Christopher Schultz loved being a father. (http://www.startribune.com/father-drowns-saturday-night-in-detroit-lakes-after-trying-to-rescue-his-child/511374841/) His heart beat solely to please his four young sons. Crawling on hands and knees, stalking the boys, leaping, tackling, tickling. Building Lego towers higher and higher until the heights toppled over. Chasing each one out in the yard, being chased himself. Working under the car, little hands handle wrenches and pound away on stuck bolts. Listening carefully to adventurous tales of dragons and dinosaurs. Bringing home stickers and markers. Christopher loved his sons dearly.
On a cool June evening (the evening before Father’s Day), Christopher and his three-year-old son, Ashton, went walking. Christopher pointed at towering oak trees and maple leaves, brown squirrels and Blue Jays. Little Ashton’s eyes lit up and a smile ‘ooed’ and ‘awwed’ at every fascination. The two reached ‘Long Bridge’ where they stopped and stared into the swift-flowing river. Christopher spotted fish, Ashton chucked stones. Just as they turned to leave, little Ashton stumbled. His tiny legs sped forward as he tried to catch his balance, but those little feet would not stop. Ashton fell right off the bridge and into the current below. How the Father’s heart broke!
He watches the son he loves choking, flailing, thrashing against the waters sweeping over his head! The Lord looks down from heaven as the Babylonian army steamrolls ever closer to Israel. None of this happens by chance, no. This terrifying war-machine marches out to capture a nation that had drifted from its God. The glistening, golden temple, once filled with vibrant songs of praise stands empty. Many now direct their prayers to trees and stones. Once-flourishing markets now exist as a gauntlet of greedy merchants cheating the innocent. The palace, once a symbol of power, integrity, and justice, stands as a symbol of corruption and spiritual filth. The Lord looks down from heaven and sees his sons drowning in the results of sin.
Do you see? ‘Sin’ is ‘lawlessness’ (1 John 3:4). Actions that war against God’s law! God commands his kings: ‘Trust me with all your heart, mind, and soul’ (Matthew 22:37) and Israel’s kings say, ‘No! We will rely on earthly kings with their money and firepower.’ God commands his priests: ‘Call on me in trouble and I will deliver you’ (Psalm 50:15) and Israel’s priests say, ‘No! We tried that and you did not answer the way we want!’ God commands his people: ‘Impress my words in your mind and heart’ (Deuteronomy 6:7) and Israel says, ‘No! Those words do not let us do whatever we crave.’ ‘Sin’ is not some silly joke. ‘Sin’ is not an accidental flaw that can be repaired. ‘Sin’ is not another name for ‘harmless fun.’ ‘Sin’ rebels against God Most High. ‘Sin’ severs the bond of love between humanity and the Father. ‘Sin’ stands opposed to God, on the other side of vast canyon, content with the span in between. ‘Sin’ gets what it wants: Life without God forever.
That spiritual corruption wreaks havoc in every aspect of life. It wars against everything God calls ‘good.’ Relationships strain because human hearts still tug against the Word! A spouse lets worldly advice influence her; he refuses to hear God’s marriage instruction. Your son embraces his God-less lifestyle more than trying to reconnect with God. Your best-friend had a moment where she pursued her interests, leaving you hurt, unwanted, rejected. The sin inside of us damages the relationships we have with others, and the sin inside of others damages the relationships they have with us!
God never created death; he did not intend for us to die. Still, death comes because hearts wander. We live with that tragically unwanted reality! A cellphone contact no longer works because grandma sinned. The house gets quieter because a spouse sinned. A miscarriage preaches that parents pass sin down to their children. Strength dwindles as we get older. Sometimes hobbies and abilities change. Disease reminds us all that no one is immortal— and you are powerless to add years to life. You cannot wish cancer away. You cannot remove it by thinking real hard. Even with the medicines and doctors and surgeries we have today, health does not always come back. Mortality is a painful reminder of that terrible truth— that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
For us it can feel as though we flail and choke under wave after wave of misery. Challenges pile so high that it is difficult to see God. Difficulties toss us into despair, feeling as though God does not care. All these troubles press down, leaving us feeling as though you must be god; you must rely on yourself to conquer all these troubles.
Destruction barrels towards Israel and still Isaiah says: I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. Here’s a truth: Even though trouble appears so often in life, God remains. He remains with his faithful love.
Israel’s entire history lists evidence after evidence of the Father’s constant love! He reached down from heaven and tore off the shackles of slavery; he pounded Pharaoh into submission. He ripped open the Red Sea, took Israel by the hand, and led them out of Egypt. Then he closed those watery walls on the most-feared army of its day. For forty years he led his sons through a barren wasteland. He provided morning bread and dinnertime meat. Water flowed freely. Clothes never became threadbare, shoes never wore out. He removed any need for battle strategies. He handed the keys to a brand new land, fertile and lush, comfortable and satisfying! His Fatherly heart sought only Israel’s best.
Understand, the Lord did not save Israel because they are a superior race. He did not rescue them because they could trust God better than any other nation. In fact, Israel did not choose to belong to God, but it is God who chooses them! God decided to promise Abraham: ‘All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (Genesis 12:2). That is compassion. That is love gushing from your heart, seeking the only best for others. For [the Lord] said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior.
A ‘Savior,’ someone who does the act of saving. Someone who must step in because you cannot rescue yourself. Christopher Schultz watched his three-year-old son Ashton gagging, choking, drowning. Compassionate love for his son pushed Christopher to jump into the current. Instantly the waters washed over his head. Heavy clothing weighed him down. Currents pulled and tugged him. Still, he reached his helpless child and grabbed him. With son in arm, Christopher fought towards shore. He literally held his son over his head so that his son could breathe, even though it meant waters covered his own head.
In all their affliction he was afflicted… Jesus never stood in heaven, looking down at you (and me) gagging on the sin that leads to death. He jumped into your world. He took on flesh— and with it, he shouldered the perfect commandments of God. He stood immersed in images of disease and deformity, death and decay. His heart went out to the spiritually lost who wandered like sheep without a Shepherd— and he became their Savior. With you in arm, Jesus holds you up as our guilt washed over his head, as our sin chokes out his life. The punishment meant for us is transferred to Jesus and drags him down further and further into death.
Look at the manger. What do you find? Not a baby who guarantees that Christians will never ever have trouble in this world. That you will never get sick. That you will never encounter financial limits. That you will never have a sad, stressful day of your life. You do not need a Savior who makes sure you have a good life on earth. That is not the Savior the Israelites need. The Savior needed is the One who removes deceit from the heart. That’s the Savior you need.
That is the Savior you have. He redeems you as his own. [T]he angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them. A ‘redeemer’ pays off debt for someone else so that the individual may keep his property. Jesus paid our overwhelming debt. He hands over a faultless life. He signs off on our debt with his innocent blood— and the Father has accepted that payment. Nothing more is required. Jesus has satisfied the entire debt! His resurrection proves that God is pleased with Jesus! Understand, Jesus redeems you (and me); he buys us back from a hellish death. Yet, he does not set you free from guilt so that you live however you want. He actually buys you (and me) for himself; he owns us.
Here’s how that ownership looks: [H]e lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. No abuse. No neglect. None of that. A toddler might run up to you, arms stretched up. You reach down and pick that little one up. Jesus carries you with complete constant, protecting care— just like a perfect father cherishes his child.
Friends, you gather here today as proof of that. You may look over the past year and see troubles littering your past. God carried you through them all. He did not allow death to overwhelm you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: Whoever believes in me will never die (John 11:25). He did not allow relationships to paralyze you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: Be kind and compassionate forgiving one another just as I forgave you (Ephesians 4:32). He did not allow broken promises to crush you. Rather, he picked you up and carried your heart with his promise: In all things, God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). You are here today. You are not dead; you are not without God. You are here because your God carried you.
This week starts a new year. That can be frightening. So much lies unknown. Will it be good or bad? Will you get through it with strength or not? Will you succeed or struggle? I do not know. Honestly, you do not either. So often we struggle with carrying burdens that we cannot carry. We cannot control span of life and death. We cannot control the emotions of others. We cannot control the economy and government. We cannot control the future. We control so little. What we can control is relying on God to carry us.
Look back, Recall Your Father’s Faithful Love. Even though your heart (and mine) so often races away from God, God is faithful. He points to the cross as a pledge of his forgiveness. He redeemed us and keeps us under his care. He carries us. Do not worry about the matters you cannot control. Handle the thing you can control. (1) Read these promises. (2) Let them sink into your mind and heart. (3) Go to God in prayer. (4) Remain focused on the eternity God prepared for you. Let God handle the rest— just as he always has. Recall Your Father’s Faithful Love. He sends the Savior you need. He redeems you as his own.
Politicians are elected to serve the interests of a group of people. So, this group of people expect their elected official to bring unique community needs before a larger assembly, and then together, with other politicians, craft laws for their benefit. That is expected.
Expectations can bring frustration. Your needs might not always be met. Your congressman might vote impeaching the President (of the United States), but you do not want that. Maybe you did want the President impeached and your congressman did not. Your representative may fight for a gas tax that you did not want. Perhaps you did want a gas tax, but your representative did not push for it. A senator could endorse universal health care, but you do not want higher taxes. Perhaps you do want healthcare for all, but your senator does not. Politicians promise advocating for you. They guarantee taking your concerns and suggestions and putting them into law. Yet, that does not always happen. A politician might chase his own self-interests. She may act for her constituents, but your interests are not the majority’s concerns. The reality that your individually unique needs are not always addressed can ignite frustration. When you feel ignored, you feel insignificant. That fuels the pressure to rely on yourself.
That’s what makes Christmas Day special. God Most High, King of the universe, leaves his majestic throne room in heaven and comes to earth to be with us. God does not ignore your greatest need; he works for your interest in order to be with you forever. So rejoice! Because God Is With Us! How do you know? His name assures us. Can you be sure? Yes! His actions prove it.
Listen to God’s assurance in Matthew 1:22-23. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
There it is! A guarantee that God will keep your interests on his mind. God says he will be ‘with you.’ He will stand in flesh (with a body!) and experiences the same troubles of flesh! He will grieve at a funeral (John 11:35). He will see crippled limbs and heart-wrenching disease. He will observe fear in the eyes of the poor. He will watch the mighty abuse power. Yet, your God does not isolate himself from the world’s problems behind the ivory towers of a King’s mansion. He lives in the world and deals with the world. He will identify fear and handle it. He will understand anxiety and end it. He will recognize struggles and fix them. God promises to be with you!
What a promise that is! God will make all things well and whole! God will restore a bond of love! For hundreds of years people longed to see what you see, to celebrate what you celebrate! God had the prophet Isaiah share this promise seven-hundred years before the first Christmas! (That is three-times longer than the existence of our nation!) Millions of Christians over hundreds of years look ahead to that moment, but never see it. So many left wondering if God would make his intention happen.
You are [probably] not that anxious. We live on the other side of that promise. We can point at the record of God keeping his Word. [W]hen the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Galatians 4:4-5). Christmas reveals that God did what he said he would do.
When you think about it, a promise really has no value. It simply exists as mere words strung together— words that may or may not bring an action into reality. That can make it difficult to rely on those words. You are not sure what you will receive. (1) God promises to be with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Still, life hurts. Grandpa dies; that’s not fun. A friend manipulates you, abuses your kindness. Where was God to stop that? Is he really with you? (2) God promises to deliver you from trouble, so rely on him! (Psalm 50:15) Yet, a loved one only grows sicker and weaker. The marriage is not improving. Recovery is slow. Is God listening? Is really here? (3) God promises to will make your path straight, so trust him—in good and in bad! (Proverbs 3:5-6) Yet, you found the perfect job opening, and with your skill-set, you should get it. You make plans and they seem pretty definite. Right now, life feels fine, you are content. Where does God fit in when life feels under your control?
Promises do not always fill us with comforting peace. A promise should be a guarantee of future action, but so often promises are so often changed, forgotten, or broken— and we cannot rely on them. Even though God promises to be ‘with us,’ we may struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety. How does that happen? Our humans drag God down to a human level. We hear his promises, but receive them as equal to promises from faulty human mouths. We can treat God like some politician who does not always have our interests in mind. A politician who serves the interests of others. Really, our human heart can call God a ‘liar.’
That’s why God does Christmas. Christmas Day took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” Do you realize how awesome that is?! The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans worshipped a plethora of deities— and not one [so-called] god cared for his people. If enemies invaded the land, you frantically bargained for their attention. Sacrifice money, animals, people— and hope that was enough. Then there always remained the heart-stopping possibility that the gods simply did not care.
God does not send another prophet. He does not send a king. He sends himself. ‘Immanuel’ is a Hebrew word; it means: IM= with. MANU= us. EL= God. ‘God with us!’ That little baby Mary cradles in her arms, the little baby locking eyes with you, that little baby by his simple presence alone is ‘Immanuel,’ God-with-us!
Do you wonder if God truly cares about your needs? Do you worry that God might have more pressing matters on his mind? Do you think that with over 7-billion people in the world, God cannot possibly deal with your [seemingly] insignificant fear? End that anxiety here. God Is With Us. How do you know? His name assures us. Even more, His actions prove it.
You realize that behind certain names lie certain responsibilities. A politician carries more than just a title. A ‘President’ must lead or a ‘congressman’ crafts bills. ‘Immanuel,’ God-with-us, is not simply the name of God on earth. ‘Immanuel’ does work!
In that little baby lies the might to do what we cannot. He grows up and stands up against every attractive temptation. The devil, who so often leads us into doubt, cannot get Jesus to doubt God’s providing care. Those fears which tug on us to question God’s reasoning cannot get Jesus to challenge God. Self-reliance leads us to think we are God, life’s ultimate handler. Yet, Jesus bows under God’s control. Jesus does what we cannot. He withstands temptation. He stumbles not once. In him is life.
Jesus, Immanuel, is with us as he brings every single promise of God to complete fulfillment. The Son of David is pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The Son of God towers over death by his own resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). What does this have to do with you? Everything Jesus does on earth is done to bring you into God’s favor. At your baptism, God said: I have summoned you by name; you are mine (Isaiah 43:1). God binds himself to you. God Is With Us.
God Is With Us to this very day. The first Christmas occurred over 2,000 years ago. Jesus ascends into heaven a little under 2,000 years ago. Although off the earth, God remains with us for our comfort. I mean, what accusations can Satan launch at you? He will call you ‘not perfect,’ not good enough for God. He will point out your wickedness and negligence. He will claim that that one secret sin is unforgiveable. How do you remove guilt and shame? Jesus steps up to you and covers you in his innocent life. God does not see filth, he sees purity. God Is With Us to silence those accusations. God is With Us and we can stand before him without fear.
Even more God Is With Us in his Word. If I sent you a letter, you receive my thoughts and my intentions. (You might even hear my voice in your head.) When you read the Bible you see God’s heart and hear what’s on his mind. He makes it pretty clear: [N]either death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). How do you know that? Jesus came to connect you to God; his actions prove that God Is With Us! The troubles you face will only make you stronger because you do not rely on your abilities, you rely God’s powerful might. The funerals you attend will only reinforce the splendid truth that heaven is life’s ultimate home. The good times you enjoy only lead you to thank God for that rest and enjoyment. God’s Word shapes our response to life in this world. We know God Is With Us because his actions prove it.
That’s what makes Christmas Day special. God Most High, King of the universe, leaves his majestic throne room in heaven and comes to earth to be with us. Yet, God is not an elected politician serving the interests of some, or working only for the majority. He does not make promises that are broken or changed. God works for your interest in order to be with you forever. So rejoice! Because God Is With Us! How do you know? His name assures us. Can you be sure? Yes! His actions prove it.
‘Chuck’ is not his real name, but I met ‘Chuck’ at his lakehouse. Now, when Chuck was younger, his family spent weekends up north. Those were good times. Times soaking in the sun’s warmth. Times mindlessly staring into a crackling fire. Times single-mindedly focused on jumping and splashing and floating in the lake. Times with no stomach-churning anxiety. Times with no tightening vice-grip of stress. Times with no fear that the life you cobbled together could possibly crumble down.
Good memories brought Chuck back to the area— because much of his adult life was anything but good. His first marriage lasted about 20-years. By the time he reached out for counseling, the divorce papers were already in the mail. The second marriage fizzled out in months and so did half of his bank account. His two sons basically grew up without him. One sometimes visits, the other wants no contact. Chuck found himself retired, a two-time ex-husband still fighting alimony claims, with only one child who does not make much time for him. So, enter the lakehouse. Chuck moved to the old family vacation-grounds hoping that he can bring back the peaceful life he once had.
If that sounds foolish, then recall how companies have spent all month bombarding you with images of peace. Commercials showcase cheery, gleeful families gathering together. Gifts under the tree promise real fulfillment. Even food companies paint cozy cottages and warm fires with their products in hand. You (and I) might not buy a lakehouse, but do you buy into the notion that with the right items in the right settings under the right circumstances, you will finally live satisfied?
For just a moment look behind the Christmas decorations. Look behind the lights, the trees, the greenery, the white snow and cozy fires. Look behind the presents, behind the preparations, behind the smiles and hugs. What do you see? Because if you are like me, you realize life is far from perfect. No one wants to sit in a chair in the hospital room beside a loved one. She hurts, but you cannot take away the hurt. He groans, but you cannot provide comfort. Lungs gasp and seize, and very soon he will be ripped out of your life— and you cannot stop it. Can presents under the tree really fill the void that comes from knowing you cannot control health? You plan enjoying the family Christmas, but you hesitate a little. You know it will only be a matter of time before your sister stirs up some needless drama or your parents criticize your efforts or your brother makes it clear that he would rather be somewhere else. Does that smiling and dancing commercial-family even come remotely close to identifying with your family? Can a Christmas tree actually give you the strength and health of a twenty-year-old? Can snow actually hide your fears about moving out on your own? Do you think dressing up and singing Christmas carols will strengthen your marriage and end tensions with your child or repair the bond with your dad? Will politicians work together just because you ate ham? Of course not! We would never expect that (even though we might wish it were true).
Maybe that’s what is so captivating about these festive images. That perhaps at least for just a day, we can travel back to a simpler time. A time before a spouse’s death. A time before the family broke down. A time before worrying if you will have enough money for the future. A time before hearing politicians bickering, a time before needless violence. A time before age slowed you down. A time before children disappointing you or parents bearing down on you. A time when life felt happy and carefree.
Perhaps Chuck truly realizes that a lakehouse can never turn back the hands of time, but it’s not supposed to. Maybe he just wants this lakehouse to cover up a pain-riddled past.
Call it is mask, if you wish. A mask tries to cover up the real issue. A mask tries to sidestep the real issue. Chuck’s problems do not stem from his ex-wives only; he admits that he is the problem too. His sons do not prioritize him because he did not prioritize them. Plugging ears to reality or ignoring trouble does not make it go away. Relationships involve two people; tension is not the fault of one person only. Shattered dreams do not happen by chance. Emptiness and frustration are not feelings that you must expect. Cover up your troubles with a mask if you wish; sidestep the real problem at hand. Still you will not find peace. The real reason life can feel so unsatisfying is that we are not perfect.
Admitting that is not really something we want to do. By nature we want to boast of our perfection and everyone else’s imperfection. So, God has to make it clear: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… He pictures you and me every single person in the world living as though the sun (and household lights) never existed! It’s dark! You cannot see the hand in front of your face. You cannot find a safe path on which to walk. You cannot see your stubbornness fueling bitterness. You cannot see your selfishness fraying relationships. You cannot see your ambitions stripping away real hope. Even worse, you cannot see that life was never meant without God.
So, God has to shine that light. God makes clear the realization of the only place where true peace is found. He sets a Light in this little town of Bethlehem. The Child in the manger is no ordinary child who will grow up to please his parents and (sometimes) disappoint his parents. He will not get a job, make money, save money, spend money, and then die. No. [T]o us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. This Child comes down from heaven and holds final say over all things in the world!
You see, God does not ignore the troubles in our lives; he does not plug his ears to them. He deals with them. In the manger lies God’s complete seriousness to give you peace. Two parents and shepherds see it. Tonight we hear their testimony. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. He exposes the pain we try to cover up and the heartache we try to avoid. Still, as Mighty God he can powerfully remove that shame. As a perfect father he has unending compassion on us. Just like that, haunting failures erased. Regrets over arguments pardoned. The lack of peace which comes by our own hands has not been hidden, it has been eliminated.
This evening you do not hear some Christmas-time story created to numb pain. We do not spend the night putting off the troubles that will come back in a few days. Instead, you hear words about a King who brings real peace to your heart. How? Because, of course, this world is far from perfect. You may expect to attend future funerals. You may expect arguments. You may expect others to disappoint you and you to disappoint them. You may expect doctors to scare you. You may expect teachers to frustrate you. That will not bring much peace. You will feel angry, frustrated, unhappy. Here’s what does give you peace: Jesus addresses those matters.
Jesus is born to purge away my selfishness. He is born to tell of peace between God and I. He is born so that I turn to him in every frustration, every fear, every trouble. He is born so that I might take his guiding Word to heart— a Word that shapes my words with others, a Word that strengthens me to forgive others, a Word that increases my reliance in his ability. Jesus is not one option among many. He remains the only place in this world where you will discover real peace.
I am certain ‘Chuck’ will form new memories in his lakehouse. Presents around the tree, family gatherings, festivities will offer peace. Yet, I guarantee, all the pleasantries will end. I guarantee that by the end of this month you will confront stress that leaves you frustrated. So, God sends peace. Peace meant for the world, but peace meant especially for you. A place for your heart to find rest. A place for anxieties to dissipate. A place for you to live under the words and actions of your capable God. The Prince of Peace Is Your Peace.
Speaking as a former child, do you know the kind of Christmas gift a kid is not too excited to receive? Jeans. I’m not talking the designer jeans with fancy labels or shiny sequins. I’m talking straight-legged, plain blue jeans. What kid gets excited over that? I mean, no child goes to school and shows off the brand new basic pair of pants he just got. Blue jeans do not stoke the imagination like video games do. Blue jeans are not coddled like Barbie dolls are. Blue jeans are not actively on your mind like household gadgets can be. Those types of gifts make us thrilled and excited and happy. Blue jeans don’t.
Now, a child might want presents that touch emotions, but what would happen if he did not have jeans? In winter he would freeze. At the very least, he would be terribly underdressed! So, which gift is more beneficial: video games or blue jeans?
If you only focus on the object received, you can completely look past the reason for the gift given. The more you appreciate the purpose for the gift received, the more you cherish that gift. As the days leading up to Christmas quickly tick down, let’s focus on this awesome gift: Our Reliable God Keeps His Reliable Word. He brings grace through Jesus. He gives peace through Jesus.
The man from our New Testament reading, Paul, treasures those truths. Paul is a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… Maybe those job titles ‘servant’ and ‘apostle’ sound pretty basic. After all, if Paul is a Christian, then you almost expect a willingness to share Jesus. Yet, do you remember Paul’s previous career? ‘Persecutor of Christians.’
Paul hunts down people who worship Jesus. Just like a bounty-hunter, he receives warrants, tracks people down, arrests them, and turns them in to the authorities. So, your wife would be ripped away, never seen again; the marriage ended. Soldiers snatch away dad, and the next time you see him is stretched out on a cross naked, groaning, sobbing, dying. Grandma and grandpa grabbed and thrown into a lion pit; lions eat them. Paul literally destroys lives for a living — and he enjoys it! He even watches a Christian stoned to death— people throw rocks at this man until he dies— and Paul just stands there, approving! (Acts 7:54-60) And what job does Paul have? A ‘servant’ and ‘apostle’— of Christ!
He works for the group he once attacked! Even by today’s standards, you do not hire an enemy. If you capture Osama bin Laden, you do not appoint him as general over the United States Army, right? If you catch an enemy, you execute justice; you dole out what he deserves. God does not give Paul what he deserves. He gives the opposite! He makes Paul a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures…
Paul scribbles these words down with such excitement. You realize, he’s not writing a testimonial about himself. He pointing you to a truth that will impact your life far greater than just knowing Paul’s previous job. He pointing you (and me) to the gospel.
Do you remember what ‘gospel’ means? ‘Good news.’ In just a few days you will hear the ‘good’-est news that has rung across the face of the earth. While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7) God turns a promise a reality! That’s what Paul holds before our eyes! The centuries-old promise of Jesus finally reaches its opening into the world!
Still, those words can resonate much like a pair of blue jeans, can’t they? Plain. Dull. Boring. If your [grand]kids are like mine (or like I was as a child), Christmas centers mostly on presents, on figuring out what lies underneath the paper! If you are like me (today), those words warm the heart, but not always because of the content. Instead, they transport me back in time to this romanticized view of church and children and spouse, carols and candles, innocence and simplicity. I find myself worshipping past memories instead of the newborn Christ.
While I might not say it openly, that ‘good news’ just does not sound so exciting. Maybe it’s because the world always keeps pushing ‘new’ before me. Perhaps it’s because my attention wants stimulating entertainment. Yet, one thing I am certain of: My heart does not think I’m really that all wicked. What happens is that it downgrades this ‘good’-est news to just ‘good’ news. It treats Jesus like my buddy who shrugs off my foolishness and ignores my criticizing. It views Jesus arriving to make sure I have enough money to get through the month. Or that Jesus shows up so that I am never sad. Or that he comes to make others finally treat me with respect. If all we see in Jesus is a warm, kind Christmas-time miracle, then we will not appreciate what God really gives.
Christmas shows The Reliable God Keep his Reliable Word. Pay attention to that! Jesus does not come because he bored. He comes because I do need him. Because God keeps another word: The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death. Separation from life. Separation from family and friends. Separation from God. The instant you are conceived, you start dying— and you. cannot. stop. it. You (and I) die because we sin. We earn the wage: ‘death.’ That is not ‘good news.’
That is why God sends the ‘good’-est news into the world. He sends his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh… See Jesus and you see skin and bones, blood and muscle, brain and organs, thought and speech, motion and speaking. More than that, you watch someone held to God’s high standard. Do not hate, do not insult. Do not let your mind drift during worship. Do not make excuses to stay out of worship. Do not set your selfish wants ahead of your family needs. Every single commandment God has set on your shoulders, he sets on Jesus.
Still, Jesus is declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…The Holy Scriptures paint a silhouette of God’s Son and Jesus fits it perfectly. His miracles prove him someone divine. God the Holy Spirit descends as a dove onto Jesus. God the Father points at Jesus and says, ‘This One is my Son! Listen to him!’ (Matthew 3:16-17) This innocent, fault-free, God-approved Jesus is qualified to put down his life for your debt (and mine). God peels life from his Son, and tosses Jesus’ lifeless body into the grave. Then— in order to make it clear that this Bethlehem baby is God-approved, in order to make clear that this God-and-Man pleases God— he raises Jesus.
The Reliable God Keeps his Reliable Word. He brings grace through Jesus. ‘Grace’ is love undeserved. God does not treat Paul as a persecutor, but as one forgiven! That is ‘grace.’ That is love undeserved. Now, Paul gets to share what he received. [Through] Jesus Christ our Lord… we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…You (and I) are those who live under this umbrella of God’s forgiving love. That love will produce an effect.
Again, God says: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. What do you receive? Love and therefore, peace.
Peace is more than silence or no anxiety. Peace is the absence of hostility. No anger. No division. No unrest. Jesus comes so that you do not need to make up fantasies as to what happens when a person dies. Jesus comes so that you do not need to saddled by your guilty past. Jesus comes so that you do not need to think that God gives you bad days because you made him angry. Jesus comes to give you peace.
God targets his righteous anger for our wrongs at Jesus—and he absorbs it all! Where sin has been forgiven, there is no wrath. Hostility no longer exists between God and us! What remains is delight! Ease of mind! Cheer! What remains is peace.
You have three days until Christmas Day. Two days to finish shopping. Two days to contact friends and family, study the schedules, and finalize the plans. Two days to wrap the remaining presents and bake the cookies. If ‘stressed’ is the word most on your mind, then you need to refocus. Your heart is telling you that Christmas festivities is not the peace you need.
Focus on the manger. Gift-giving is wonderful; it shows affectionate love. Still, remember the affectionate love God handed you. A [grand]child might get super-excited for Santa Claus. While fun, remind that child the greater One who arrives on Christmas. The family might plan gatherings. Great! But do not sacrifice the time you have to be with God in his Word. Use these occasions to be a witness to the real purpose of Christmas. Instead of allowing festivities take priority, make Christ the priority and the festivities secondary. Worship Christmas Eve. Spend just that one brief hour (one!) praising God Christmas Day. See The Reliable God Keep his Reliable Word He sends Jesus for those who do deserve it. He makes clear that Jesus is the Savior so that you might have real peace.
Which is a more exciting gift than jeans. Although… if you ever crawled out of bed on a cold morning and you felt that brisk, chilly air, you sense a need for jeans. If you had thin pants (or shorts!) then you appreciate the warmth jeans give. You appreciate the thought behind the gift. Yes, you could have received some cool gadget and that would entertain you for a few days— but in jeans you receive something truly needed, something that protects health and life.
God could have sent a morality teacher who sets a high standard of slavish rules impossible to reach. He could have sent down a person to perfectly pattern life after. He could have looked down from heaven and said, ‘I created Eden for you and you did not want that. Why should I take the effort and give you something like that again?’— but he does not. He does not give you (and I) what we deserve. Instead, He gives grace through Jesus. Not because we earned it, but because God wants to give you peace. That, dear friends, is something the world can never give. The Reliable God Keeps his Reliable Word. He gives grace through Jesus. He gives peace through Jesus.
Her frizzy hair made it look as though she had just rolled out of bed. Her plain tan dress blended into the background. The lack of makeup, her yellowed teeth, her unrefined speech suggested a lack of education. This middle-aged, past-her-prime-woman from a cluster of tiny villages stood on the stage of Britain’s largest talent show and shared her dream of becoming a professional singer (compared to the likes of Celine Dion).
Laughter exploded from the audience. Judges rolled their eyes, preparing to expose the silliness of her pipe dream. The hosts stood backstage, mockingly mimicking her hand-waving, her confidence, her mannerisms. Many expected her to last no more than ten seconds before getting laughed off stage.
Very soon, a stringed orchestra started playing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from the famous musical Les Miserales. She took a breath and opened her mouth— and instantly everyone’s eyes opened. Judges raised eyebrows. Clapping erupted from the audience. The hosts stood frozen, attentions locked on her. This frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from the middle of nowhere unleashed a voice that sat at the top of the 2009 Music Billboards and later created the top-selling album of 2009. Susan Boyle looked so unassumingly plain, but revealed a spectacular ability. Appearances can be deceiving. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jca_p_3FcWA)
The prophet Isaiah holds up another image that can be deceiving. He touches on life in this world, but presents two very contrasting features: a desert and oasis. In a world that appears only to hand us unending frustrations, The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He overwhelms every withering fear. He crowns every heart with joy.
Just like God intended. For just a moment, picture the Eden God created (Genesis 1). What do you see? What do you hear? Songbirds tweeting sweet melodies from lush, leafy bushes. Water trickles from a babbling brook, thriving trees offer ripe fruit. Cows graze while wolves harmlessly trot by. No sweltering heat, no stifling humidity; the climate holds just right. What paradise! You do not see animals growling and snarling, fighting and killing. You do not see trees falling and rotting, plants withering and dying. You do not see conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and in your desires.
Where does Isaiah take you? A desert. A dry, arid landscape stuffed with heaping piles of dust so starved of water that no plant can grow. Bone-white trees stick out of the ground like toothpicks; scraggly, prickly bushes offer no drink, no shade. Parched riverbeds crack open. The scorching sun bakes you dry. You see no strength. You see no relief. You see no life.
Isaiah holds up two contrasting worlds. A paradise promising no pain and a desert sucking away all fulfilling satisfaction. Which picture best describes your world?
Honestly, we want complete soul-satisfying pleasure, but so often encounter shattered promises. We plan pleasant futures. You crave the perfect, conflict-free family gathering, but somehow that one touchy topic forces people into corners. Sides are taken, tension mounts, arguments erupt, family divides. You map out goals, but money sifts through your fingers, an accident pushes back the timeframe, a spouse dies— and those goals fizzle out, leaving you sullen. Half-empty churches have you wondering if you are doing something wrong or if the community simply finds no need for God. No matter how hard we try to line up life just right, someone (or something) interferes and brings those lofty expectations crashing down. Then what about those expectations you carry? You promise self-control, you want to change, but then you stumble— again. And you feel so disgusted that you are too weak to choose the right. Terrible, self-centered choices hurt those you love most and nothing you do today can change the past. You must always drag around that shameful regret. Then that guilt presses you: ‘Have you sinned one too many times?’ ‘Will God really forgive you? …. even after you come to him again for the umpteenth-millionth time?’ ‘Can God really forgive someone like you for the hidden wickedness he sees?’ No wonder Isaiah sets you (and me) in this wilderness! This is life cut off from God! You see the paradise God creates; he never intended us to find purpose without him. He creates Eden for us to live with him— in his presence, in open communication, in the complete satisfaction of finding delight in obeying his Word.
This wasteland breaks out because we brought it into the world. This wilderness exists because of sin, because of turning away from what God expects. So we battle conflicts because our hearts find no satisfaction in taking God’s guiding Word to heart. Goals crumble because we try to find joy in this world rather than joy in God the Giver. We carry regret by no fault of God, but because we deliberately disobey in the hope of finding real pleasure. Isaiah shows you (and I) what we have earned for ourselves. Life that turns from God is dry, fruitless, dead.
So, God steps into our wilderness— and Isaiah sees it. Isaiah stares 700-years into the future and sees God come with a vengeance, with divine retribution; He comes and saves you. He saves you by hanging Jesus on a cross and steamrolling him with his vengeance. The One who opened the eyes of the blind is the One struck for our spiritual blindness that refused to see God as God. The One who cleanses filthy skin is the One covered in our filthy crimes. The One who raises the dead is the One struck dead because that is the punishment we deserved.
Jesus steps into this wilderness, a wilderness separated from God— and endures the full brunt of that way of life. On the cross his life dries up. He is tossed into the dust of death, left lifeless— and saves you. In Jesus is life. Not just any life, but that perfect Eden-life. A life that does not remain dead. A life that rises! A life that goes on and on. A life he puts on you.
The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life by overwhelming every withering fear. Because Jesus came, your guilt has been removed. Because Jesus came, God no longer remembers your regrets. Because Jesus came, you hold the certain announcement of sin forgiven. Your God has come with a vengeance (as promised!) and saved you.
That will impact life. Isaiah holds up that desert image, but you do not see a dry desert, do you? You see a former picture revitalized into a gushing oasis. [A] highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness… Living in central Michigan, you have experienced both shoddy roads and reconstructed roads. After all the roadwork completed this summer, you have safe, trouble-free access to destinations. God keeps his sleeves rolled up and paves a highway— a straight, smooth path.
[T]he unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; wicked fools will not wander onto it. Did you grasp the sheer wonder of those words? God reveals who can walk this road. You probably realize that it’s you. Yet, do you see the words used to describe you? ‘Not unclean.’ ‘Not a fool.’ God sees you as you truly are: forgiven, fault-free, innocent. I know, you may laugh at that thought, but God does not. God does not ask if you emotionally *feel* forgiven; he tells you that you are. Baptism washed you and gave you second birth into a new life— a life connected to God (Titus 3:4-7). The Lord’s Supper assures you that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies you from all uncleanness (1 John 1:7-9). God reveals you as you truly are: People made to belong on that road to heaven.
Appearances can be deceiving. That is why God has to tell you (and me) the way things truly are. Life might feel as though you walk in a grueling desert. Yet, Jesus has linked you to that perfect paradise. That ‘Way of Holiness’ leads somewhere. The ransomed of the Lord (again, that’s you!) shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Just like God intended; the Garden of Eden recreated. No growling and snarling, fighting and killing. No rotting and decaying, withering and dying. No conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and your desires. You walk towards Zion, God’s name for heaven.
You live another day closer to that destination and you remain safe through this wilderness. Be sure, you (and I) will confront ravenous troubles. Still God promises to protect you. He does that with his Word. You might still be recovering from that flu-bug and patience is running thin. The recovery from surgery might be a little slower than expected. Still, God protects your faith, your trust in him as God. His Word teaches you to rely on him. His Word teaches that he provides the ability to get up each day. He allows family and friends to cheer you. He allows you to cheer family and friends. Life’s ailments are seen in a different light! Or, there might be an empty seat at home for Christmas; the first Christmas without that loved one. Yet, that spouse already walked into Zion. God’s Word tells you that. You see that perfect paradise and are comforted. Since you walk there too, soon there will be a joyful reunion. Or, arguments will always beg you to choose a side, and you may feel as though you stand against someone you like. Yet, God’s Word teaches patient love— a patient love you can show to others.
So much in this life can drag us down. So much can feel fruitless or pointless. That’s why Christmas teaches: The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He crowns every heart with joy.
Appearances can be deceiving, can’t they? Susan Boyle appeared to be nothing more than a frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from nowhere with nothing to offer. Now she is seen differently. Although still plain-looking, people see her voice.
The world in which we live is broken. Poor choices can haunt us. Pain lingers. You (and I) can feel completely hopeless. Yet, appearances are deceiving. Look at life through Christ. See what he accomplishes. The coming Christ overwhelms our greatest fears. He ends death. He nullifies guilt. He makes you clean. All the fears we face are overwhelmed by him. He revitalizes life. That means, we live with true hope, true peace, true joy. God does not keep it a secret as to how he sees you. He sets you on the path leading to life. He sets you on a path that sees life.
Look past the seen and see life as it truly is. See every withering fear overwhelm by Christ. See every heart crowned with joy by Christ. See The Coming Christ Revitalize Life.
Is your church full of hypocrites? Maybe you’ve heard that saying: ‘The church is full of hypocrites.’ Look around. You [singular] sit in a church. You [singular] gather with familiar faces. What do you think? Is your church full of hypocrites?
Give careful thought to your answer because this issue does affect worship. This is why you read on Facebook: ‘I believe in God, but I’m not a Christian.’ This is why you hear on the news report: ‘People are spiritual, but not religious.’ Understand, oftentimes those who say these things tend to have legitimate concerns. If people outside of church claim ‘the church is full of hypocrites’ and we are inside the church, then we want to examine how they reach that answer.
So, to gain understanding we turn to Romans 15:4-13. There, God highlights the core of Christianity and its impact on life. These words demand careful thought and honest reflection. They allow us to begin answering that question— maybe not as you want it answered, but as others need it answered. May Scripture Give Us True Hope in appreciating our unity from God and in strengthening our unity with believers.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. That’s is the number-one purpose of Scripture: to show Jesus, your Savior (John 20:30-31). The tremendous truth of standing without guilt before God is scribbled on every single page. Adam and Eve— people who lived in former times, that is, in the Old Testament— clutched the guarantee of the devil-Slayer (Genesis 3:15). Moses, who lived centuries before Christmas, looked ahead to the day when Jesus would stand on earth and speak as God (Deuteronomy 18:15). Jeremiah and Daniel traced out David’s family tree, watching that little sprout stretch on (Jeremiah 23:5-6; Daniel 7:13-14). So many believers watched for the King who would ride a donkey into Jerusalem, loaded down with their guilt, riding onward to die but then rising! (Zechariah 9:9-10; Isaiah 53). Scripture reveals promises made and promises kept! God used that Scripture to tie your heart to the results of Jesus’ work. God has created in you the conviction, the trust to believe that everything Jesus said and did, he said and did for your benefit!
Still, Scripture does something more: it teaches perseverance and encouragement. Here— God’s not talking about persevering through illness or financial hardship. He’s talking about dealing with each other, fellow believers. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You are not the only Christian in the entire world. All who trust in Jesus as Savior are bound to the one God. That means we each have something in common. You and I live united to God! Even though we share this same faith, you and I are not exact clones of each other! I may not have the same interests as you do and you may not have the same personality as I do. Your standing in the community might not be my standing in the community. My expectations might not be your expectations. Your education is not my education. We may be Christian, but you and I are vastly different from each other!
Because we are different, we will act in different ways. We will act in line with our personality. Some can focus even with children running around, others find it difficult to concentrate with extra noise. You may expect those in worship to sing or follow along, but others may feel uncomfortable doing just that. He might have trouble reading. She might sing off-key and does not want to stand out. I might expect you to have no arguments because you are patient, and have no strife in marriage because you’re forgiving, and that you regularly set aside the best offering you can, and that you trust God in every dilemma— but maybe you’re not there yet. You’re working hard to control a fiery temper, and you know that those marriage problems are partly your fault and you’re addressing them. Your expectations are still growing and my expectations for your needs are still growing too. We have different personalities and different expectations, but still live united to the same Savior.
Unity to Christ trumps every personality difference. Forget this— and you begin emphasizing differences. You (and I) start ranking and enforcing behavior according to personal preference. When one personality stands above another, that is called ‘superiority.’ Superiority never unites, it divides.
Superiority expects everyone to conform to a made-up standard. The religious leaders (from Matthew 3:7-10) strut out towards John for one reason: to look superior. They dressed better, they read more of the Bible, they gave more money— not out of love for God. Rather, their comparison chart was a made-up tool in order to look pleasing in God’s sight. They were hypocrites! They did not worship for the right reason; they do not gather in church not to hear about their need for a Savior. They gather because they thought they could do the Savior’s work! All God saw was a brood of vipers slithering around still soiled and stained with guilt.
What God sees can be seen by others. Is your church full of hypocrites? We gather for the wrong reason if we demand others to conform to our personal preferences. We gather for the wrong reason if we forget that we still desperately need the forgiveness from Jesus. Let’s not lose sight on the reason we gather here.
Let us welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. That’s more than just shaking hands or flashing a smile-wave. Literally: welcome one another just as you welcome your close group of friends. Why? Why be patient with those who might be irritating? Because Christ welcomed you into his group.
Christ welcomed you because of who he is and not because of who you are. Jesus does not embrace you because you have a perfect marriage with two well-behaved children and live in a country house with a white-picket fence. He does not praise you because at least you are not a child molester or a drug dealer, or that you have higher morals than the abuser. In fact, verse 7 makes absolutely no reference to your character at all. It simply says: Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) He flushed pride out of the heart. He removed any need to try to appear superior. He poured purity into our hearts. That is the reason you (and I) can glorify God today. Because Christ has welcomed you. May Scripture Give Us True Hope as we appreciate God uniting us to himself.
That unity to Christ is we see in each other first and foremost. As we see that, it will produce a response. For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. For centuries the Jews held the promises of a Savior. God spoke to their ancestors. They held God’s written Word. God sent prophets to proclaim his Word. Everything God promised about the birth of Jesus, his life, his death and resurrection, happened just as God said it would! Yet, God did not intend Jesus for one people-group only. Jesus came for both Jew and non-Jew [Gentile].
That was always God’s plan. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” Aren’t you doing that now? You praise God. On a day many have off, you woke up [earlier], got dressed, and arrived here; you demonstrate God’s high priority in your life. You support the existence of this building; its mere presence preaches that God is found here. You praise God among the many people in your community.
You do even more. Again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” You do not keep Jesus only to yourself, but invite others. You want others to find real answers in the midst of the swirling chaos of life. You want others to find real peace. Realize that invitations take deliberate effort. To call that one person you have not seen in worship. To approach that friend who searches for life’s meaning. To talk with your child so that he anchors spirituality to its Source. What can you say? Well, what is the message in verse 11? ‘Rejoice.’ That’s the message! ‘Come, worship with me this Christmas. I’ll be there. We’ll go through service together. Come and grasp the real peace Jesus brings, a peace the world cannot give.’
As we shine the light on Jesus, God will bind more to himself. Again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” Hasn’t that happened? I have worshipped with new faces each year. Some of you are here because of your parents. Others because of a friend. Still others move here. You are different than I am and I am different than you. Yet, we unite around the one Savior. You (and I) are a fulfillment of this promise.
And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” That is why you (and I) are here. To live under the umbrella of God’s ‘hope.’ Now, when God promises ‘hope’, it does not mean ‘something unsure.’ God does not say, ‘You’ll never know if you got into heaven until you get there.’ Hope does not suggest uncertainty. Instead, ‘hope’ means ‘confidence.’ We can point at some object and label it our ‘hope.’ For example, America’s military is our ‘hope’ of defense. There’s nothing uncertain about that. The military has the ability to defend me from foreign threats. They are my ‘hope,’ my ‘confidence’ for safety. God, in his Word, makes certain that he will provide strength as we keep pointing each other to Jesus. As we gather around Jesus, our Hope, we strengthen our unity with believers.
So, is your church full of hypocrites? Look around. You [singular] sit in a church. You [singular] gather with familiar faces. What do you think?
The answer starts with you. What is the reason you are here? Church does not exist in order to hold each other to a manmade standard. Nothing is gained by looking superior. The one thing we share in common is the fact that none of us stands superior before God. Scripture Gives Us True Hope by pointing each of us to Jesus. We gather here to appreciate our unity from God.
May that move us to live aware of our behavior. When that remains our key focus, then those on the outside will not see a church fighting for feelings of superiority. They will see a group of people who recognize a need for a Savior and want to share that same need filled with the world. By our words and actions the unity among ourselves and with those who will believe will only grow stronger.
In these days before Christmas, May Scripture Give Us True Hope as we work together for the sole purpose of welcoming Christ to the world.
The best word to describe the scene? ‘Sudden.’ A small car had raced past me as I drove through the rolling slopes of Rochester, Minnesota. Thought nothing of it until I saw those drivers again. This time, instead of driving, they stood on shoulder of the freeway. Their car had slid off the road and down a fifty-foot slope. My eyes turned from that sight to the sight of a car from the other side of the freeway careening through the median and wiping out the van twenty-feet in front of me. Thank God no one got hurt.
In a matter of seconds freezing drizzle coated the entire freeway. I stepped out of my car to look back and saw half-dozen cars in ditches, first-responder lights flashing. I helped the driver push his little car off the road. I will not forget what he said. ‘I should have gotten new tires.’ The tires on his car were bald, no traction whatsoever. It begged the question: ‘If he knew tires were a problem, why didn’t he fix it?’ He was completely unprepared for the weather— the same snowy weather that strikes Minnesota every single year.
That driver felt no pressing need to prepare for what comes each year. When the weather grew bad and his car was wrecked, it was too late to prepare. His laziness cost him. God does not want laziness costing you. He makes so clearly known this truth: The Son of Man is Coming! So, prepare! Get ready so that you may step into that day with joy! Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! (1) Stay alert against indifference and (2) Warn against carelessness.
Jesus made it no secret that after his resurrection, he would enter heaven. He would not live there forever and ever. He has every intention of returning (Matthew 24:2-3).
When? No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Let’s get that straight. Jesus does not suggest someone could possibly pinpoint ‘that day’ …if only a Pastor adds up numbers in the Bible together… or if a teacher studies the alignment of stars and planets. Jesus makes clear: No one knows and there will never be a person who holds the precise moment of Jesus’ coming. The angels standing before God in heaven do not have the date. Even Jesus does not have specific information about his coming. Only the Father knows.
I know, that’s not a very satisfying answer. Curiosity wants to know when Jesus will come. Yet, pinpointing the world’s final nanosecond does not prepare you for Jesus’ coming. For example, knowing when your tire will go flat does not help; you are still stranded. Having tools for a flat tire does help you. So Jesus tells you what is important: Jesus will return! So, Keep Watch!
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away… Jesus’ return will be sudden, just like floodwaters suddenly swallowed earth. Yet, ‘sudden’ does not mean ‘a never-before-expected-surprise.’ The truth is, people in Noah’s time did know something big was happening. Noah’s ark is roughly the size of Jay’s Sporting Goods and General Jim’s Surplus. If you drove by that lot (before Jay’s was built), you saw lumber and metal and builders; you know something was happening. (1) You could not miss such a large structure going up. (2) That largeness would press you to ask the owners or workers or neighbors the reason for this construction.
People walked past piles of lumber and pitch; the work-site sticks out! Noah does not work in a shipyard. He does build on these massive hydraulic lifts that will launch the ark into a river. He builds an enormous barge that holds more than his eight-member family, in the middle of a field, in a somewhat flood-free area. For 120-years people watch this mysterious construction, but no one cares about the purpose for this ship-building. Husbands and wives planned families, built homes, ate dinner, saved money, fixated on work— just like they had done for decades. Everyone woke up, assuming the sun would rise each morning and set each night. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Just like people in Noah’s time had no concern for the future, so also many will have no concern for the future even though Jesus can return in a moment.
You have heard that before, right? ‘Jesus can return at any moment!’— but he has not returned yet. Maybe you (and I) have not verbalized that doubt, but what do your actions say?
Do you allow worry to choke out trust in God? Do you think humanity alone holds supreme power over your happiness? Only the government provides wealth? Only military keeps you safe? Have you forgotten God the Almighty?
Are life’s goals blinding you from life’s true purpose? Do you think life is about making money, stashing money, spending money? Do you worship the kids, thinking that providing them with sports and clubs gives real purpose? Do you just assume you will always have a ‘tomorrow?’
Has the world’s view of pleasure polluted your heart? Do you forget that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Do you forget God calls you to live sober-minded? (Ephesians 5:15-20). Do you forget God does care what you believe? (John 3:16). Do you think you are spiritually safe because you belong to a church?
Do you know the real problem at Noah’s time? Indifference. A lack of concern. Even if Noah preached how God hated disobedience, the people felt they could change wickedness later. Even though Jesus says: ‘No one knows the day or hour,’ even our hearts are tempted to say, ‘Well, I know you’re not coming soon! I will always have time to clean up my spiritual life!’ Those in Noah’s day woke up, ate breakfast, went to school, went to work, completed those every-day tasks when torrents ripped out of the earth. Waterfalls gushed from the heavens. Oceans swallowed up homes and farms and toys and scenery and people. Noah and his family floated higher and higher into safety. So many sunk lower and lower into death. No do-overs. No second chances. Time ran out. They never stood in God’s favor (2 Peter 2:4-10). Spiritual indifference brought hellish consequences.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. For thousands of years God spoke through his prophets the good news of a Savior. While many looked forward to Jesus, very few expected him. In fact, Gabriel had to inform Mary that her Lord would come in nine months. Angels had to inform shepherds that their Lord had come. God put a star in the sky to inform wise men that their Lord had come.
Jesus came once before— and he makes sure we know that. He makes sure so that you (and I) know he is the Almighty Lord. Yes, the devil uses hunger, hoping for Jesus to curse God. He throws wealth and power at Jesus. He even asks Jesus if God really keeps his promises. Each sneaky attack is meant to draw Jesus further away from the Word, a little more into a ungodly life, a little further away from God. Yet, Jesus stands alert against each devilish temptation. He lets nothing sidetrack him from reaching his goal to be your Lord. To be the One who has a completely whole spiritual life. To be the One who reaches down to pull you (and I) out of spiritual death. To be the One who rises— and raises us above death forever! That is for whom we keep watch! Jesus our Lord! The One who has rescued us from indifference and shows the purpose of life is meant for heaven.
So, Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! Stay alert against indifference. In these final days, warn against carelessness.
[U]nderstand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. Normally we do not call the thief and ask for his schedule. Just because we do not expect a thief, it does not mean we are unprepared for a thief. This house-owner does not prepare. He failed to lock his doors and windows. He failed to set the alarm and turn on the outside lights. He did not stay in the house with the phone nearby. All that preparation was laid aside. He lost everything.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. The funeral home across the street tells me that. Forty-year olds leave life suddenly. Just a month ago, an 18-year-old died in a car crash. The elderly enter the hospital for routine care, but never wake up. You do not know when you will leave life. The time to deal with spiritual matters is not later, but now. If your heart is drifting a little too close to love of stuff, then refuel you love in Jesus. If you place self-worth in parenting, then put worth back into Jesus. If you would not be proud to tell me about your actions last night, then remember your calling as members of Christ. Warn against carelessness.
Keep warning in these days leading up to Christmas. You may have a child who does not worship often. Still he says, ‘I believe in God.’ I am not sure what that phrase means. Do you realize the devil believes in God? (James 2:19) He believes God exists. He believes that God is divine, all-powerful, all-perfect. He believes all of that— but the one thing he does not believe: That his rebellion deserves hell and a Savior must rescue him. The child who claims a belief in God would wants to cherish their Savior. Since Jesus can return anytime, take the time to warn against spiritual carelessness.
You may have grandchildren who do not go to church because their parents do not bring them. What can you do? Speak the importance of your faith with the parents. ‘One day I will leave this world and stand before God. Jesus makes me ready for that day.’ Carve out extra time in the morning to pick that grandchild up for worship. If those grandkids are grand‘adults,’ then share your wisdom with them. Your special connection with them may present an opportunity where they will be more honest with you than a parent (or a pastor). You may have the chance to discuss the impact God has on life. Keep warning against carelessness.
The Son of Man is Coming! Just in case that sounds cliché, remember this: Companies are pouring in huge sums of money to ‘warn’ you about Christmas. Television commercials list ‘hot items’ for sale. Society is literally warning people for Christmas day so that people are not caught unprepared.
God does not want you caught unprepared either. He clearly says: The Son of Man is Coming! So, prepare! You have. You are prepared because you know Jesus died and rose to forgive you. That day of his coming will be one of joy. We look forward to that great moment. Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! (1) Stay alert against indifference and (2) Warn against carelessness.
Ten men stand covered with festering boils oozing yellowed pus. Stained bandages wrap and bind peeling skin. Chunks missing from ears and noses because, well, those chunks fell off. Ten men suffering from incurable leprosy. Ten men too contagious to live in a large community. Ten men completely cut off from hope.
No wonder they cry out: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ (Luke 17:13). No doubt they heard of this great Healer ministering throughout Galilee. Since they could not travel, hearts must have burned and yearned just for this man to come near. And when he did, how those hearts must have leapt at his healing instructions: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ Only the priests can declare the leprous: Cleansed! Ten men heard exactly that. ‘Clean!’ Just like that death slinked back into the shadows. Skin mended and healed. Freedom restored to touch friends and hug family. Ten men received so much from God. Yet, only one returns. Where did the others go?
Smoke drifts from the smoldering rubble. Underneath the tons of concrete and twisted metal lies crushed ambulances, fire trucks, police cars— and 3,000 bodies. The metallic skeleton of a burned out Boeing 767 jet-engine lies in a desolate city street. Rescuers scramble towards the scene; a nation stands still, mouths gaping, minds slowly grasping this disaster. Nineteen men brought the most powerful nation in the world to its knees. Everyday havens transformed into potential threats. Many saw unsuspecting people as suspects of terror. September 11th preached how little control man holds.
No wonder church attendance spiked! People turn for comfort in the Almighty God who holds supreme control. Hearts pour out, pleading for protection, strength, and security. All received such comfort. Yet, in the following weeks church attendance shriveled up. Where did all those people go?
I mean, is that all God is? A safe harbor when life spins wildly out of your control, but Someone unneeded when all appears manageable? God does not hold office hours as some grief counselor. He does not exist only for the next crisis. Whether storms rage or peace reigns, Find Rest in God Alone. Every achievement fades away, but Only God delivers rock-solid security.
That is really what those lepers and Americans craved, right? Security. The absence of fear and anxiety. The sense of control over life-matters. You watch ten men who have no way of improving health. So, to whom do they turn? To the great Physician! You watch Americans tremble because they cannot guarantee personal safety. So, where do they turn? To the Almighty! The heart craves security because security brings a sense of ease and stability.
Security will help fuel your thanks tomorrow. You will look at the things in your house and consider how those objects affect you. A house gives shelter and holds heat. Steady income fills physical needs. A savings account prepares for the unexpected. Good health feels good, strength allows you to get up and move. You may even gather with friends and family. And that allows an opportunity to consider how they impact your life. A grandchild gives you the chance to pass down knowledge, to influence behavior, to shape personalities. That grandchild could even be a source of pride. You may cherish a friend because of her advice or because of his support. A brother who respects you makes you feel wanted, a sister who asks for guidance benefits from your help. Yes, you will think about all the objects, all the people that hold some value in life. You will consider the joys you receive from them. You will think about the protection they offer you. You will be thankful for the fears they take away.
As you reflect on these many, many blessings, God adds a word of caution: Yes, the sons of Adam are only a breath. The sons of man are a delusion. On a scale they weigh nothing. They are nothing but air. Do not trust in extortion. Do not put empty confidence in stolen goods. If your wealth grows, do not set your heart on it.
Did you catch the name God sticks to all these worldly items? Breath! The air pushed out of your lungs. How long does that breath stay inside you? How long does it last outside of you? How many breaths do you take? Do you even remember that you breathe? The air we breathe lasts only seconds inside us, and out of the thousands of breaths you take each day, you probably only remember the ones taken right now (because I’m discussing it). God points at wealth and at people and says: ‘A breath has more value!’ Breath has more value than money because money (and the things you can buy with it) can vanish in an instant. The economy’s heartless hand can wipe out your savings in minutes. Bills can devour your wealth. Thieves can hack accounts and steal your earnings. Breath has more value than people because people can (and will) fail you! A friend might attack your reputation and that friendship is over. A child can disappoint you, robbing you of any parenting pride. You may think you receive special privileges because of who you know, but time passes and people forget who you are. Even the best of friends cannot even stop your death. You could be best friends with mega-billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett, but they will still die and so will you (and I). Your heirs will handle your finances and divvy up the possessions you worked so hard to accumulate. [Maybe worse?] Your name will fade away with time. You realize Every achievement fades away.
Since worldly objects fade away, any security they offer will fade away too. Put another way, wealth and people only offer false security. They promise to make life happier, but cannot guarantee it. If you (and I) find comfort in the prestige of our possessions and reputation, then we will be forever disappointed. Every achievement fades away and cannot bring you eternal rest.
That’s why God says what he does. In fact, God writes his warning down so that we can read it, so that it can sink in. God even guides our trust by (1) giving a warning and (2) presenting a reliable security. (1) If your wealth grows, do not set your heart on it. Instead, (2) rest quietly in God alone, for my hope comes from him.
That might sound strange. God offers you hope? Like ‘something not certain,’ ‘something that might not be there’? No. The Bible uses ‘hope’ to describe ‘a reality waiting in the future.’ Keep focused on God, find hope. Not just any ‘hope,’ but the capital-‘H’ Hope. Inside of Jesus shimmers this priceless life. A life that does not chase after crowns and thrones. A life that does not rob the temple treasury or ask his disciples for big purchases. Rather, a life content in living on the daily bread his Father provides and with the simple clothing on his body. Although the Son of God, Jesus does not seek worldly status and praise from the nation. He does not come for fame. He comes to give you rest.
He puts the heart at rest by suffering real death. Death—the end of life and separation from God. How worldly wealth could not spare him that! How friends deserted him, leaving him alone! Trust in worldly comforts earn this: life cut off from God— and Jesus absorbs it all.
Jesus rises in order to bring your heart (and mine) real security. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress. I will not be disturbed. Picture that. A thick, rocky mountain with a little cave carved out. God sets you in that thick mountainous fortress. What can penetrate those walls and harm you? Be sure, the devil will fire flaming darts meant to hurt. Yet, no matter what accusations he shoots, they all bounce off! Your reliance in wealth? Well, Jesus took the dart. Your proud regrets? They ricochet. Your shame for falling into false security again? God forgives. He keeps you covered in Jesus’ life. Accusation after accusation bounces off that rocky wall. You Find Rest from guilt in God Alone.
You will encounter troubles in this world (read John 16:33); that’s no secret. Trade wars make for an uncertain future. A weakened economy stirs up retirement fears. Government may make you unsure of the future. One phone-call can change life. These troubles can take things away from you. You may lose freedom. You may lose your car, house, and retirement. You may lose loved ones. You may lose life. Still, you Find Rest in God Alone. God strengthens you to stand strong in these troubles. He has always seen fit to provide you with house and home. He has always seen fit to give you both food and savings. He has always led through even the most difficult of situations. Unlike money and people, God can actually keep his guarantee that all works for your good (Romans 8:28).
Then, you experience times of peace. Maybe this was a year of plenty for you— a good year, a year when you had no financial need, you took vacations, and bought new cars, more property, or you just stashed more away in your savings. If so, then good. That is what a stronghold does; it keeps you safe. Do you see? The reason you have security is because God gives you security. My salvation and my honor depend on God, my strong rock. My refuge is in God. The Giver puts your heart at rest. He keeps trouble for overwhelming you.
So, trust in him at all times, you people. Pour out your hearts before him. God is a refuge for us. As someone who lives in this stronghold, live like someone who lives in a stronghold. Live fearless. Live without anxiety because your heart relies on God’s providing. Live certain of control in life. You may not have power over all the things that enter, but the Almighty God does—and who better to control life? Even when scared, rely on God in time of need. Plead in times of distress. Turn your mind to him in every situation in life. Run to him first, well before you ever think about what you can do to deliver yourself. As you Find Rest in God Alone, your thanksgiving is enriched. You gain the benefits of less anxiety, less need of control (which you really do not have), and greater peace because you live as children under a parent’s loving care. As attentions focus on this truth, you will always have rest be it in good or bad. Find Rest in God Alone because Only God delivers rock-solid security.
One leper grasped that truth. His incurable disease prevented him from living with his family. Unless something changed, he had no hope.
So, no wonder he cries: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’ (Luke 17:13). He heard of this great Healer ministering throughout Galilee. His heart leapt at the healing instructions: ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ Only the priests can declare the leprous: Cleansed! He heard exactly that. ‘Clean!’ Just like that death slinked back into the shadows. Skin mended and healed. Freedom restored to touch friends and hug family. As fantastic as these blessings are, he found rest in the One who cured his life forever.
A safe harbor when life spins wildly out of your control, but Someone unneeded when all appears manageable? No. God does not hold office hours as some grief counselor. He does not exist only for the next crisis. Whether storms rage or peace reigns, Find Rest in God Alone. Every achievement fades away, but Only God delivers rock-solid security.
Stephen Fry is a British actor [probably better] known (to us) for his roles in the television crimes series ‘Bones’ and acting in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Aside from acting, Stephen Fry is also an atheist. He claims no god exists.
In a 2015 interview, Stephen Fry was asked this question: “Suppose it’s all true and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him?” Well, this is what Stephen Fry would say:
“I would say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious [unpredictable], mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”
So, the interviewed asked: “And you think you’re going to get in?”
“No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong. Now if I die and if it was ‘the Twelve Greek gods’ then I would have less trouble with it because the Greeks did not pretend not to be human in their unreasonableness. They did not present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the God who created this universe, if he was a good God, is quite clearly, a maniac. Utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of God would do that?! Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life-cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that did not exist. It is simply not acceptable. …So, [we ask] if there is a God, what kind of God is he? It’s perfectly apparent: He’s monstrous, utterly monstrous. He deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living— in my opinion.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suvkwNYSQo)
Stephen Fry calls his judgments of God an ‘opinion.’ We can call it as God does: ‘Darkness.’
In Colossians 1:13 God identifies the existence of two realms. The first is the domain of darkness. Darkness! The absence of light. The inability of making out shapes. The absolute failure of grasping information and forming correct conclusions. Darkness prevents anyone from seeing the truth of what lies around you! Yet, God is not describing vision problems. He calls this ‘darkness’ a ‘domain.’ A vice grip no one can escape. A darkness that blinds hearts and minds from seeing life as it truly exists. Simply put, you, I, the entire world start life cut off from God!
Spiritual darkness wraps us so tightly that we do not even recognize that we are blind! If you have ever played ‘Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey,’ then you know how deceiving darkness is. The blindfold blocks out all light and sight. One hand holds the donkey tail, the other hand gropes for direction. You inch forward, one foot after the another, you touch something, stick the tail, rip off the blindfold, only to see that the tail hangs nowhere close to the donkey. Of course, you thought you were right, that’s why you took the steps you did. Although blind, you consider your actions ‘correct.’ So when the interviewer asked: “You think you’re going to get in?” Stephen Fry says, “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms.” The entire world starts life spiritually blind. Unable to recognize God as Judge and Savior! That blind heart believes humanity is morally pure and God morally evil.
That’s a darkness even our hearts combat. God says, ‘Love me with all your heart.’ (Matthew 22:37) and still we keep the Bible shut. We block his Words from memory. We care little if our behavior lines up with his expectations. God says, ‘Parents, raise your children with the Word.’ (Ephesians 6:4). Still, we ignore the kids. We do not discipline them as God wants. We do not try to correct the wrong we see. Then, there are those other times when the heart pushes back against what God says. I can look at simple water and say, ‘This creates faith? Nope. That sounds silly.’ ‘This bread and wine is Jesus’ body and blood? Impossible! I cannot understand it so it cannot be.’ I can look at God’s promises and say, ‘No, God, you don’t really care about my sadness!’ ‘No, God, I got this money by my own smarts.’ ‘No, God, success comes because I try.’ I can look at a wandering soul and think, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what he believes.’ ‘She will be in heaven.’ If you are like me, you can shatter God’s commands without flinching; I do not even flinch because I expect God to condone my actions. In that way I make it quite clear: ‘God, I will not live on your terms! You accept my terms.’ That is the darkest, most blind lie the human mind has ever concocted: The notion that that you outrank God.
As clever as Stephen Fry sounds, his logic contains one critical flaw: he fails to take ‘sin’ into account. He completely ignores the fact that God did create a perfect world and the reason pains exists is not because of God. God is not to blame when our words destroy relationships and our addictions shorten life and our greed never satisfies. The problem comes because Adam and Eve (as well as the rest of us) turned our backs from God Almighty! God exposes that truth with light— and not just any light, but the Light.
God sent his Son who is the image of the invisible God. See Jesus, see God. Not a prophet. Not a good teacher, but God in flesh. [Jesus is] the firstborn of all creation. ‘Firstborn’ does not mean ‘the first one created,’ but ‘first in line.’ Just like the oldest son received the family inheritance, God hands Jesus the reins of the universe. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Jesus anchored the land and he carved out the oceans. He put earth in its orbit and pulls it around the sun. He formed man and allows him to govern. Jesus exists before all things— including you (and me). Do you think you possess the right, the equal standing to demand that God condone disobedience? He is the One who already sits in the paradise we want!
Yet, the Maker of governments stands silent by as a corrupt government condemns him, an innocent man. The Designer of nature is fastened to wood meant to help life, not to take life. The King of the Universe suffers the death-sentence his rebellious subjects earned. All those times we shook an angry fist at God, barking out: ‘Not on your terms!’ Jesus lives on God’s terms. He comes to obey God’s want and will. Then, he offers—not forces—but offers his life in exchange for yours.
What right do you have to that claim? None. Yet, the King of the Universe has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. Jesus obliterates darkened thinking. He makes clear what he has done for you (and me). When he rose, he transferred you (and me) from the column marked ‘death’ into the column marked ‘life!’ He stepped into his heavenly kingdom, sits on his glorious throne, and reigns over all things. Now. At this moment. Today… and always. He ushers in eternal peace.
[H]e is the head of the body, the church. Now, that word ‘church’ does not describe buildings of wood and brick with people gathering inside. The Bible uses the word ‘church’ to describe all believers everywhere. The woman in South Africa who believes in Jesus as Savior. The Detroit factory-worker who knows Jesus died for him. The businessman in China who cherishes the news of a Savior. People all over the globe are united into one common faith, and God sees each individual gathered into one realm before his one throne.
Friends, you are part of that ‘church.’ Baptism created faith in Jesus as Savior (Acts 2:38-29; Galatians 3:26-27). That faith grew bigger and stronger as it heard God’s Word. In fact, you gather in this building today not to listen to a random man’s opinions, but rather to hear the words God gave you to apply to life. You live in this body of Christ.
Christ exists as the head of the body. The head controls. It tells you where to go, how to speak and act. Not just that, nothing outranks the head. Christ remains in charge. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might [have the supremacy]. Jesus already reigns in heaven with all things under his feet. No atheist actor can tell God how to act. Governments cannot eradicate the Word off the face of the earth. No world leader can keep Jesus locked up in heaven forever. Even the devil cannot stop eternity. Jesus is the first to rise from the dead and remain living. He guarantees he will not be the last. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Christ points you to the future. Jesus will use the power he possesses as God and bring all things to an end. He will purge sin out of all things. He will create a new heavens and new earth, one free from death and mourning and tears. He will bring you to gather around his throne (Revelation 7:14-17).
Will that really happen? Yes. Because Christ kept his Word. He rescued you (and me) from a domain of darkness. He transferred us into his kingdom of light. He already paid the debt owed to God. The payment has already been accepted. He already rose, breaking the stranglehold of death. He already reigns in heaven. Nothing will undo his guarantee. Jesus, who has brought us into his kingdom, ushers in eternal peace.
Christ Reigns Supreme! It does not matter what Stephen Fry would say to him. It does not matter what darkened hearts think is ‘right’ and ‘fair.’ It does not matter the excuses people will lay before the throne. Only the Word of Christ is final. That word obliterates darkened thinking. With that Word, Christ reveals guilt removed and us transferred into his kingdom. As Christ continues ruling your hearts, we have peace. We know what is to come and we know it will never be taken away. Christ Reigns Supreme!
Thick, dense fog drops visibility to only 20-feet, which sounds pretty insignificant—except your airplane barrels towards the runway at 150 miles-per-hour. The automatic pilot counts down the distance from the ground. 50…40… 30…20…10… One pilot chimes in: “I’m sure it’s down there somewhere.” As for you, you see nothing. What do you do? How do you land? Where do you fly? How do you arrive safely? So much is unknown. (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2851968/Now-s-flying-blind-Terrifying-footage-shows-pilots-approaching-Dublin-airport-fog-t-runway-moments-landing.html).
Much like our topic today, right? Talk about life and death, heaven and hell, resurrection and paradise seems so unknown. Everyone seems to have opinions. Few seem certain. What about you? Can you know what to expect about life with God?
Let’s return to 2 Thessalonians 2:13. It reads: But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits (a better translation is ‘from the beginning’) to be saved… Long before God spoke the universe into existence, God knew you. He knew the precise moment of your birth. He knew every city and every home in which you would live. He knew where you would work. He knew who you would marry and the family you would have. He knew you would be sitting here, in this church located in [Harrison] Clare, Michigan. In fact, God did more than ‘know’ information, he chose you.
His ‘choosing’ had a purpose: To save you. Here in these verses God zeroes in on you— not other people, but you— and he makes it clear: Your life has a goal. That goal is not to spend decades building an empire and stashing away cash, growing popular and sitting on a mountain of respect and then die. Earthly status is not your ultimate goal. Before the sun started marking time, God had the goal of escorting you from this life into life in his kingdom.
How did God reach that goal? God chose you through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Now, that word ‘sanctification’ means ‘to make holy,’ ‘to make morally pure.’ Notice, you did not do the work, your name does not appear in this verse. Which name does? The Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit does the ‘making-holy’ work. When you heard God’s impact on life, the Holy Spirit went to work. He buried those words into your heart, not you. He created faith so that you stand convinced of this tremendous truth: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). To this— this magnificent reality of never-ending paradise— [God] called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain (so that you may join in this) the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In those opening words God reveals something great. That word ‘sanctification’ is where we get our word ‘saint.’ According to the Bible a ‘saint’ is not a special charity-worker who helped the poor, fed the hungry, and freed the oppressed and is a far superior Christian than you. According to the Bible a ‘saint’ is a ‘holy person.’ How does a person become ‘holy?’ [T]hrough sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Simply put, God has made you a ‘saint.’
Maybe you half-laugh at that thought. You— a saint? You hate what you see in the mirror. How could God ever forgive your past? …after hurting the kids? …after your arrest? …after the foolish nights? How can you be a saint when you have done so much evil? You lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, flipping through a mental list of sorts: Sunday School teacher, wife and mother, community volunteer, kind neighbor, frequent worshipper. You did so many kind acts, but you feel that it is just not enough. Does God really love you? You stand in front of the tombstone. Carved in granite is a date of death. Is she really in heaven? Does God really love him? Will I be in heaven too? Stare at our hearts and we do not look like saints, do we?
The reason we struggle with that thought of being a ‘saint,’ the reason questions about life and death, heaven and hell torment us is because we are looking for certainty in all the wrong places. We tremble at the thought of heaven and hell because we realize that we are not as good as we should be. We cannot rely on our social status to get us through the gates of heaven. We do not have the power to control our eternity. So why look at yourself?! When you (and I) want self-assurance that all is well, we will never find it. We have are turning away from Jesus, the only One who has saved you!
That is why verse 15 says: So then, brothers [and sisters], stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Do not stand firm on your own emotions, your own thoughts. Stand firm, cling tightly to God’s truth. In fact, standing firm is not an action you do. Your determination, your willpower does not strengthen faith. God does the strengthening. When attention steps off of that Word, grip weakens. When we go back to the Word, faith automatically grips God’s promises.
You open the Bible, it says: [God] called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. You read those words, faith grabs them. What can you expect from God? To bring you where Jesus is. Why do you believe that? Because God has kept his Word. God promises Adam and Eve a Savior (Genesis 3:15). Isaiah says a virgin will give birth to a son (Isaiah 7:14). Micah says the Savior will arrive in Bethlehem Ephrathah (Micah 5:2). Lo and behold! The virgin Mary gives birth to a Son in Bethlehem! God promises to paint Jesus with our guilt, our shame, our evil. He will crush him to death(Isaiah 53:5-7). The Holy One will lie in a grave, but not see decay (Psalm 16:10-11). He will rise as Lord with the enemy of death under his feet! (Psalm 110:1) Lo and behold! Wicked men crucify Jesus, friends bury him, he rises and steps into eternal glory! God has always done as promised. In that same Word God makes clear: You are the people Jesus scrubbed and washed and cleaned. You are the people that Jesus stands before the Father. You are the people God calls ‘saints.’ Yes, I know, so much in this world tries to convince us that we are unlovable, that God does not (and cannot) love us, that we can never be sure of entering heaven. The truth is, it does not matter what you feel! God gives his Word so that we may point to it and say, ‘My Savior paid the debt I owe and for me was smitten; Within the Book of Life I know, my name has now been written!’
The Lord chose you and reached his goal using the Word. The Holy Spirit has changed your eternity from death into life. God does not keep this a secret. God tells you now so that you live at ease and joy. Stand Firm in Your Calling as Saints. You can, because The Lord strengthens you through the Word.
Yes, the same Word God used to create faith is the same Word that protects faith. You live in a world where not everyone has faith. That means you will hear things about death that might frighten you. You will hear things about death that do not line up with what God teaches. Sometimes people’s thoughts sound reasonable, they might sound good, but they are not true. The Sadducees claimed no resurrection, that dead remains dead— in the ground, buried, forever (Luke 20:27-38). I worked with a lady who knew I was a Christian. One day (for some reason) she had to tell me: ‘There is no life after death. You die, get buried, and become dust, ashes, and energy. That’s it.’ A family member of mine called ‘grandma’ an angel. That sounds lovely— floating on clouds in brilliant white light strumming a harp. As beautiful as the image is, it’s not true. You and I, grandma, do not become angels in heaven; the Bible does not teach that. Just last week, someone told me that heaven is whatever makes you happy. [In his words]: ‘If sitting at McDonald’s makes you happy, then that is your heaven.’ What’s the point of saying this? Not to criticize, not to sound superior. The point is this: Not all have faith. Some think death is permanent. Others make up strange stories. We may not know what to believe and that can trouble us. When we do not rely on what God reveals, we lose comfort. We get scared. We do not stand firm.
But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. The Bible tells you the truth about life and death. Since God tells you the straight truth, it strengthens you. You can be sure that you have the right information!
In the Bible, God gives you a glimpse of reality. Your Christian spouse who died from cancer is in heaven. How do you know? Because Jesus said, ‘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). Your elderly, now-deceased Christian friend is in heaven— perfectly well, perfectly healthy. How do you know? Because, Jesus Christ, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Glorious— meaning, not getting older, getting achier, going to the hospital again, and dying. Glorious means without disease, without age, without defect. That’s the body our powerful Jesus gives every believer. Grandma sings in heaven— but not as an angel. How do you know? Well, Jesus says ‘We are like the angels’— but do not transform into angels (Luke 20:35-36). In fact, God says angels are ministering spirits sent to serve you (Hebrews 1:14). Angels are heaven’s butlers and you will have a higher rank in heaven! You are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple… and the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [your] Shepherd, he will lead [you] to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes” (Revelation 7:14-17). God steers your heart into confidence with his Word. You can Stand Firm in Your Calling as Saints because The Lord strengthens you through the Word.
The airline pilots had to rely on a word. Thick fog blocked out all sight of this runway. The plane raced down. Yet, the plane’s instruments identified the goal and steered the plane towards its goal. Word kept the pilots on track.
God’s Word keeps you (and me) on track. Talk about life and death, heaven and hell, resurrection and paradise seems so unknown. Many have opinions, but God reveals truth. God reveals truth for your comfort. The One who created heaven, descended from heaven, and re-ascended into heaven clearly tells you that he chose you through the Word. Do you grasp what God has done? He changed your future forever. He did the work. He saved you. The purpose for telling you this is to put you at ease. With that same Word, God steers our hearts and minds towards our heavenly goal. He removes fear with forgiveness. He removes doubt with truth. He answer questions by telling you what to expect. The Lord strengthens you through the Word.
Friends, when thoughts of death trouble you, look to the Word. Find peace here. Look forward with joy to the best that is to come. Stand Firm in Your Calling as Saints.