is really coming? Ah, the snow on the ground announces the arrival of the winter season, and Christmas falls in the winter season. The wall calendar hangs open to December, and you can now see the number ‘25’ approaching. Stores roll out Christmas trees and wreaths, ornaments and lights, candy and cards. Shoppers scour stores and websites for presents. Snowflakes and wreaths twinkle on light poles down Main Street. You might have a Christmas tree at home— maybe with presents already tucked under it. So, can you be sure Christmas is coming? Yes! Because various signs signal its arrival.
Signs reveal a promise reaching completion. The signs of Christmas lead to Christmas Day. God plants signs in the sky, on earth, and in life to signal an very important arrival: Christ is coming! Each sign invites you to Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. That promise of Jesus’ arrival has been unfolding for centuries. You now stand closer to the completion of that promise.
The Righteous Branch has come. Soon, The Righteous Branch brings justice.
When God makes a promise, he keeps it. God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. [H]e speaks and then act[s]. [H]e promises and [then] fulfills (Numbers 23:19).
God had made a promise to Abraham. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:3). That ‘blessing’ promised is Jesus. People will benefit from Jesus. Yet, Abraham’s son is not the Savior. Instead, the promise passes from generation to generation. From Abraham to his son, Isaac. From Isaac, to his son, Jacob. From Jacob, to his son, Judah— and so on.
Soon, Abraham’s descendants blossom into a nation and God repeats his promise: If you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways [then] the Lord will establish you as his holy people (Deuteronomy 28:9). That is the purpose for God’s Old Testament worship laws, diet regulations, and Ten Commandments. These commands keep the nation close to him; they prevent the people from wandering into unbelief. Quite simply, God sets apart Israel as different from every other nation on earth. No, not because Israel possesses some superior trait. Rather, God sets them apart because they carry the line of Jesus. All the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you (28:10).
God’s promise continues. If you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees […then] the Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth… (28:15, 49, 52).
Fast forward 600 years. Far-away-nation-Babylon camps outside the city walls. Siege towers choke off food, supplies, and water. Leaders scramble for alliances. Judah is dismantling the royal palace to refortify the walls (33:4). The nation’s on the brink of total collapse. Wouldn’t you think someone could just connect the signs? Obey God and he remains with you. Disobey and he withdraws. Signs of destruction trumpet to Israel: “You have broken God’s commands. Your God is coming against you in judgment!” And no one cares.
Do you know why? Because they have heard this all before. God had sent streams of prophets who trumpeted “Destruction!” and “Captivity!”— but it never came. After a while, they went “promise-blind” — kind of like “nose-blind.” You know, like when your nose gets used to the smells of your house that you no longer notice them? You light a new candle and it smells great, but after a while you no longer notice it. You’re used to the smell. You have gone “nose-blind.” Judah mistook God’s patience for complacency.
Is it any different for us? You know the signs that signal Jesus’ return. Wars and rumors of war, famines and earthquakes, false teachers, increase of wickedness, love growing cold (Matthew 24:4-14). You heard them repeated last week. They were read a year ago and the year before that. For some of you, you have heard these signs for decades, maybe your entire life! You turn on the news and watch these events unfold, but Jesus is not here. You begin wondering: “Is he really going to return?”
Little-by-little, the heart can go ‘promise-blind.’ Hear these words enough and soon you no longer think God is serious about his judgment. That is seen in our thoughts— thinking we will always have another day to finally make God a priority in life. That is seen in our behavior— that we can live without marriage, that an addiction never harms us, that we can thump our proud chests. That there will always be another day, a better opportunity, a greater convenience to confront sin. Thinking (and acting) as though God is not serious about his promise to return really calls God a liar. It does not believe today will be the day Jesus returns. It considers God’s patience as complacency.
God keeps his promise. Look at Judah. Destruction sweeps over them. Their walls crumble. Their buildings burn. Some die. Some are captured. Others live in the ruins. A nation promised Jesus appears to have lost everything. Abraham’s once-thriving family tree is cut down to nothing more that stump. Dead. Done. Without any chance to return.
Then God points us back to his unbreakable Word: ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah… Understand, ‘the days’ God mentions are ‘the days’ that come in the future. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.’
On the right day and at the right time, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under God’s law, so that he might redeem, that is, ‘buy us back,’ from the consequences of God’s law (Galatians 4:4). The seemingly dead, dry, lifeless stump of Judah re-sprouts. Abraham’s family tree stretches all the way to King David. King David has a son. His son has a son, and his son a son, and his son a son— all the way to Joseph standing over the manger of Jesus.
Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. The Righteous Branch has come— just as God promised. A fulfillment like that demonstrates God is serious about all of his Word. If God kept that promise, then will he not also keep his final promise? The Righteous Branch comes to bring justice.
Jesus does what is just and right in the land. He dies. That does not seem right, does it? Do you know what would be just? What would be right? It would be ‘just’ for Jesus to abandon his followers who do fail to keep God as the priority of their trust. It would be ‘right’ for Jesus to stop spending so much time with sinners who struggle with unfaithfulness, with drunkenness, with pride, with greed. It would be ‘just’ and ‘right’ to sweep all humanity away under God’s judgment. Instead, Jesus allows judgment to sweep over him.
Jesus, the Righteous Branch, lives ‘just.’ He obeys God’s worship laws, diet regulations, and Ten Commandments. His entire life is ‘right.’ The Father even holds Jesus up and says, “This is my Son! I am well-pleased with him!” (Matthew 17:5). And this Righteous Branch is cut down and dies. That is what rebellion against God deserves. Judgment. Punishment. Death— and Jesus, the Righteous Branch, endures all of it in your place.
The Righteous Branch brings justice— just as God promised. Look at the tomb. This place holds death, but on Easter, re-sprouts to life!
Then, God keeps another neat promise. In those days… Again, remember the timing here. Verse 15 says: “In those days I will send Jesus.” After “those days” of Jesus, come “days” after him. In those days [during the time of and after Jesus] Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which she will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness.
God tells you that in the days after Jesus, you have a new name: The Lord Our Righteousness. Think about that for a moment. I think we understand God forgives us. [A]s far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). But God does not stop there! You do not stand before God merely faultless, without crime— naked, so to say. God puts righteousness on you. He looks at you and sees Jesus. And he is pleased.
“Righteous” is not the only name you have. The Bible often uses special names to describe the closeness you have with God (see Romans 9-11). God uses two special names here. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Just like God saved Old Testament Judah from their enemies, God saves you. (1) First, you are saved through faith in Jesus as Savior. Faith trusts Jesus lifted off sin. God will not bring up your teenage regrets. He will not pull out his list of your failures as a parent. He does not demand change before you can enter heaven. Because of Jesus, you are saved— meaning, you can look forward to meeting Jesus without fear. (2) Second, this “saving” refers to Jesus’ final promise. Jesus will “save” (or, “deliver”) you from this world and into heaven.
Until that great Day, you live in safety. Jesus has already freed us from our sins with his blood (Revelation 1:5). So, the devil cannot say you are not good enough for God. Sin cannot shame you. The world cannot point out your flaws Jesus has broken any accusation, every shortcoming; he has covered your life with his! You are safe! When Christ returns, this safety will be seen with real eyes. Never again will the devil tempt or trouble us. “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).
Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. The Righteous Branch has brought justice and removed sin. If he did that, he will return and do what is just: bring you home to heaven.
Signs reveal a promise reaching completion. The signs of Christmas lead to Christmas Day. It would be quite foolish to see these Christmas-signs, and reject their announcement. You would be unprepared for Christmas Day! See the signs and prepare.
God plants signs in the sky, on earth, and in life to signal an very important arrival: Jesus is coming— just as God promised. Patiently Ponder God’s Promise. Look back and see that God kept his promise. The Righteous Branch has come. What’s left? For the Righteous Branch to come again. This time not as a little baby. Rather, as the King who brings justice. You will hear what is just: “Come” (Matthew 25:34).
In the past I have shared how my daughter, Clara, thought I would leave her. Now, she understood I prepared sermons and Bible classes in the church office. She knew I visit fellow members at their homes. Yet, when I tucked her into bed, said good-night, and shut the door, she thought I was leaving her. Tears would stream down her face. Her crying grew hysterical. She even tried to climb out of her crib just to be with me.
Just because I am not physically in the room with her does not mean that I left her. Her wellbeing is always on my mind. I make sure no intruder or fire rustles through the house. I make sure her room-temperature is set just right. The baby monitor in her bedroom allows me to hear every single noise. If she wakes up crying, I hear her. If something falls, I hear the thump. If she wakes up, I hear her talking to herself. At a moment’s notice I can still tears, calm fears, and lift her into my protecting arms.
That is something that can never be repeated enough: “I am still here. I am with you always.” Words like that provide comfort in a world racing towards its final day. Words like that instill courage even as the moral standards of society disintegrate all around you. Words like that provide assurance that your future (and the future of your [grand]children) will be fine. Christ is Our King! You live under grace and You live in peace.
The book of Revelation reveals that this has always been true. In Revelation, Jesus shows you what must soon take place (1:1). What are those things? You, the Christian, will be falsely represented. School teachers may label the Bible’s teaching on sexuality as ‘Wrong.’ Friends may laugh that you control your drinking. Family from out of town might resent you carving out time for worship during their visit. The government may redefine the Bible’s definition of ‘immoral’ and threaten you with punishment if you do not condone what is wrong. You may even die because the world hates the God you represent (2:9-10). False teaching will creep into churches. Pastors will deny the virgin birth, the resurrection, and reject Jesus as the only Way into heaven. Those churches may swell because so many devour these beliefs (2:14-16). Neighbors will call themselves Christian, but deliberately disobey God (3:14-18). These are the things that must soon take place. In fact, the next 19 chapters [of Revelation] reveal opposition to God’s Word. Droves forsake Jesus’ teachings. Remaining Christians are hunted down, tortured, and murdered. You look and the devil seems to do whatever pleases him.
Even though these troubles are coming, God still says: Grace and peace to you… Isn’t that amazing? God knows the coming terrors, he sees the approaching heartache, he knows how small and helpless you (and I) might feel and he still says: Grace to you…
Dear friends, these things that must take place may be terrifying. We do not want to experience that terror. We do not want to hear our children reject what the Bible so clearly taught them in catechism class. We do not want our [grand]children to be oppressed in the future, let alone us. We do not want government forcing its un-Christian beliefs. We don’t want these things to happen. We want comfort. We want control. We want joy. Yet, Jesus prepares us with: these things must soon take place.
That leaves us scared. We may focus more on the trouble instead of the One who remains over every trouble. We can live as though our God has abandoned us. That it is left to you to survive in this life. That you can never really be sure what the future holds.
Your God is with you. That is why he gives us these words. To him who loves us… ongoing action. When your friend turned from the Word, leaving you with tears streaming down your cheeks, God was still there. When you felt like throwing hysterical fits because government does not automatically protect religious freedom, God is still there. When we feel the future offers absolutely no hope, when we dread the future for our children, God is still there. He loves us, and has made our future full of hope.
Jesus demonstrates his love by coming down from heaven. He used his Word to comfort the helpless and diseased. He used his Word to strengthen the faith of those oppressed by self-righteous religious leaders. Jesus even clung to God’s Word when unjust judges sentenced him to death. He relied on the Word even when the cross must soon take place. He did not crumple in fear at the sight of death. Rather, he entrusted all things to his Father.
Jesus loves us by living a fear-free life. He loves us by never doubting God’s control. He loves us by freeing us from our sins by his blood. You have been set free from a fear of death in hell. You no longer live separated from God. Rather, God embraces you. You live under grace.
Grace[…] to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come [that is, God the Father], and from the seven spirits before his throne [that is, God the Holy Spirit], and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
Jesus Christ… is (1) the faithful witness. Pay attention to that: is. That means, when he tells you that you have peace now, it means you have peace. Why would he lie? Where do you see him ever change his mind? The devil might poke and prod you to think differently— but remember, the devil’s a liar. Why listen to someone who tells untrue statements? Point to these words here: Jesus has freed you from your sins. Period.
Jesus Christ… is (2) the firstborn from the dead. First child born have privilege and power. When Jesus rose, he was declared to be God’s approved Son and your Savior. If he has the power to rise and free you from your sins, then you can be absolutely sure he has the authority to raise you from the dead.
Because Jesus Christ… is (3) the ruler of the kings of the earth, meaning, his Word will stand, regardless of those fight against it. As a parent, I have commands: “Eat dinner at 5:00pm. Bath at 7:30pm. Bed at 8:00pm.” My kids can think they have authority to overrule this. Good! They have their wishes, but I have the power to put mine into effect. Your Jesus has the power to put his commands into effect. No one can stop him from descending out of heaven. No one can stop him from judging the living and the dead. No one can stop him from bringing you into his heavenly kingdom!
Christ is Your King! His entire life is lived for you and your benefit. You live under grace, that is, undeserved love. You can look ahead and see what must soon take place. Troubles might surround you, but you will enter heaven. You have grace; God is on your side. As a result, you live in peace.
Jesus has made you (and me) a kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is not a territory of land with armies, walls, and a government. Neither is Jesus’ kingdom heaven. Jesus’ kingdom is his rule. He rules and directs your heart with his Word. You are his kingdom.
If Christ reigns and you live under him, then it means you reign too! Imagine the Tigers winning the World Series. You’re excited, after all, it’s your team. Yet, you don’t get a championship ring. You don’t get to touch the trophy. You don’t get a champagne shower. You’re a fan who celebrates outside the main celebration. Yet, Jesus does not have you celebrate outside of heaven’s glorious celebration. You get to celebrate in his throne-room in heaven. You get to celebrate now because this is a done reality.
He has made us priests… A priest serves God and brings good news from God to people. Jesus has made you a priest. You can pray to God directly for anything at anytime. So, when life grows daunting, you may approach God directly in prayer and stand confident he hears you. Yes, out of the seven-billion people on earth, God sees you— individually— as a prized possession, just like a parent can pick their one child out of a crowd of many children.
What is real now, you will soon see with your eyes. Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. This will happen. Those who have died and are still living, those buried and those cremated, those lost and those in marked graves, Jesus will raise. He will not forget or overlook anyone. That includes those who pierced him. The Jewish leadership, Roman soldiers, and Jewish rebels all thought they were erasing Jesus from the face of the earth. For some, the last time they saw Jesus was on the cross, crying and dying. What a surprise when the One who died will appear again clothed as the majestic King he is! They will mourn forever. For you, this is the day you go home (John 14:2-3).
This is not a wish, but the reality of what has been true all along. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last. In English, we say that a store has everything from ‘A to Z,’ meaning that store lacks nothing. Your Jesus existed before time began and he will remain long after time ends. Which means, there is never a time he lacks power. There will never be a time when he holds no authority. Rather, he reigns forever and ever— and no one and nothing stands over him. Because of that, you live in peace.
Today is the Last Sunday of the Church [calendar] Year. Next week starts Advent. We again get to hear the prophecies of Jesus’ coming to earth, his arrival on Christmas Day, and his early ministry.
Yet, today you get to see everything Christ has done. The baby born in Bethlehem lived perfectly and died in our place. His resurrection declares we too will step out of our graves and enter heaven. We can be sure of this because of his past actions and because of his unbreakable Word.
Through all of life’s turmoil, Christ was still there, ruling, reigning, ordering, protecting, guiding, and staying you all along— just like the father always has the wellbeing of his child in mind. Christ still reigns. No matter what may come your way, nothing can silence Jesus’ forgiveness. Nothing can stop his return. Nothing can stop him from hearing prayer or answering prayer. Christ is Our King!—and he always will be, both and forever! You live under grace. You live in peace.
His work and his creativity helped define a genre of music. His first album went four-times platinum. Many of his singles sat on top of the Billboard 200. Seventeen Grammy nominations. One American Music Award. Ninety-six nominations for other awards with 27 wins. Needless to say, he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
At that ceremony he had a chance to reflect on his career and to thank his family who supported his long hours, his friends who encouraged his music, and the producers who discovered him and promoted his work. He waited until the end to thank the person who had the greatest influence on his career. “I want to thank me for believing in me, I want to thank me for doing all this hard work, I want to thank me for having no days off, I want to thank me for never quitting, I want to thank me for always being a giver, and trying to give more than I receive, I want to thank me for doing more right than wrong, I want to thank me for being me at all times.”
Now, this musician might have overcome some serious adversity and dug deep to persevere, but his success did not come from his efforts. His personal success came from others. Studio managers put in the long hours to evaluate and produce his music. Stores set aside self-space for his albums. Fans used their hard-earned money on his music. Doctors and medicine, farmers and grocery stores kept him healthy. Accountants managed his wealth so he could keep working. You realize many other factors contributed to his personal success.
Many factors contribute to our personal success also. You have received gifts and inheritances. You have purchased health items. You bought the clothes and food you need. You have received unexpected good news. You have received toys and gadgets you never expected, but still enjoy. Expected or not, many factors contribute to where you are today. Forgetting this reality can morph into dangerous self-reliance.
As you prepare for another Thanksgiving, take a moment to Remember the Lord Your God. He is your Provider and He is your Strength.
That is the central theme of our Scripture reading: Remember the Lord Your God. Listen to Deuteronomy 8:10-11. When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.
The Israelites stand on the cusp of entering a new land. The moment they enter, 40-years of wilderness-living is over. No more rocky cliffs, scorching sun, and desolate landscapes. No more poor farming soil, no more hauling water for cattle. No more setting up tents and taking down tents. No more packing and moving, repacking and moving. An entirely new way of life lies ahead.
Just think of the possibilities! They can build lavish homes! Their cattle and flocks can spread and multiply! They can buy and sell; silver and gold will fill their bank accounts! A permanent way of life will lead to new opportunities.
So, Moses prepares them for that future. Do not forget the Lord your God. “Forgetting” does not mean that Israel no longer remembers important information or historical events. “Forgetting” means to intentionally dismiss help received. For example, that singer intentionally overlooked the fans who gave him money and wanted his music. He ‘forgot’ to credit them for his success.
Israel is to remember that the Lord [their] God brought [them] out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. It is the Lord their God who gave them a chance to build homes and an opportunity for their cattle to multiply. It is the Lord their God who allowed their wealth to increase. It is the Lord their God who deserves their trust, their praise, their credit. Without him they would have nothing. Yet, when eyes lock onto possessions and achievements, that’s all that’s left: nothing. Hearts Forget the Lord Our God.
I am convinced that intentional forgetfulness contributes to today’s decrease of Christianity. More and more focus on what they have instead of how they received it.
Instead of seeing God at work in life, the temptation is to see you at work in life. We can think science brings us healing. After all, the doctor touches our illness, he prescribes medicine, she gives us exercise. It is science who manages our health, not God! We can believe our wisdom accumulates wealth. After all, we invested, we traded, we sold. We found the sales, we decided how much to spend and when. It is we who hold onto our wealth and dispense at our pleasure, not God! We can consider our abilities the reason work gets done. We have the knowledge of building. We have the strength for hard labor over long hours. We are the reason cars are fixed, daily chores are done, and families thrive. God has nothing to do with it!
Ever so gradually the spotlight starts shining on you. No longer is trust placed in God to provide. Instead, trust is placed in ‘self.’ You praise ‘You!’ for your health and wealth, your strength and wisdom. If you praise ‘You!” then you no longer credit God for what you have received. If you no longer credit God, then it means you are not worshiping him. You have a new god— a god who stands opposed to the living God in heaven above. You have a new god who is not as powerful as he might think.
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth… Remember how you receive anything at all. Remember that God gives some the gift to diagnose illness, unlock new medicine, and recommend appropriate treatments. Remember that God gives you the health, ability, and strength to work the job you do, he gives time and weather to complete your tasks. Remember that God blesses the economy so you receive money, that God gives you wisdom to manage your wealth, that God allows you to take advantage of sales at the right moment. Remember the Lord Your God who is the reason you have many good things, the Lord your God who gives you a reason to give thanks.
Remember the Lord Your God who did not condemn a world that left him, but rather sent his one and only Son to bring the world back to him (John 3:15-16). Remember the Lord Your God who does not take away everything because of your pride. Rather, Remember the Lord Your God who takes away the life of his Son because your (and my) pride deserves death (Romans 6:23). Remember the Lord Your God who remembers your pride no more (Jeremiah 31:34).
Remember the Lord Your God who satisfied your only real need. When our hearts drifted from our God, our God never left us. He removes the pride which locked us out of heaven. He removed it! It’s gone! In its place lives the title ‘Child!’ God is Your Provider. He provides every physical and spiritual need. Now, He is Your Strength.
Israel would have to admit all their success came from God’s blessing. They’re thirsty and grumble, he gives water from the rock. They complain for food and he sends quail meat. They plead and he wipes out armies. He does this for two reasons. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, (1) to humble you… Israel ran out of food. They could not hunt enough to feed over 2-million people each day for 40-years. They could not grow crops in sand. This demonstrates how little control they had at the moment. (1) They could not provide food. (2) Even if starving, they could not change their condition. (3) They needed help.
So, God gives them manna [wafer-thin bread]. He does something they could not. God’s miracle shrunk their self-reliance. Israel is not god. God is God. So, their hearts could find security in him. They could boast the Almighty provides for them. They could live content like children under the perfect care of their parents. As we realize how little we control, we do not need to despair. Rather, we have strength because the Almighty God controls and manages every single thing for us!
[God] gave you manna to eat in the desert, (2) to test you… Tests reveal the right and wrong answers. After a test, you correct what is wrong and you function in the right. When you are in need, you encounter the wrong: Trust yourself. Doubt God. Criticize God. Grow angry. You also face the good: Rely on God. Trust him— even when time passes. Rely on the truth that he is good and gracious. He has proven that in the past and you know it will continue into the future. Cast your needs and anxieties on God. Testing removes what is wrong so that you grow stronger. As a result your reliance on God increases.
This testing and humbling is meant for your good. You stop relying on yourself. If you stop self-reliance, you stop growing anxious. If you’re not anxious, you stop worrying. You know God has more power than you ever could—and you thank him for that because he will continue providing for you in the most perfect of ways. That makes you strong. You can stand up under any pressure because God is Your Strength.
In the end, God still remains your God forever. You will join him in heaven. No self-reliance will choke him from you. Remember the Lord Your God. He is your Strength
Many factors contribute to our personal success. You have received gifts and inheritances. You have purchased health items. You bought the clothes and food you need. You have received unexpected good news. You have received toys and gadgets you never expected, but still enjoy. Expected or not, many factors contribute to where you are today.
This Thanksgiving, take time to count your blessings. Reflect on your financial gains. Appreciate completed projects. Restudy your health. See the many changes you confronted— and thank God for them all. He gives you ability and health, strength and wisdom. God is your Provider and Your Strength. Because of that you get to live at ease. Remember the Lord Your God. He is your Provider and He is your Strength.
If you were to die tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven? Or, if God asked you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you tell him? (I know, those are pretty heavy questions to start with.) But I imagine most, if not all, of you have wrestled that question at one time or another. At one time you may not have known Jesus, and so you were never quite sure what happens after death. Perhaps you’re the lifelong Christian who trusts in Jesus as Savior, but you still wonder: “Is that really enough? Is that really what it takes? Only Jesus?” Maybe you toss and turn all night, reliving such humiliating shame that never goes away. And God loves you? Really? After you hurt so many? After the mess you made? Are you sure you will go to heaven?
That can be an unsettling question. Yet, think about what is really being asked. (1) You ask that question because you understand eternity is a long time. When life ends, eternity begins. You do not want to enter eternity unprepared; you do not want to go to hell. So, you wonder what it takes to enter heaven. Then (2) you want to be sure. You want a rock-solid, sure-fire, certain answer as to what will happen after you die.
Now, there are two places where you can look for answers. You can look at yourself, or we can read what God says in the Bible. Our reading from Hebrews actually deals with both objects.
Verse 11 takes us to the place where many start looking for certainty: themselves! Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices… These sacrifices go on repeatedly. Each animal slaughtered, bleeding, dying serves as a picture. That is the purpose for Old Testament sacrifice— it pointed ahead to the final, complete sacrifice Jesus makes. Yet, many failed to trace their offerings to the cross. Instead, they fixate on their actions. Go to church. Bring your offering. Give your offering. Be kind. Be a better parent. Be a better spouse. Be more patient. Demonstrate to God that you are trying your hardest to live a good life. Where you fail, show God that you are trying to change. Where you succeed, hold that up as a good work before God.
The natural reaction, isn’t it? We consider God ‘good.’ Since God is ‘good,’ we feel that God wants us to be ‘good.’ Yet, we cannot be as ‘good’ as God is. So, we change God’s standards and hope our ‘good’ is ‘good enough’ for God! Ask a stranger on the street: Are you sure you would go to heaven? Chances are, he’ll say, “Yes, I think so. I try to be good.”
Yet, there’s a problem with that thinking. All those sacrifices the priests offered, all the offerings given, all the ‘good’ instructions both priest and believer obey could never take away sins.
God cannot stress that enough. Look at all those priests [plural]! We’re talking a line of priests that stretch on for about 500 years. For thirteen generations the priest appears at the temple day after day. For thirteen generations the priest offers sacrifices day after day. No son was a better priest than his father. No great-great-grandson ministered better. Sacrifice continued because sinners committed new sin each day. Sacrifice continued because nothing we offer can erase sin or blot out guilt or remove shame. If those sacrifices removed sin, would they not have stopped being offered? (Hebrews 10:2)
Here’s the point. The question about entering heaven can be unnerving. The temptation is to look at your morality. To rely on good behavior. To lean on church habits. To trust that you are morally superior to others (like criminals or abusers). God says, “This is not (and never will be) enough.” Are you sure you will go to heaven? If you’re digging inside of yourself, you only face unending torment.
You need a better answer, and God gives you one. Compare verse 12 to verse 11. But when this priest… that’s Jesus, and he is different from the hundreds of priests that came before him! Because Jesus offered for all time one sacrifice for sins… Every other priest offered endless sacrifices. Not just that, animal blood was not the answer to removing guilt. Jesus actually deals with sin. He offers not just one sacrifice, but the final sacrifice.
Do you get the point God is making? Jesus is better than any offering we could give God. Jesus is without sin. He never hurts his friends. He never attacks his family. He never lives a night he regrets. Instead he says, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7). Jesus is perfect.
He is the sacrifice laid on the altar of the cross. God lifts off our shame, our failures, our guilt and places it squarely on the body of Jesus. Nails pierce his hands and stretch out his body. Slowly he bleeds, slowly he suffocates. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Yet, it is not you who die for what you have done wrong, it is Jesus.
If you wonder what God does with your wrongs, then look at the cross and see the Father drape them across his Son. Jesus is the payment made for our debt.
You can be sure his death is enough. [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of God. God does not accept the imperfect into heaven, but only the perfect. When Jesus rose from the dead, he is declared “Perfect!” If declared “Perfect,” then you can be sure his payment made for your benefit is declared “Perfect” as well.
Want more proof? Since that time (the time he entered heaven) he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool… Our feet walk through dust and mud and garbage. That grime is unwanted. So, we keep our feet away from people’s noses and clean hands. If someone is your footstool, then it means that individual has a status worse than stinky, grimy feet. When an ancient king conquered his enemy, he would set his foot on the enemy’s neck. That conquered foe is worse than his stinky, grimy foot. More than that, step down and he could end life. Jesus has made the devil his footstool. The devil cannot demand you join him in hell. Sin cannot demand you suffer eternal consequences. Jesus has paid sin in full for all time!
Want even more proof? Then hear what God says he has done for you. [B]y one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. Pay attention to the verb: he has made perfect (or, “made complete”) These events happened in the past, but the results carry on! Jesus died (in the past) and his death still impacts you today. Jesus rose (in the past) and his resurrection still means you are forgiven today.
How much more proof is needed to say that Jesus has removed the consequences of sin? What more must be said to remove fear and trembling about eternity? Only Jesus Makes Heaven Certain! He has paid sin down once for all and He has made you holy.
Today’s theme is ‘Saints Triumphant.’ Do you know who those triumphant ‘saints’ are? Believers. Christians. You. (read 1 Corinthians 1:2)
Scoffing? Laughing? Doubting? ‘Saint’? Surely not you! You still feel guilty; you remember the fresh hurt you inflicted. God must see that! Your past is one giant mess— a couple divorces, a few children who resent you, a past with drugs and booze. How can God wash that away? God must want something more from you. Certainly God doesn’t just forget sin without you working it off.
Ah! but he does! God cuts through your emotions with his Word. The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time,” says the Lord. “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” A covenant is a guarantee or contract. God makes a contract with you: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”
What joy to hear that! God does not ignore sin. He doesn’t shrug his shoulders and say, “Ah, no big deal.” If God tried to overlook what we did wrong, then we would always be terrified that he might dredge them up later. Instead, God deals with sin. Jesus covered over our faults with his life. God does not see sin on you. He sees Jesus’ perfection. He sees you, a saint. A holy person. He has made you holy.
And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Jesus died once. Jesus will only die once— because his one sacrifice is enough. It will never expire. It has already been accepted by the Judge of the universe! Point to Jesus. Say, “He died for me!” Since he did, stand confident of eternal life.
So, here’s two truths to take home. First, if the devil reminds you of your past, point to Jesus. Point to your baptism. [A]ll of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27). When you were baptized, Jesus dressed you in his perfection. You can be sure that happened because Jesus said so. This is his gift. You can be certain he does not lie or change his mind (Numbers 23:19).
Second, when Christians die, they enter heaven. That means your spouse who believed in Jesus as Savior is in heaven now. That means your child, who was baptized and clothed in Christ is in heaven. That means mom and dad, brother or sister, grandma or grandpa— every single believer are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple (Revelation 7:15). That’s not something we hope is real. That’s something we know is real because God says it is real. Only Jesus Makes Heaven Certain.
The promise of eternal life never depends on you. Do you realize that? In Hebrews 10:11-18, where does God point and say, “Now do this…”? He never does, does he? Instead, through every single verse all you see is Jesus and what Jesus has done for you so that you can live certain you will enter heaven.
That’s the answer to our questions. Are you sure you will enter heaven? Yes. Be confident of that. Jesus died. Jesus rose. Jesus ascended. Jesus will come again. If you stood before God and he asked, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” Point to Jesus and say, “You accepted his life for my benefit.”
You will never find certainty in your emotions, you will never find certainty in your behavior. That’s because God never points you there. Instead, Only Jesus Makes Heaven Certain! He has paid sin down once for all and He has made you holy.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. You have a unique privilege, an opportunity, to study past events, examine decisions made, and avoid falling into the same consequences by altering your decisions now. Because those who pay attention to history will not repeat the mistakes made.
That’s why God repeats three historical events throughout the entire Bible. Noah spends 120-years building the ark. God’s judgment is coming; he would wash evil from the world. So, each new day presents another opportunity for some passerby to ask Noah, “Why are you building this boat?” Instead, many continue running errands and making dinner, marrying and planning future family gatherings as though tomorrow’s sun would rise again! (Matthew 24:37-39). Lot scrambles around Sodom’s city-streets. God’s judgment was coming; he would burn evil off the face of the earth. Lot pleads with his future son-in-laws, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” (Genesis 19:14). The son-in-laws? They laugh! They mockingly imitate! They think it’s a joke!
Do you realize these events are the only ones mentioned throughout beginning to end in the Bible? They appear in Genesis. God’s Old Testament prophets mention them. Jesus refers to both. Peter uses them to discuss the end of time. God is making a point: Take his judgment seriously! Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it— and suffer the same consequences.
Where God threatens, the heart can react with this careless complacency. “You still have time. God’s not coming— yet. Don’t worry.” God shatters any faulty notions with Malachi’s pen. The Day of the LORD is Coming! The arrogant will burn away and Those who revere God will shine.
In chapter 4, verse 1, Malachi writes: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.”
Malachi writes these words about 400-years before Jesus is born. Yet, he points ahead to one, single specific ‘Day:’ the day Jesus judges the living and the dead.
You see, Malachi sounds the warning. The Israelites are whining: “It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements[?]” (Malachi 3:14). Nonbelievers find no reason to obey God. They drag bruised, broken, unwanted animals to God for a sacrifice. Priests tolerate a believer marrying a pagan, and then turn a blind eye when that believer starts worshipping false gods. Families are holding back their offerings. The wicked deliberately break God’s commands— and guess what? Nothing happens! The earth does not swallow the ungodly. Waters do not wash away the immoral. Fire does not spill from the heavens. God punishes no one. Even the believers notice this. [T]he evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape!” (3:15) This attitude appears: “God, we’ll keep doing what is wrong because you have not come to put an end to it.”
If we are honest with ourselves, if we dissect the motivation for our actions, we can find that same attitude lurking within. We do what is wrong because nothing bad happens. The Second Commandment forbids cursing and needless swearing, but we curse anyway because God has not cursed us. Laziness steals money from our employer, laziness robs us of time to serve others— but we defend laziness because God has not lit our feet on fire. God commands: “Honor your father and mother”— including the government and spiritual leaders (Exodus 20:12; Romans 13:1-5; Hebrews 13:17). Still, we criticize and pout, insult and ridicule simply because God has not walked through the door and stopped us.
You see, the temptation exists to disregard God’s threats. To think God is not really serious. So, God-forbidden behavior is behavior embraced for no other reason than: “God doesn’t punish me, so I’m going to continue living the way I do until God does something about it.”
Do you know what God calls that? Arrogance. That is, believing you possess incredible self-worth that you can justify your actions before God and he must agree with you. It’s arrogant to deliberately do what is wrong and then think God does not care. It’s arrogant to mistake God’s patience for indifference. It’s arrogant to think God will not send people to hell because they have rejected him.
God makes it abundantly clear: The Day of the LORD is Coming and The arrogant will burn away. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. You chop a tree down and the stump looks dead and lifeless, but roots can keep it alive. New shoots sprout. Or, you can take a branch and graft it into a new tree. Sometimes branches can grow roots; branches still have life. We can foolishly believe that there will always remain one last chance to enter heaven.
God is saying: “No. When the end comes, all those who wicked and arrogant, those who have rebelled against my Word, will be stumps. I will cut him down and he will be dead. I will take that branch and throw it into a blazing furnace. There is no more chance for life.”
The Day of the LORD is Coming. The arrogant will burn away. Just like the scoffers washed away in the flood. Just like the mockers became pillars of salt. Pay attention to these words. Take the time now to understand that God is serious about his threats. Because Those who revere God will shine.
Malachi continues in verse 2: But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.
The natural reaction to ‘hell’ or ‘punishment’ is to discredit it. Many think hell does not exist. Others believe everyone will enter heaven. The reason for this is that people do not want to go to hell and so they create ways to avoid it. Yet, God’s solution to hell is not to ignore it or undermine its seriousness. God’s solution is to confront it head-on.
[F]or you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. God’s ‘Name’ is everything that God reveals about himself. So, think of it like a reputation. If I say, “Mom”— what thoughts come to mind? Perhaps you think of a woman about (this many years old), (this high), with (this color hair). Or, maybe you’re thinking about your mom’s mannerisms. I say the name: ‘Mom,’ and you think about characteristics, appearance, and behavior. When we consider of God’s ‘Name,’ we think of his characteristics. God is eternal, you (and I) are mortal (Psalm 90:1-2). He is the LORD of Hosts, meaning, he holds supreme authority. All the armies of the world put together cannot stop the Almighty from executing his plans. The LORD is just, meaning he will punish those not sorry for their sins, but he also gracious to forgive (Exodus 34:6-7). Those are God’s characteristics, his behavior.
To ‘fear’ means to ‘show respect, revere, honor.’ Simply put, ‘fearing’ God’s Name means respecting God’s abilities. God will do what he says he will do. We stand before God and realize he stands far above, far higher than us! He reigns in heaven, we do not. He controls all things, we do not. He enters heaven, we cannot. The God who stands high above us is the God who heals us with the Son of Righteousness.
Jesus is that Son of Righteousness. He is the Righteous One, who obeyed God’s commands with all his heart, mind, and soul. He is the One who did not open his mouth to insult his accusers— even though he had every right and reason to do so (1 Peter 2:21-24). He is the One who came down from heaven to sacrifice himself one time, for all time (Hebrews 9:24-28).
Like the morning sun, Jesus rises from death with words of healing. He has taken away punishment due for our arrogance. He has brought salvation, that is forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. He points us to heaven and says, “Pay attention! That is where you are going!” He lifts our attentions of the passing pleasures of this life, and he unveils a magnificent home beyond compare.
This is why we learn from the past; we do not want to miss this eternal hope. And we will not. God’s Word shines in our hearts, exposing sin and guilt, and illuminating Jesus as our Savior. Baptism has put God’s Name on you, the life of Jesus is draped on you (Galatians 3:26-27). Jesus’ body and blood assures you of sins forgiven, release from guilt, and freedom forever!
How do we respond? In the only way possible. [Y]ou will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. A calf released from a stanchion (or stall) stretches, feels energy and strength; he’s free! You hop and leap for joy— which is the opposite of fear and dread. God’s great Judgment Day is not a threat meant for you to tremble in fear. You look forward to the Savior’s return because that is the Day you go home to heaven. Jesus is your certainty. You stand healed, cleansed, purified, made whole! At the last trumpet, you will stand before God. He will repeat the same Words you have read and heard on every page of Scripture and repeated every Sunday: “Forgiven!”
That awesome, life-changing news makes it difficult to stand still. Your heart flutters, your feet can never carry you fast enough and when you finally reach your destination, you cannot keep the words contained; they spill out. The Day of the LORD is Coming! Those who revere God will shine.
God speaks about the Last Day so that you are prepared to stand before him and live. Some disregarded his future promise. Noah spends 120-years building the ark. Each new day presents another opportunity for some passerby to ask Noah, “Why are you building this boat?” and then, turn to God in faith. Lot pleads with his future son-in-laws, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” (Genesis 19:14). The warning is meant for them to see how they live and change. God mentions those events from beginning to end so that you might learn, examine, and avoid the foolish decisions made and hellish consequences.
You can because God repeats one final event on every page of Scripture: A Savior. A Savior promised to Adam and Eve. A Savior proclaimed by God’s Old Testament prophets. A Savior who announces peace with God. A Savior who will come again to judge the living and the dead— just as Peter says (3:11-16).
The Day of the LORD is Coming! Is it taking a while? By human standards, yes. By God’s standards, no. Each new day is another ‘time of grace.’ A day for the nonbeliever to come to faith. A day for the believer to grow in faith. A time to get ready now. Because The Day of the LORD is Coming! The arrogant will burn away and Those who revere God will shine.
What does the American Flag, the clothes worn to a job interview, a wedding portrait, and a man’s car all have in common? The treatment given each object reveals how much a person loves that object. A tattered, worn flag could display an unintentional indifference for America’s military, but a crisp, illuminated flag demonstrates respect for sacrifices made for freedom. Wrinkled, stained clothing suggests an irresponsible, careless job candidate, but clean, appropriate clothing indicates a serious and reliable individual. A wedding portrait collecting dust in the closet can reveal friction in a marriage, but a portrait hanging in a prominent place displays appreciation for God’s gift of a spouse. A neglected, broken car might communicate disinterest for valuable items. Yet, the man who cares for his car often reflects even better care for his wife. The treatment given each object reveals the love a person has for that object.
You can learn much about a person’s priorities by the way they treat objects. And priorities are ranked by the heart. If the heart loves a car, then the car receives [the act of] care. If the heart does not care for work, then the interview receives little attention and preparation. Your outward actions reveal the attitude inside.
When you look at God’s house— its building, its upkeep, its property— what does its condition reveal about the priority God has in your heart? Consider the Attitude of Your Heart. Set straight your priorities and Build God’s house.
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.” Quite literally: “Pay attention to the reason for your behavior.”
God has every reason to be concerned about Israel’s behavior. He looks down from heaven and notes the effort in rebuilding his temple. A company poured the foundation— but that is all the work done. Heaps of broken concrete lie off to the side. Piles of stacked lumber sit over there. No one is working; in fact, no work has been done for sixteen years!
God looks at this and asks: “Why is my house a ruin when your homes look so good?” In fact, the people live in “paneled homes”— a picture of luxury (Haggai 1:4). As soon as someone finishes their house, they start upgrading it. They finish their kitchens, then upgrade the countertops. They lay down linoleum floors, then replace it with hardwood. They add on bedrooms! Their homes look better than God’s house. Their homes have newer updates than his. Their homes receive more attention. The special attention given these homes reveals a heart that loves stuff more than God. Their hearts loved comfort. Their hearts loved convenience. Their hearts were dying.
Remember: The treatment given each object reveals the love a person has for that object. So, Consider the Attitude of Your Heart.
When you look at God’s house— its building, its upkeep, its property— what does its condition reveal about your love for God? Is this place a priority because God is your number-one priority?
We may upgrade our yards: spreading fertilizer, raking leaves, making sure it is mowed. Even when you are at home, are you thinking about the grounds here? Do you consider investing in making the lawn look immaculate? Do you wonder who will rake the leaves? We dust and polish our homes, vacuum and pay for carpet cleaners. Are you thinking about the condition of your church pews and windows, carpets and walls? Who tends to those needs?
When we do not see those needs, they quickly slip from our minds. When we do see them, it suddenly transforms into “good enough!” The garbage flying through the church parking lot becomes “good enough.” The faded paint-job, the stained carpet, the dim lights are “good enough.” The failing appliances, the cracks in the walls, the leaks in the ceiling are “good enough.” Do you tolerate “good enough” for your house? Of course not! If we would not tolerate “good enough,” then why would we expect God to tolerate “good enough?”
The reason God’s house slips from our minds, the reason we quickly spout out a “good enough,” is because our hearts struggle to keep God as its number-one priority. So we make excuses for our behavior. We try to defend the false gods of ‘convenience.’ We protect our god of ‘time.’ We do not want to share our god of ‘effort.’
Yet, God sees through it all. “Give careful thought to your ways,” he says. Quite literally: “Pay attention to the reason for your behavior.” Your behavior reveals your priorities. Your priorities reveal what your heart loves most. Hearts that wander from God can lose him forever! Consider the Attitude of Your Heart and Set straight your priorities.
With those words, God shakes his people awake. The Israelites loved the false god of crops and drink, clothing and money. Yet, God brought a drought to take away those objects. With those little ‘gods’ gone, the people could look up to the one true God for rescue. To the God who set straight his priorities.
Your Jesus has a heart that never wanders from God. He has a heart that loves his Father in heaven most. When greedy men turn God’s temple into a money-making opportunity, Jesus chases them out (John 2:13-25). He preaches throughout the countryside, but still returns to the house of his God each week for worship. He even brings an offering— not out of obligation, but because he loved giving treasures back to God.
You see, Jesus keeps love for God as his number-one priority. Even when his Father leads him down the path of the cross, Jesus obediently follows.
You can be sure, that when Jesus dies in your place, his payment is enough. His innocent life washes out the filthy little idols in our hearts. His triumphant resurrection declares your guilt ‘Gone!’
Jesus makes this building into your second home—because this is where God dwells. He satisfies thirsty hearts with his Word: “Everything is ok. I control all things” (Matthew 28:20). He unburdens guilt: “I remember your sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). He promises life: “I am the Resurrection and the Life—those who believe in me will live” (John 11:25-26).
Consider the Joy[ful attiude] of Your Heart! In this temple God gives you spiritual rest. God gives you physical rest. What splendid treasures! That makes this house a priority. So, build the house.
Listen to verses 7-8: This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build the house... God lists the building materials here, yes, but he points at something more important: the heart. [B]uild the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored…
That is the motivation to care for God’s house, this church. You see, the love we have for God will be seen in our treatment of everything that represents God. Simply constructing a church announces to the community that this is a special place; this place exists to meet with God. Maintaining this worship space, making it appear as beautiful as you can announces to all: “God is so important that we give our time and efforts to his service.”
And God sees the generous motivation of the heart and he delights in it. He loved you first, and touched by that love, you love him (1 John 4:19). The care for this church honors God because it is your act of saying ‘Thank you’ for his great love to you.
So, Consider the Attitude of the Heart. Remember what great things God has done for you! Then, Build the House!
Verse 12 says, Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the Lord their God had sent him… Construction on God’s temple restarts and is eventually completed. Yet, notice, who is put in charge of the project. Church President Zerubabbel is not only one doing all the work. High Priest Joshua is not the only one mowing the lawn and taking out the garbage. The entire nation carries the responsibility of tending to the needs of God’s house.
It’s the same responsibility God gives you (and me)! You (and I) are responsible for the needs of this church. Now, that responsibility is carried out according to your individual gifts and abilities. (1) Maybe you are physically fit. It means God has allowed you to offer your time and effort as you’re able. Consider offering your bodies to work: raking, cleaning, painting. Instead of waiting for someone else to clean or for the Pastor to call repairmen, maybe you are the one gifted to do the work! (2) Maybe you have talents. Volunteer for events; do not just leave the same few working. Instead, help with teaching. Help with serving. Help with cooking. Help with assisting. Consider what service God allows you to give. (3) Maybe you can support. Regardless of your age, regardless of your talents, you can give your words. Pray for your leaders. Encourage your fellow members to make use of their gifts. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you see something in disrepair, say something to your church councilmen or to myself. If you desire improvements, mention something. Make suggestions as to how God’s house might be beautified.
God does not prescribe one set way to meet the needs of his house. Rather, he sends out the Word and lets you put your faith into practice. After all, this is your ministry too. There is no: “We can do nothing! I am too old! I am too poor! I am too busy!” Turn the negatives into positives. Instead of saying all the things you cannot do, focus on what you are able to accomplish. When we see our actions as direct service to God, we are motivated to serve. Our varied gifts united are used to serve God and others. Consider the Attitude of Your Heart and Build God’s house.
The devil lies to us Christians so that we believe something not true; so that we behave in ways God does not teach. The devil lies to lead us away from our good and gracious Father in heaven (Revelation 12:9).
So, the devil lies about your ministry. He wants you to despair, to feel sad and like a loser so that you feel ashamed. Then you will not want to share with others the great things God has done. He wants you to consider money your own possession— spent on yourself first and on God later— so that support for sharing the Word dries up. He wants us to stop caring about our facility, to grow so comfortable with what we have so that this becomes a house for us— and not others. Dear friends, these are lies! And God exposes them. And God teaches you how you may plug in your gifts of time, money, and talents to support, encourage, and build on this ministry. God has handed you this precious privilege and opportunity to work for his kingdom!
And it does take work. Yet, it is not up to you to muster the strength. God strengthens and equips you with the Word. God clears the clutter so that you may take up the responsibilities of your ministry again and begin holding them high for all the world to see!
God owns the Word and has made us the caretakers. What an awesome privilege! Consider the Attitude of Your Heart. Set straight your priorities and Build God’s house!
The missionary could not afford a $5.00 book. A book that would equip him to reach souls steeped in spirit worship. A book that would allow an African nation to hear of God’s love. So, the American Sunday School sent their offerings to this missionary.
One little girl (in that Sunday School) did not have much money. She received $5.00 for a monthly allowance. She had nothing saved. But she wanted to help. She stared at the $7.00 in her purse. Five-dollars was more than half of her savings. Giving any amount would mean waiting to buy the luxuries of Barbie clothes, mismatched socks, and glittery nail polish. For a kid, she was ‘poor.’ On the one hand, she has nothing to give because she has little. On the other hand, she does have something she could give.
What would you do? Would you give $5.00? …Fifty [dollars]? …Two hundred-fifty [dollars]? God hands you (and I) opportunities where we can determine what portion of our money can be used to support spreading his Word.
Yet, the devil sours that view. He hits us again with his lies, and attacks a very sensitive spot. Even though 2 Corinthians 8 teaches us Christian giving, he screeches: You Have Nothing to Give!
That’s what the devil wants you (and me) to think. You see, Americans typically steer away from three subjects: religion, politics, money. Do you know how much your sister makes each year? Have you ever asked? Probably not! Money is a personal matter. (Chances are, we do not want to open ourselves up to criticism over our money management.) Good or bad, money is not a subject we talk about much in society— and that’s fine. Yet, the devil takes it a step further. He wants you to think money should never be mentioned in church.
Do you know what God says about money? Some estimate that the Bible contains 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith, and over 2,000 on money and possessions (Howard Dayton, Jr. [http://www.compassebooks.org/sample/lesson/your-money-counts]) (After a quick search, it appears those numbers are close.) The point is, God does discuss the impact of money on the heart. If God spends so many words on the topic of money, should we not also discuss it?
As Christians, we do not need to treat money as something ‘taboo.’ You realize, in our reading, God does not dissect your spending habits. God dissects his spending habit. Verse 9 says: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ… You do know that ‘grace.’ Jesus demonstrates a love neither deserved nor earned; he comes to change our status before God.
You see, Jesus is held up— not wealth, not money, not possessions— just Jesus. Look at him. [T]hough he was rich… What are those riches? Immortality— life never ends. Angels serve his every need and obey his every command. Jesus dictates seasons and weather, planting and harvest. He hinders the work of world leaders; he allows laws passed. You see, Jesus’ ‘richness’ goes far beyond gold and jewels. Jesus possesses authority, respect, immortality— items money could never afford!
[Y]et for your sakes he became poor… He leaves those treasures in heaven and is laid in a feeding trough meant for cattle. Religious leaders smear the Almighty with ‘Demon-possessed,’ ‘liar,’ ‘rule-breaker,’ ‘imposter.’ Roman governors accept a phony accusation against the Innocent One. A cross ends the life of the Immortal One. Jesus empties himself of the power he possess as God. He submits himself to death, with our greed being his death sentence. God is crushed for so that you through his poverty might become rich.
How rich you are! Jesus has dressed you in the one thing money could never ever buy: his righteousness. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:26-27).
You wear Jesus’ innocent life. You stand ‘right’ before God. What is more valuable than that? Yet, Jesus showers so much more on you! He hands you immortality (John 14:19). He writes your name into heaven’s citizenship roster (Revelation 3:5). His angels now guard and protect you (Psalm 91:11-12). He ensures all things work out to strengthen your faith and draw you closer to him! (Romans 8:28). You are rich. You have Jesus. And if you have Jesus, You have perspective.
If money cannot get you into heaven, then how valuable is it? Not very. Only Jesus gives eternal life, which means, he is life’s real treasure. When you see Jesus as your most priceless treasure, money is no longer worshipped.
Consider an ancient example. In verse 1, we learn about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches… These are Christian churches nestled on the coastline of Greece. They suffer. Jealous Jews are eradicating Christianity (Acts 17:1-15). The Roman Empire imposes heavy taxes. Famine might be ravaging the land at this time. So, these Christians lose property, possessions, and income. To make matters worse, you must buy food with what little money you do have. This severe trial of unending expenses presses them down to the point where they could never get ahead.
It did not matter if they had little money or lots, these Christians still had joy. They had Jesus, who made them rich for heaven.
These Macedonian Christians saw that God gave them ‘grace.’ Here, ‘grace’ means ‘a special privilege’ (or ‘opportunity’). Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. Even under great financial challenges, they gave as much as they were able… Do you notice what they gave? [A]s much as they were able… That means they set aside a portion of their income as an offering (for more on this, see 1 Corinthians 16:2). If they received little income, they marked a proportionate amount for God. If they received a raise, they wanted to reflect a portion of that raise in their offering.
They even [gave] beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. These Christians saw an opportunity to help other. So, they evaluated what household income they needed at the moment. They may have put off small luxuries for a little while so they could help. Then they gave what they could. Their offerings may have appeared ‘small’ or ‘insignificant’ or ‘nothing much.’ Yet, in God’s eyes, their sincerity made these little gifts great and lavish items. [These Macedonian churches] did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will.
That’s what God’s undeserved love naturally does: it changes perspective! My friends, the money you (and I) have is not life’s real treasure. Instead, God gives us money so that we can use it to glorify him. The offering you give demonstrates that you love God more than stuff. That is why we gather offerings in the middle of our worship service. This is our act of thanking the One who gives to us!
The devil want us to consider money as a personal possession, used on ourselves first and on God second. Yet, God points you (and me) back to verse 9. We willingly give back because Jesus willingly gave himself. What we do have is used as a tool to reach those inside and outside our congregation. What ‘grace,’ what a privilege God gives you (and me) to participate in this ministry!
So, despite what the devil wants us to believe, We Do Have Something to Give. We have Jesus—who is worth more than anything else. And if we have Jesus, we have perspective on proper money management. And if we have a right perspective of money, then we have motivation.
See how God motivates our giving. Verse 8 says: I am not commanding you… God does not carve out the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt give (fill in dollar amount) for your offering.” Instead, God simply points to the heart. The joy inside of you motivates you to give joyfully and generously.
And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. As a member of [Faith/ St. John] you have committed yourself to a ministry. Your congregation exists (1) To Build Your Faith on Christ, that is, to place your trust in Jesus’ work alone. Then, you (2) Build on Christ— strengthening your faith and leading others to Jesus. How do you accomplish this goal? You put together a yearly church budget.
Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means… (Just as you already are eager to share the Word, be just as eager to give towards this goal.) For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. Once again God does not squeeze you, “Give money!” No, God makes ‘willingness’ the motivation and ‘as you are able’ the goal.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” The Corinthians had ‘plenty.’ They had extra savings. They had so much they could dine out and take nice trips. Now, they could use some of their ‘plenty’ to satisfy the spiritual needs of others.
Our ‘plenty’—both as a congregation and as an individual— fills the spiritual needs of people. You support a fulltime Pastor who is always available to minister. Your offerings send out more invitations to Easter worship and fund online ads to church events. Your offerings support our Lutheran high schools, colleges, and seminaries. You are relieving a financial burden on students so that they can attend school, study without financial anxiety, and graduate and serve God’s people as Pastors and teachers. Your offerings share the Word in faraway lands. Bible materials are printed in many, many languages so that people Africa, China, Russia, Ukraine (and so many other places) can hear of Jesus!
God gives you (and I) these words so that we can constantly evaluate what we have received. You may find yourself with ‘plenty. You have more than needed for retirement. You are able to dine out at McDonald’s several times a week. You make more than you spend. God may be opening the opportunity for you to give generously to satisfy the spiritual needs.
God may not be opening the opportunity at the moment. So, you give as you are able. You set aside a portion of income because you want these gifts to satisfy the spiritual needs of others. No matter the amount, God sees a generous heart! God simply gives you an opportunity evaluate what you have, what you need, and what God allows you to give.
The little girl gave little. She gave lots. She gave $5.00. That’s not much for adults. She gave $5.00, which was over half of her savings. She saw her money as a tool, not a treasure. God’s generosity motivated her to equip this missionary. After all, God loved her and she wanted others to know God loved them.
The devil hates that. He wants you (and I) to defend our money. He lies and wants you to think God never speaks about money or that church should never discuss Christian giving. He knows if you believe the lie, then support for God’s work dwindles.
It’s a devilish lie about ministry: You Have Nothing to Give. Ah!... but you do! And 2 Corinthians, chapter 8, highlights them. We have Jesus. We have perspective. We have motivation. We Do Have Something to Give!