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.
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.
There is probably no greater blessing/curse than the forward facing camera on a smartphone. Yes, this tiny invention paved the way for the “selfie.” (Now, to have a common definition, a ‘selfie’ is a ‘self-photograph,’ a picture you take of yourself.) You can include yourself in a picture of friends. You can show an outfit instead of describing what you wore. You can insert yourself in front of mountains and monuments without having to find someone to take your picture. Selfies unlock opportunities for uniquely different memories.
… But then you have that disturbing news report from a few years ago… A surveillance camera in downtown Pittsburgh captured a woman assaulted and left unconscious. The attack happened in public; witnesses instantly swarm this victim— but things got strange from there. A group whips out their phones, but they do not dial 911. They stand there and record videos. One man even marches right up to this woman, kneels down, and records a close up. Then, another guy lies down right next to her and takes a selfie! No one helps! Not a single person calls 911! This woman lies motionless until she regains consciousness. (https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2017/10/26/get-marty-beechview-woman-knocked-out-video/)
How terrible! Maybe more terrifying is the gnawing, never-satisfied hunger for more attention. The human heart indulges in such selfish attention-seeking just to puff up pride. God dismantles even our selfish, self-centered cravings with one simple question: What More Do You Need?
Just think about that. What has God done for you? These closing chapters of Hebrews string together this unbroken, flowing truth: Jesus Christ is all you need! Only Jesus completely cancelled out God’s anger over what you (and I) have done wrong. Because of Jesus, you now stand before the Judge of all things without fear. You have the assurance of eternal life in heaven! You have the assurance that God hears you, cares for you, provides for you! From that point of view, you must admit: There is really nothing more you need. It does not matter how many ‘likes’ your Facebook post gets or how many friends you have. It does not matter how much money you make. It does not matter your job title— if you are the mayor or a manager or general labor. None of that matters because the only thing you can take out of this life is trust in Jesus as Savior. What More Do You Need? Only Jesus provides real value.
Lose sight of that and then you begin sinking into the world’s standard of value. A standard continuously snatching for more attention, more praise, more respect. Care for your brother? Only when convenient! Only when people can see you and praise your leadership and praise your talents. Only when you gain a sense of feeling good after giving to charity or sacrificing time. Only when your Christian friend is nice to you first. How selfish! To serve only when your ego stands to benefit! Be hospitable? Warm and friendly? That means caring for each other just as you care for your family. That means giving up time talking with friends and welcoming someone (in church) who looks lost and unsure. That means paying attention to the physical limitations of that elderly lady. That takes effort! That takes time! You are too busy! You have to focus on yourself! Hospitality sounds pretty inconvenient. Our selfish hearts can even label God’s commandments ‘Inconvenient.’ Honor marriage? That command does not satisfy pleasures; it does not make you feel happy. In fact, that command makes you stand out, and then people call you names and that does not feel great. So, you lay aside God’s unbreakable command for the sake ego. For the sake of pride. For the sake of convenience. That’s dangerous.
A selfish heart thinks it has the right to strut up to the King of the Universe and explain how you will live and then expects God to accept it. That is a form of insubordination! That is a form of rebellion against God— and God will not put up with it. Those who think so highly of themselves and live convinced that God must accept your pride, will be forever humbled.
Really, What More Do You Need? Right in the middle of our reading God zeroes in on the one thing needed. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… Yes, God specifically addresses greed, but he teaches something broader: Contentment. Contentment with your finances. Contentment with your status. Contentment with your time, your achievements, your relationships, your identity as God’s child. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… Why? because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.
God cannot stress that promise enough. (Remember, the New Testament is written in Greek. The Greek translation uses five negatives in one sentence. Our English language does not do that!) God literally says: ‘I will never ever desert you [it is impossible to do so], nor will I ever forsake you [it is impossible to do that].’ Jesus will never leave you in eternal shame; it is impossible. For proof of that just look at the cross.
You (and I) stand empty-handed before God, holding nothing that he wants. Yet, Jesus purges pride and fills your (and my) empty heart with his undivided love and loyalty to God. This is what Jesus accomplished for you (and me). The cross has forever linked him to you. What More Do You Need? Really, if you have Jesus, What More Do You Need? Because Only Jesus provides real value.
That changes perspective. We can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Humanity can do nothing! Yes, your paycheck might be short some dollars, but that’s alright! Your bank account means nothing in the grand scheme of eternity! Yes, your sister’s drama might never stop, but that’s alright! Getting the last word, looking smug means nothing in the grand scheme of eternity! Yes, the world might look at you weird for saying, “Wait until marriage,” but that’s alright! Your god is not popularity, opinions mean nothing in the grand scheme of eternity! Humanity cannot forever shame you because Jesus has forever exalted you!
Jesus laid aside attention, praise, and respect in order to make you eternally rich! That means you, as someone connected to God, are not out gaining more attention, praise, and respect. You already have it all! It means you live opposite the world: giving attention, praise, and respect.
Stop for a moment and consider those who gave. Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you… Think how your Sunday School teacher gave up Saturday night preparing Bible lessons and gave up her Sunday morning in order to bring Jesus to you. Consider the Pastor who wanted to teach you God’s love even though you, as a teenager, maybe did not want to listen— and still he patiently taught! Recall that kind grandmotherly-lady who could have huddled with friends her age, but instead went out of the way to talk to you. Remember that Christian friend who addressed your sinful living. He risked friendship; he did not seek pride. He wanted to keep you close to God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Remember those who gave so that you have! Consider that you may be the Sunday School teacher with an already-busy-schedule. You might be that teenager who really does not want to be in catechism class. You might be that grandparently-person. Just as your leaders laid aside ego in order to touch you with God’s love, you may now be those leaders to benefit others!
Continue keeping in center focus the love Christ has for you, the love which moved others to love you. Only Jesus stimulates willing service.
A willing service like loving each other as brothers… That is what you are: brothers and sisters. God looks past your family tree and points at the one thing we all have in common: faith in Jesus as Savior. Since you are connected to Christ …and you are connected to Christ …and you are (and so on…) Keep on loving each other as brothers. Maybe you get called names when you approach a child about returning to worship. Maybe no one praises you for a generous offering or hours of volunteering. Maybe your abilities are not needed at this moment. That’s fine! Your motivation for service is not about what you can gain. Jesus, who gave you his all, motivates you to give all.
Do not forget to entertain strangers… People move often— away from classmates, away from familiar communities, away from family support. That means, a group of believers quickly becomes a family. Even though you belong to this ‘family’ now, be willing to include more. Lean over and ask the person next to you how the week went. Welcome a new face. Ask where he lives; that always creates discussion. Simply acknowledging presence makes a person feel welcome.
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners… because prisoners are out of sight— and can fall out of mind. Pray for those in prison, pray they may know Jesus, the One who freed them from the shackles of hell. Yet, pray also for Christians around the world, those who have done no wrong, but languish in prison simply because they worship Christ. Pray that God sends people to comfort them. Pray that God uses government to free them. Pray that God strengthens their resolve to rely on him more.
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure… Yes, today’s society considers marriage something ‘good’ and ‘harmful,’ something ‘beneficial’ and ‘not needed.’ Yet, God created marriage to be a blessing, something that fills you with satisfaction, commitment, and companionship. If those you do not see those blessings, it does not come through any fault of God. (So do not blame him!) Instead, those tensions come from proud hearts refusing to love the other. Have the awkward conversations; point your children, siblings, friends to the joys God gives in marriage. Aim to serve them spiritually, leading them out from under God’s wrath.
Dear friends, What More Do You Need? If you already have faith, then you already have life’s real treasure! You have no greater status to grab after. Instead, you realize you have much to give. Jesus stimulates willing service.
That will stand out in the world. It appears so many live infatuated with themselves. Taking selfies for more attention. Fixating on popularity. Reaching for more social standing. The human heart indulges in such selfish attention-seeking just to puff up pride— a pride that considers you ‘God.’
God dismantles selfish, self-centered cravings with one simple question: What More Do You Need? Really. Only Jesus provides real value— and fills you with a treasure that lasts forever. You already have everything needed. Because you do, Jesus stimulates us for willing service.
To prevent a boat from drifting, you must fasten it to a sturdy object. For starters, you need rope. Tie one end of the rope to the boat and the other end to a sturdy object. You could tie the rope to tree, to the end of your dock, to a volleyball post on the beach— to anything that does not move. You even could tie the end of that rope to an anchor or a cinderblock and drop it into the water and the boat will stay in place. Toss that weight onto shore and your boat will remain still. So, to prevent a boat from drifting, you must fasten it to a sturdy object.
(I’m sorry if I insulted your intelligence), but that simple truth makes a significant point: reliable objects prevent aimless drifting. If you do not have that sturdy object, if you do not have rope, you will drift. It remains vitally important to have both sturdy object and rope.
This morning, rediscover the splendid truth that God has provided both anchor and connection. When fear grips you and confusion blurs the future, when frightened and nervous, God’s Sure Word Bolsters Faith. It recalls what God has done. It points to what God will do.
That’s usually what we look for when it comes to trusting someone: we listen to words and we look for actions. When another person does as promised, we understand that person is serious about his intentions and cares for our personal welfare. For example, I may promise to arrive at your house on Tuesday at 11:00am. If I arrive at your house Tuesday at 11:00am, you know: (1) my words carry serious intentions and (2) I care about you personally— your schedule, your emotions, and your needs. Now, if I arrive at your house Friday at 7:00am, you know: (1) my actions never intended to match my words and (2) I do not care about what errands you have on Friday or that my tardiness angered you or that you have concerns that need addressing. You may find it difficult trusting me. You cannot rely that what I said is truthful and you will not shape your expectations around my intentions. We tend to build trust when actions match words. We tend to place trust in someone when actions match words.
God had already made some fantastic promises to Abram. For example, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you… I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (12:1-2). That means, Abram would have to leave the safety-net of family assistance and the bonds of neighborly-friendship. He must trek hundreds of miles across a desolate wasteland to a land he has never seen before, a land he has no connection to, a land that may (or may not) produce good food. That’s a big promise.
Still, Abram goes. Why? Because he considers God’s Words as good as done. Even though he does not see the future, he leaves. At the end of his travels, he settles in good, livable land— just as God said he would. Not just that, the surrounding nations respect Abram. An Egyptian Pharaoh treats Abram as a household guest. Foreigners gladly sell Abram land. Now, remember: (1) We tend to build trust when actions match words and (2) we tend to place trust in someone when actions match words. (1) God gifts Abram a land unseen and (2) God ensures a healthy respect for Abram. God’s Word matched his actions. You realize: God’s Sure Word Bolsters Faith because it recalls what God has done.
So, you can almost see Abram’s excitement when God makes another promise: “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7). Abram has no child, but now he receives a guarantee. He can pass down his land, his riches, his reputation to this one child. So, he waits… and waits… and waits some more. He waits Ten. Years. Abram is now 85-years-old. His wife, Sarai, is 75-years-old. Yes, ten years earlier it would have been difficult to have a child, but still somewhat possible— but now, at this age, it borders on the impossible. Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Can you hear the desperation? The panicky fear? The complete loss of control? What changed? The boat is not fastened to a sturdy object.
Abram completely ignores God’s past powerful actions. He forgets the land, the respect, the safety. Now he relies on his (very) limited abilities. So, fear creeps in— fear creeps in because you confront your own limitations. You tremble at the cancer diagnosis because deep down inside you know that you cannot wish the disease away. You cannot add more days to your life. You have little control over the state of your health. God commands us to remain faithful to his Word, to neither add teachings nor change teachings, to continue clinging to what has been taught for centuries. You do that, but then you get nervous because you do what God says, but see no results. You wonder how long your church will exist. If you will always worship here, if your children and their children will be here. Really, you get nervous because you cannot change a heart. You worry about the future for your children because you want to fix everything wrong in the world with your two hands—but you cannot; you simply do not have that control.
Do you see? The reason Abram trembles, the reason we tremble is because we put this incredible pressure to manage life on ourselves. We are treating ourselves as God! Quite frankly, we consider ourselves more trustworthy, more reliable than God! What does a statement like that say about the (1) serious intentions behind God’s Words and (2) God’s care for us? It says that (1) God is a liar— he cannot keep his Word, he lacks the power to do what he says— and (2) God does not care for our welfare. He builds our hopes just to crush them.
For just a moment, lay aside that self-reliance and look once more at verse 1. Identify what God uses to strengthen Abram’s faith. After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great. First, ‘after what things?’ Well, read chapter 14 and you find four aggressive kings sweep over Abram’s neighbors. They kidnap Abram’s nephew, Lot, and steal all his possessions. Abram gathers 318-fighting-men and liberates these captives. That’s a big risk; Abram could have died. After that battle-‘thing,’ God says: Fear not, Abram, I am your shield. ‘Abram, just like a big battle shield I protected you. I gave you victory. I kept you safe and brought you home. If I did that, I will not hurt you now.’ Fear not, Abram… your reward shall be very great. ‘Abram, I am with you. That is far more valuable than your millions of dollars of assets, your small mercenary-group, and your status. The almighty God of the universe is on your side!’ God points back to all the things he had done, all his promises— and he kept them all!
God’s Sure Word Bolsters Faith. It recalls what God has done. You realize God is (1) serious about his intentions and (2) he cares for your welfare. Past actions prove that. God’s Sure Word continues Bolstering Faith. That Word points to what God will do.
Do you see how God handles Abram’s great fear? Abram finishes speaking and behold, the word of the Lord came to him. What does God give Abram? He does not put a baby in his arms. He does not unroll a timeline of future events. God gives Abram his Word. Specifically, ‘[Abram,] This man [Eliezer] shall not be your heir… God makes it clear: ‘Abram, your inheritance-plan is not my plan.’ He addresses Abram’s concern, identifies it, brings it to light, and ends it. [Y]our very own son shall be your heir. Yes, Abram is old; Sarai is old, but this child will hold the biology of both. God does not explain how this will happen, and he does not need to. Explaining how is not the purpose for his speaking. God simply tells Abram what he will do. Just like he protected Abram, just like he poured out riches, just like he brought Abram to his new land, God (at the right time) would give an heir.
Dear friends, God kept that promise. Fifteen years after this conversation, at 100-years old, Abram has a son named Isaac. (1) Abram had an heir! Then, Isaac had a son named Jacob. Jacob had a son named Judah. Judah had a son. That son had a son, and that son a son. (2) Abram became a father of many nations! In fact, the family tree branched out to include a man named Joseph, who had a son named Jesus. (3) Jesus came!
God keeps his promises! That includes his hatred for our self-reliance. For us questioning if God keeps his Word, God crushes Jesus— because he is serious about punishing the arrogant. For us challenging if God cares for our wellbeing, God abandons Jesus— demonstrating that he cares for you so much that Jesus will be cut off from the love of God instead of you. Jesus wipes clean our self-reliant hearts, leaving only hearts that please God.
And now, God sees you as a star in the sky. [God] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” God’s not talking about family tree only. The Bible calls believers the descendants of Abram (Romans 4:18). Yes, you (and I) may not be Jews, we may not be able to trace our family tree back to Abram, but that’s alright. We share the same faith. Abram believed the Lord… He believed that God would send Jesus into the world and that Jesus would wipe away his faithless doubting. Abram considered God’s Word as good as done. [A]nd [God] credited it to him as righteousness. God called him ‘saved.’ You (and I) did not see Jesus die on the cross, but we take God at his Word. Jesus removed our guilt, and because of that, you (and I) have been declared ‘right’ in God’s sight.
Recall what God has done. Ponder these magnificent promises and consider how God has kept each one. Is there any question behind God’s intentions? When we look back over all that God has done, we realize his seriousness in doing as promised—and that removes fear for the future. God’s Word points ahead not to a wish—but points to what he will do.
That keeps us from aimlessly drifting through life’s many challenges. God, your sturdy object remains connected to you with his Word. When fear grips you and confusion blurs the future, when frightened and nervous, God’s Sure Word Bolsters Faith. It recalls what God has done. It points to what God will do.
You can detect a rip-current by spotting four characteristics. (1) Look for deep, dark-colored water at the shoreline. (2) Watch the waves roll in, but keep alert for areas with few waves— especially areas where the waves do not break. (3) Search for patches of water with a rippled surface, surrounded by smooth water. (4) Pay attention to sticks and leaves or foam washing out to sea. Four characteristics for detecting a rip-current— and that’s beneficial to know whether you head off to the ocean on spring break or dip your toes in one of the Great Lakes. Rip-currents can pull water out to sea at 8-feet-per-second. Ankle-deep water, moving fast enough, can sweep you off your feet and drag you hundreds of yards out into deep water. Rip-currents are powerful. Rip-currents are deceptive. Rip-currents are deadly.
So, no wonder Paul says: Keep Walking in Christ! Pay attention to what you take in spiritually. Opinions, advice, and behavior from so many around you leave an impact. Yet, Beware of deceptive philosophies. Expose and stay away from of destructive teachings. Rise anew in the results of baptism.
That is God’s passionate plea. Keep Walking in Christ because God joined you to Christ. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds… But now he has reconciled you (Colossians 1:21-22). You (and I) entered life as sworn enemies of God— but that has all changed! God reconciled you (and me). He fumed against Jesus, but turns to us in peace! Today you stand on God’s side, on the side of people loved by God. Colossians 2:6 highlights that key point: Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord… as you stand on the side of Jesus …walk in him[.]
To be clear, that word ‘walk’ means: “To behave/conduct yourself in a certain manner.” As someone God reconciled and as someone who loves God, evaluate your behavior— and this is how. Keep Walking in Christ …rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Understand, faith remains something constant. You either believe Jesus impacted your life or you do not; there is no middle ground or some partial-faith. Here, God points to your baptism and says: “Baptism attached you to Jesus’ payment for sin.” God points to the Word and says: “The Bible planted you into the conviction that Jesus is your Savior.” God’s Word, together with baptism, created faith.
Since this is where you stand, build. As a seedling, grow into a mighty tree. Or, like a tiny house set on a firm foundation, add addition after addition. Keep learning and rereading the miracles of Jesus you learned in Sunday School. Then add Bible teachings to those Bible accounts as you study in Catechism class. Then add more teachings, more understanding, more knowledge in Bible Class, in devotion time, in Bible reading. As you do, your trust in God grows, a desire to pray flourishes, trust in God’s power expands, and appreciation for God’s infinite love thrives. You grow closer to God from the firm foundation on which you already stand! So, Keep Walking in Christ.
Keep growing— not only by feeding faith, but also by protecting faith. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Rip-currents are deceptive, powerful, and deadly. In the same way, what appears so acceptable and innocent in society can be spiritually devastating. In fact, this ‘philosophy’ is so common that you watch it on television commercials, in grocery stores, in your conversations— and you may never notice it. Start your favorite television show, and how many characters are sleeping together, living together, having one-night stands? God makes clear: “Honor the marriage bed for God will judge the adulterer and sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4). The world’s philosophy claims a right to use your body and shape your relationships however you want. With whom do you walk? The world which lives apart from God? Or, does love for God compel you to aim for marriage? FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC drum up a belief that you need the right President, the right Senate, the right Congress, and the right people who do the right things in order to save humanity. Worldly philosophy fears that America will teeter on the verge of collapse and the entire world will implode. Yet, your God says: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:8-9). With whom do you walk? Do you live in constant fear because you set all your trust in worldly princes? Or, do you rely on God to be your help in both good and bad? Even churches in your area can become like this Colossian church. The pastor promotes himself to be the real guy to follow—the guy who will make the Bible more ‘relevant’ and promise life-changing challenges and unlock new meaning and new potential in life. The world in which we live is saturated with manmade philosophy and empty deceit. All these ways of life promise something of substance— a stronger faith or a tighter relationship or a closer walk with God, but they cannot deliver the promise! They promise much, but deliver nothing. All godless advice fails to provide real satisfaction because that advice does not come from God!
Dear friends, if the Bible speaks against your behavior, then listen! Recognize drifting from Christ. If you have to say, “I know God’s teachings on marriage, but it’s not convenient now,” then human philosophy is seizing you. If you think, “Well, only people can keep the world spinning,” then human philosophy is seizing you. If you muse, “Does baptism really matter?” then you are being deceived. That deceptive philosophy will seize you and rip you further and further away from Scripture to the point where your life no longer conforms to God’s teaching. And you will find yourself drifting without Christ. Just like a sneaky rip-current, that sneaky teaching will destroy you.
Keep Walking in Christ! Beware of deceptive philosophies. Recognize the spiritual danger. See such empty ideas as the garbage they are. Keep Walking in Christ as you Rise anew in the results of baptism.
The God who reconciled you has provided all you need for life and has handed real life to you. Listen to verses 9 and 10: For in him [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. God provides real satisfaction in relationships. He provides real trust for the future. He provides all you need in Scripture because God gives you Jesus.
See Jesus and you see true God and true man (at the same time)! As man, Jesus taught the Jews that no additional knowledge or rules are needed for heaven. Jesus, as true God, is enough to open heaven. As man, he lifted up worried eyes and said, “Trust in me.” As true God, Jesus has authority over wind and wave, over riots, over disease, over death. As man, Jesus sat with women who slept around and forgave them. As true God, he points back to Scripture and teaches a marriage God created at the beginning of the world. Your Jesus keeps you close.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ… Just like circumcision removes flesh, God removed flesh from you, but not physical flesh. Jesus removed the sinful desires of the heart. That did not happen in an operating room; we do perform strange procedures in the lower level of the church. This all occurred at one moment, at one place, at one font. [You] hav[e] been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. At your baptism, God peeled off that old sinful self and he pulled you out of those waters spiritually alive. God has created in you a new desire— a desire that wants to shape life around the Word. Just as Jesus was buried, but rose again alive—never again to die, you also were buried under water, but rose again alive—never again to die.
Baptism has brought you into a different side. It has yanked you out of empty deception and hollow philosophies. [Y]ou, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Your baptism worked tremendous results. Satan cannot accuse the you of earning hell. Temptation cannot convince the you to follow it. The sinful nature cannot persuade you wallow in filth. You belong to the side of God.
Since this is what you are today, this moment, realize that you will stand out as different. Innocent-looking philosophies will always remain a part of our world. Each one will snatch at you in the hopes of taking you captive. Peer pressure to conform to an unbelieving world will squeeze you. Yet, stand firm. Resist. Do not budge. Do not conform. Remember who are and rise anew in the results of baptism.
If you find yourself entangled in a worldly philosophy, turn to the Word. Let God’s Word, his commands and his instructions, work in you the desire and ability to correct what is wrong. Let your love for Christ aim for God-pleasing marriage. Let your trust in Christ fuel an increased trust in him and increased prayer for world leaders. Let your love for Christ work in you contentment to set your heart on the same Word of God. Remember who are and rise anew in the results of baptism. Keep Walking in Christ. rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
(1) Deep, dark-colored water at the shoreline. (2) Waves that do not break. (3) Patches of water with a rippled surface, surrounded by smooth water. (4) Sticks and leaves or foam washing out to sea. Four characteristics for detecting a rip-current— and that’s good to keep in mind. Rip-currents are powerful. Rip-currents are deceptive. Rip-currents are deadly.
So, no wonder Paul says: Keep Walking in Christ! Pay attention to what you take in spiritually. Opinions, advice, and behavior from so many around you leave an impact. So, Beware of deceptive philosophies. Expose and stay away from of destructive teachings. Stay away—because you are different. Because Christ has canceled your debt, peeled away ungodliness, and has forgiven all our trespasses. Rise anew in those results of baptism. Do so, as you Keep Walking in Christ!
Every Memorial Day weekend, I drive out to Elm Creek, buy seedlings, and plant my garden. And every year the garden thrives. Vines stretch out. Plants grow thick and lush. I collect half-a-dozen cucumbers each day and pick cherry tomatoes and beans by the bucket full. This year was not like every other year.
A few days after putting the seedlings into the ground, the leaves turned yellow— like Post-It-Note yellow. But, the plants did not wilt; they did not shrivel up or die, they just stayed yellow— which was also strange. These yellow seedlings never grew; they never pushed out new branches and vines and leaves. For three weeks, I saw small rows of miniature yellow tomato, cucumber, and bean plants.
Now, usually yellow leaves signal something wrong with growing conditions. The soil could be too acidic. The plants may not be receiving enough sunlight. Overwatering and severed roots can stunt plant growth. If you boil all the symptoms down, the causes for poor growth come from poor soil. Plants need good soil to live, grow, and produce fruit.
For you to grow, thrive, and flourish in Christian living, you need good soil. You need a reliable source of comfort when feeling crushed. You need clear answers when confused. You need ever-constant strength when feeling exhausted. Where are you looking for direction?
Better yet, does your source produce good results? Drink deeply from this truth: Gospel-Fed Hearts Grow. God has transplanted you into light. His Word grows knowledge. His Word produces fruitful living.
The congregation in Colossae needed this reminder. (Now, Colossae sits in the southwest corner of present-day Turkey. So, picture Phoenix lying a little bit off the southwest American border.) An evangelist named ‘Epaphras’ preached and the Holy Spirit planted faith in each listener.
Yet, this young congregation gets sick very quickly. They feed on a strange mixture of Jewish and Pagan teachings. Jewish— like: forbidding the eating of certain meats, making Old Testament religious ceremonies mandatory, and creating rules in order to win God’s favor. Then pagan— like: worshipping angels (who are God’s servants [Hebrews 1:14; Revelation 19:10]) and creating strange ideas of who God is, what he does, and how he lives. Those false beliefs poison souls. It seizes attention away from the clear answers God wrote down in the Bible and sets personal beliefs on human opinion.
Epaphras and Paul see stunted, shriveling faith, and grow terribly concerned. So, they start right at the roots. After all, when my plants turned yellow, I did not treat the leaves; I started with what caused the leaves to turn yellow. I started with the soil. In the same way, when we drink in guidance for life, we need to make sure that this guidance comes from a healthy source. We want to remain spiritually healthy. Verses 13-14 say: [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. We all entered this world rooted in this stinking soil, this domain of darkness. We were not just yellowed sick, we were spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-3). That is how we started life. Enemies of God (Romans 8:7). Not going to heaven (Isaiah 53:5). Unable to do anything to change that dreadful status.
Yet, God did something: he ‘transferred us.’ With the pure life of Jesus in hand, he scooped you out of hell. He washed away the moral filth that soaks our minds. He clipped away our shameful regrets. He healed us from the disease called ‘sin’— a disease that would kill us. He transferred us into his kingdom. We have been moved from the column: ‘Enemy to be destroyed by God’ to ‘Child Loved by God.’
God’s Word, the Bible, tells you this comforting truth. That is the ‘gospel,’ the ‘good-news’ that Jesus rescued you. That ‘good news’ enters your heart individually. Because the Word of God has the power to change hearts (Romans 1:16). That Word, which was spoken at your baptism, has transplanted you into light.
Paul takes us right to the soil. He reminds you that (1) God has bought you and (2) transplanted you so that you may draw strength from God and his Word. When it comes to guidance and strength for life, look down and see where you stand planted. God has transplanted you into light. Rooted in good soil comes good growth.
My plants— well, the leaves remained yellow for several weeks. So, I treated the soil. I carefully dug up each seedling, filled the hole with black dirt, mixed in a little lime, and replanted each plant. A few days later those little plants began improving. Leaves changed from yellow to green and new growth appeared. When you have good soil, you have good growth.
You (and I), planted into faith, grow. Paul continues in verse 9: [We] ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… So, you, as a Christian, are planted in Christ, but you do not remain stagnant. You grow spiritually. You grow by learning God’s ‘will’— and that ‘will’ (God’s desires) are only found in the Bible. This is why your congregation presents and emphasizes opportunities to be in God’s Word. To be in Bible Class. To be in Sunday School. To be in Catechism class. To have personal, daily devotions. These are all opportunities to see God’s demands, hear God’s forgiveness, memorize promises of rescue, and find God-pleasing answers.
Maybe right now, your mind is already fabricating excuses as to why you just cannot possibly be in the Word like that. I mean, we still battle a sinful nature. A sinful nature that thinks it can handle every problem in life. A sinful nature that does not want to rely on the Bible verses memorized in Sunday School and in Catechism class. A sinful nature that defends its ungodly decisions. A sinful nature that only seeks its own interests. We may create every excuse as to why it’s impossible to grow in our knowledge of God, but we only hurt ourselves. The devil loves the excuses you (and I) make because they separate us God’s Word— the only weapon we have against temptation. The further we stay from the Word, the further we can drift from God!
That is why Paul prays: [We] ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding… The more you read your Bible, the more you learn— and not just that, but the more you remember about who God is and what God does. The information gained from the Bible allows you to apply it to the many different situations of life.
This is where you find guidance. You know: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). Apply that truth when frightened about death. Can you really know that you will be in heaven? Yes. Because God used baptism to save you (1 Peter 3:21). You know that God is with you to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Apply that truth when at a loss for answers. You do not know the future. You might worry the future will be bad, not pleasant. Yet, God has heaven in store for you. God uses even unpleasant things to increase your reliance on him.
You also use your knowledge to determine what is false and what is true. Someone might tell you: God will not give you more than you can bear. You would know that this is not entirely accurate. The Bible says: God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear and that when pressed down, his Word gives you strength not to fall into sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). A friend might say: I don’t need to be in a church to be a Christian. While that sounds a little true, you also know the Bible says: Let us not give up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). The more you spend in your Bible, the more you know. The more you know, the more you apply. That is how you grow.
A Gospel-Fed Heart Grows. God has transplanted you into light; he provides good soil. As a follower of Christ, you will grow in Christian living; His Word grows knowledge.
Right now my garden is growing. The soil is balanced. Plants draw nutrients from that soil. Yet, something else happens: those plants produce fruit— good, beneficial, pleasing fruit.
Paul points to the fruits that come from putting God’s Word into practice. Verses 3-5 say: We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. God loves the Colossians. He loves them so much that he still keeps the Word in their life. He uses the Word to correct their false beliefs. He does not hold their wrongs against them, but he cleanses them. He keeps them planted in this soil of faith. He keeps feeding them with his Word. That love has an effect: loved much, they love much.
Paul notes that in verses 5-6: Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing— as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth… The Word produces ‘fruits of faith.’ ‘Fruits of faith’ are the results that come from putting God’s Word into practice.
See what fruits it produces in you. God encourages us: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’ (Hebrews 13:5). We see that God has given house and home, possessions and vehicles, money saved and money spent— and does this all without our constant asking. The Word sinks in; the fruit of contentment grows.
God teaches: If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). If we come through surgery, we thank God for another day. If we do not make it through surgery, we thank God for heaven. We will not leave this life a day sooner or a day later than God already knows. So, the Word sinks in; the fruit of trust grows.
God instructs: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:22, 25). Husbands put the needs of your wife ahead of your own, just like Christ put your life ahead of his and died for you. Wives, listen to your husbands, just like you know God loves you and wants only the best. The Word sinks in; the fruit of stronger relationships grow.
Gospel-Fed Hearts Grow. God’s Word does something; God’s Word produces fruitful living.
For you to grow, thrive, and flourish in Christian living, you need good soil. You need a reliable source of comfort when feeling crushed. You need clear answers when confused. You need ever-constant strength when feeling exhausted. Where are you looking for direction? Drink deeply from this truth: Gospel-Fed Hearts Grow. Turn here. God has transplanted you into light. His Word grows knowledge. His Word produces fruitful living.
“We’re thankful you are here. After all, we are not that big. We used to be, but many are now gone. There’s not always many on Sunday morning. Someone young like you probably wants more activities. I’m sure one day you’ll be promoted into a larger church.” Those words have hit my ears probably half-a-dozen times each year for the past several years. (And I’m sure I will hear them again.) In those words you find genuine appreciation. Words aware of the past. Words dotted with fear. Why the fear?
You see, when we evaluate ‘church,’ we can find ourselves focusing on nonessential features. That happens when we carry a faulty definition of ‘church.’ So, let’s ask: Is Your Definition of ‘Church’ Right? In Isaiah’s prophecy God highlights two key features to find in this place. (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides and (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
In order to find these features, we must first define [the word]: ‘church.’ The Bible defines that one little word in two very different ways. You discover both definitions here.
The first definition is what we typically call ‘church-spelled-with-a little-‘c’ (or, the [little-‘c’]hurch). The ‘[little-‘c’]hurch are the churchy items your eyes see. You see a building, an altar, and pews— furnishings associated with a church. You see individual people inside. You see a group of people, also known as a congregation. You see a pastor, Bibles, a message. Your eyes see a religious organization serving people. That’s the [little-‘c’]hurch, the visible church.
Isaiah sees that too. He sees Solomon’s magnificent temple. Glistening white columns tower overhead. Imposing bronze altars consume sacrifices. Smoky incense wafts into the heavens. Isaiah sees people stream into the temple courtyard with animal-sacrifice in hand. He sees priests reading from the books of Moses [the first five of the Bible]. Isaiah sees what you (and I) see: a [little-‘c’]hurch, a visible church.
God is not happy with this sight. Yes, masses stream to the temple—but they arrive for all the wrong reasons. Some come out of empty-minded habit. They stand in the courtyard, the priest reads Scripture, and they stare out the window, daydreaming about the house projects to do after the sacrifice. Others? Well, on the way out the door, they grab the first animal they see, drag it along so that they do not stand empty-handed when it is their turn to give their gift. Still others treat the temple like a good-luck charm. That God must protect Israel because he depends on the existence of this temple. Here stands a [little-‘c’], visible church, but what goes on inside is not good. God is not interested with simple, outward actions. God desires sincere inner motives. So he says: I will choose harsh treatment for them… For when I called, no one answered, when I spoke, no one listened (Isaiah 66:4). God makes it abundantly clear: the temple exists for God to come to Israel, not Israel coming to God.
Do you catch that? The existence of this [little-‘c’], visible church is not what you do for God. It is not about what you want found here. The [little-‘c’], visible church exists for God to come to you.
Still, inside each of us lies this little ego that seizes the opportunity to make church suit me. I just want everyone to see me step foot into a church. Then I look pretty moral, pretty respectable, pretty trustworthy before my community. I gain pride by being here. I want this place jammed-packed so that I look like I am part of some large movement. Then I feel popular, well-liked, well-respected. I come here Sunday mornings because this is my routine. This is my habit. I might forget every hymn by the end of the day. I cannot remember a lick of what the Pastor taught. But I can point to my church attendance; I can feel good that I do my part. Yes, that ego is even the reason we feel sad inside when what is seen does not match expectations. I want a certain-looking church so that my selfish wish-list is satisfied. At its very core I am ordering God to meet my wants, when the purpose for church is me receiving from God.
So, listen again to verses 10-11: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” You realize that God does not describe the [little-‘c’], visible church here. No. God is using another definition for ‘church.’ This ‘Jerusalem’ is not describing a city on a map. Rather, it pictures every believer gathering in one family of faith (Galatians 4:21-31). We call this the capital, [big-‘C’]hurch. The [big-‘C’]hurch is seen with eyes. The [big-‘C’]hurch is faith.
God uses this [little-‘c’], visible church in order to bring you into his [big-‘C’]hurch. After all, here you receive from God. Just like an infant receives rich nutrients from his mother so that he may grow and remain healthy, you receive God’s Word meant to make you spiritually alive, strong, and healthy.
Sometimes you receive words meant to cut you (and me) down. Words that strip away self-righteous pride: I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine (Psalm 50:9-10). Words that inscribe what God demands from us: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21) because God wants the heart (Psalm 51:17). Yes, you receive words meant to strip away pride. Because when pride is gone, you can see Jesus here.
You can see Jesus come to you and assure you that he has wiped away the demands you made of him. That he has washed you in the waters of baptism. That he has clothed you with his innocent life. That he has set you on the lap of his Father and that the Father cradles you as his adopted child.
That is the right definition of ‘church.’ Here, in this visible building, God comes to you individually so that you can (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides. That you receive spiritual nourishment from the Word. Then when you leave here, you can (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.” Do you see what you receive? Peace. Do you know what that means? Peace is God standing at-one with you. He does not turn his back, he faces you. He does not plug his ears because you broke your promises to quit doing wrong, he declares your shame removed. You can point at heaven and say, “That’s my home! I know that because God says it!” You can pray and say, “Amen! God hears me because he says he hears me!” You can confront struggles head on, saying, “God does not stand against me, but with me, because he extends peace to me!” Here, in this [little-‘c’], visible church you hear ‘peace.’ Those words hit your heart and keep you in God’s [big-‘C’]hurch. Since you stand at peace with God, your life flourishes.
God does not stop there. He takes his peace and combines it with comfort. As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. That is good. The devil will always try to convince you that what matters most about church is what is seen. That’s why you feel down at times, the devil tries to convince you that God lacks power. The devil knows that if he throws you into despair, then the Word does not sound so appealing. Then your time here is not spent growing, but rather spent holding onto past memories of what you once had. Yes, the devil knows that if he can get your mind off of the one thing church is all about, then he has gained the upper hand.
So, seize the upper hand back from him— and you can because Jesus has won. That, my friends, is something Satan has no answer for. He never will have an answer. Because the moment Christ cried out on the cross: ‘It is finished!’ it sealed the devil’s defeat forever. When Christ rose from the dead, he could sigh: ‘Peace be with you’ and the devil could not change the impact of those words. Everything written in Scripture is just another stinging reminder that the devil lost. It does not matter what is seen here, but rather what is heard here. When that Word is proclaimed here, the devil repeatedly hears his defeat.
Set your sights on God’s Word of comfort that tells you the way things truly are. Then you will flourish from the comfort God extends. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants…
Yet, there remains one final line, and it’s almost easy to gloss over it. [H]e shall show his indignation against his enemies. In the midst of this magnificent fanfare stands a sobering reminder: God will punish those who stand opposed to him; he will damn every nonbeliever to hell. That is not a pleasant message. It does not feel right to say that. It sounds harsh. It feels wrong to think that your neighbor, your child, your spouse could go to hell.
Realize that God makes this truth clear so that we can lead others to the comfort God extends to them. Last Thursday, you celebrated your freedom to do just that. The United States of America protects the freedom of religion. That means, you can bring others to your [little-‘c’]hurch so that God can bring them into his [big-‘C’]hurch, his family of believers. The words spoken here are what matters most.
That’s what makes this place so special. The world tends to examine churches by what is seen. Even we look for people, for activity, for success. Yet, that is not what God emphasizes in a church. He uses this place to bring his Word into many hearts, and he works through the Word to bring people into his family of believers.
So, back to those phrases.“We used to be big, but not so much anymore. Someone young like you probably wants more activities. I’m sure one day you’ll be promoted into a larger church.” No. That is not what I look for here. That is not important in life. What matters is that God’s Word is here. That’s what we look for. That’s what we cherish. That is the reason we are here. Let’s keep the Definition of ‘Church’ Right. Here you: (1) Receive satisfaction with the nourishment God provides and (2) Flourish from the comfort God extends.
Let’s start with some questions this morning. Keep the answers in your head and keep score on your fingers. Okay? Alright, here we go:
How did you do? Get them all right? You should have. Those are questions for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders. I mean, 10-year-olds can answer those questions. You already learned those answers in fifth grade! Aren’t you smarter than a fifth grader?
That exercise proves that what was once learned can be forgotten over time. You may give wrong answers instead of the right answers. You can create some very incorrect answers. You forget what was learned. Knowledge must be renewed and reinforced.
During this past education year, you have had many opportunities to increase your knowledge, understanding, and application of God’s Word. Now, Retain What You Have Gained! Sell the excuses. Buy the truth.
Sunday School, you gained new knowledge and added to ‘old’ knowledge. Remember Adam and Eve? The first two people in the world. They play all the time, never fall down and scrape a knee, never get into trouble. Then, they ate fruit God told them not to eat. You might go in timeout when you do something wrong. God did not put Adam and Eve in timeout, but said they could no longer live in the Garden of Eden. From there, people do not get nicer, they get meaner. It hurts God. So, he covers earth with a flood. Noah builds an ark, brings two of every kind of animal inside, and floats safe. After the flood goes away, Noah had a big family. Some people in his family are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham (for example) was Jesus’ [52-times ‘great-] grandpa (Matthew 1:17). Remember what things Jesus did? He heals sick people. He stops a bad thunderstorm. He dies on the cross for our sins. God wants Pastors like [missionary] Paul (or myself) to tell you this good news. In Sunday School, you learned ‘new’ things about God; you remembered stories learned last year.
Adults, you may remember these Bible lessons from your Sunday School days. Each year you added ‘new’ knowledge. Sometimes you added ‘new’ information to existing knowledge. You gained knowledge.
You gained even more knowledge in catechism class. As a teenager, young adult, or a little older, you opened your Bibles and learned God’s teachings. You explored three ways God the Father cares for you. You pondered why Jesus had to be both true man and true God at the same time. You learned what the ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ keys are, when they are used, and who uses them. Catechism class has a purpose. You explore God’s great love for you and how he keeps you in faith. You can explain what you believe. You can defend your faith. You gained knowledge.
Now what? Well, standing at the end of another year of Bible classes, Retain What You Have Gained! That’s what our Proverb says: Buy the truth and do not sell it… Continue adding new Bible accounts to life; continue connecting Bible teachings to life’s many situations. Because if you do not gain truth, you will sell it. Sell— like ‘reducing inventory,’ ‘subtracting possessions.’ You can sell what you have learned; you can let Bible stories fade or minds subtract from Scripture’s true teachings.
Maybe you sit here, arms folded, chest puffed, scoffing: “Ah! That will never happen to me! I know so much about the Bible! I can never possibly lose my great knowledge!” If so, then congratulations! You are a stronger Christian than Peter, who denied Jesus (Luke 22:54-62). You are a more faithful disciple than the Twelve, who abandoned Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:56). You are better than Jesus Christ— because we know that even Jesus worshipped each week (Luke 4:16). You are so advanced in your Christian life that you do not even need this proverb: ‘Buy the truth and do not sell it’! (That is sarcasm.)
That sarcasm is meant for some honest reflection. In my short ministry, I have encountered two types of students: (1) those who listen and (2) those who talk. (1) Listeners realize they still have much to learn. They might be lifelong Christians, but they still pay attention in worship and see how Christ intersects in life. They desire to drink in more knowledge and find even more answers to life’s questions. They may have read the Bible several times through, but still pay attention in Bible Class, cling to every word, and take it to heart. (2) Yet, talkers think they know everything about Christianity! Catechism students brag that they can recite all the books of the Bible, as if this is really what Jesus came to teach us. Some are more interested in telling me what they think Baptism and the Lord’s Suppers means, instead of letting God, in his Word, teach them. Even fellow believers refuse to read devotions, read a Bible chapter, attend Bible Class simply because they think they know every point of Scripture. Talkers sell the truth; they create a myriad of excuses to keep the Bible shut.
I have also learned that the use of God’s Word reveals its priority in our hearts. If we love God with all our heart, mind, and soul (Matthew 22:37), then nothing would keep us out of worship, out of a devotion-life, or away from studying the Bible in Class, Catechism, or Sunday School. Yet, excuses abound:“I have fair season, I have ballgames, I have reunions, I have vacation. I am too busy… too tired… too focused on the kids. I have no time.” That is another way of selling the truth; excuses literally reduce your time with God’s Word.
Satan stokes pride and misplaced priorities in order to reduce our time with the Word. The less we use the Bible, the less we strengthen faith. The less we strengthen faith, the less Bible teachings we get right. The less Bible teachings we get right, the less we see a need for Jesus. Eventually faith shrivels up, Jesus is reduced to a good person, and my confidence for heaven is set in my moral behavior. If I sell the truth, I will sell my Jesus.
Dear friends, there are sections of Scripture where one simple sentence leaves an eternally profound impact. This is one of those places. Retain What You Have Gained! Sell the excuses. Buy the truth.
Buy—like ‘hold to what you have,’ ‘acquire new knowledge,’ ‘add new insights to what already exists.’ Buy the truth.
Here’s the truth: God is not content with our excuses. God does not ignore a proud know-it-all attitude. God will not tolerate our critiques of his teaching. God does not buy our excuses of busy-ness. God demands a heart that holds him always as the foremost priority— and he finds that heart in Jesus.
Here’s the truth: God loads our proud, detestable excuses on Jesus and hangs his Son on the cross. There, God rips off each excuse one-by-one. He throws away the know-it-all attitude. He destroys the critiquing of his teaching. He rejects excuses. God sells Jesus to death— yes, death, punishment, suffering for our proud excuses. Jesus’ pure life is more than enough to buy this splendid truth: ‘Forgiven. Restored. Redeemed.’
That, dear friends, is a truth that never grows old. In fact, that is truth you can keep buying forever and you will never reach a point where it becomes ‘old’ or ‘unneeded.’ You have gained: you have gained faith— a trust in Jesus as Savior. You have gained eternal life. You have gained peace and comfort and happiness. You already hold this. So, Retain What You Have Gained! Keep holding to your gift. Keep it in your heart, in your mind, in your life. How?
Buy the truth… get wisdom. True wisdom acknowledges the poisonous devastation sin wreaks on the world and sees Christ as the antidote. Yes, you already believe this. So, build on it. (1) Hold to what you have, (2) acquire new knowledge, (3) add new insights to what already exists. You will see forgiveness continually drown high school regrets. You will see the Jesus who calms wind and waves still control Oklahoma tornadoes. In a constantly-changing world, you find a never-changing Jesus. Yes, sin saturates this world, but faith sees Christ as the antidote. Keep the Word central in life and gain wisdom.
Buy the truth… get discipline. Remain in God’s Word and you will grow. Discipline corrects bad behavior and strengthens good behavior. The purpose behind discipline is to save life. So, someone might ‘discipline’ you. A parent tells a still-maturing child, ‘I know you want to stay home Sunday, but that will not help you. For your eternal good, we will worship today.’ A child might ask her mother, ‘Why are we not at worship?’ or ‘Why do we not attend Bible class?’ Those words steers the heart to Godly behavior.
Sometimes you may ‘discipline’ you. You may force your hand to turn off the television for just a few minutes so that you can concentrate on a devotion. You may shake off a nap so that you make it to Bible class. You may find new ways to remember one key point from the sermon each day during the week. You may tell the coach: “We’ll be a few minutes late. We have church.” You may tell mom: “We’ll be at dinner after worship.” On vacation, you might be far from a Wisconsin Synod congregation, but you can still pack Meditations [Devotions]. Discipline corrects bad behavior and strengthens good behavior.
That discipline does something for you: You add to what is already there. As God’s Word remains central in life, excuses to push it aside decrease. More than that, your heart and mind will delight in hearing God’s great love for you.
Buy the truth… get understanding. To ‘understand’ is to apply knowledge to life’s situations. As you remember the three things God the Father still does for you, you will take that knowledge and live confident that he has created all things, still provides for you bodily, and will send his angels to keep you safe. You will see how Jesus is true man to obey for you—every single temptation you faced too—but he is without sin—and as true God, his life covers yours! You know the ‘binding key’ refuses forgiveness and the ‘loosing key’ grant forgiveness. What a delight to know heaven remains open to those who confess wrongs!
Yes, we stand at the end of another Christian Education year. You have explored the Amish way of life. You have studied the parables of Jesus. You have learned about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Jesus. You learned the terms ‘Verbal Inspiration’ and ‘Real Presence.’ You have gained much. Do not stop there.
Retain What You Have Gained! You (and I) will constantly encounter the slippery temptation to think there remains nothing left to learn. You (and I) will be tempted to believe things that are not true. You (and I) will be pulled to put our Bibles down. What is the purpose for those temptations? Never, never for your good. Sell the excuses, for excuses have no value. Buy the truth-- a truth that saves. Retain What You Have Gained!