GCI Equipper

His Light, His Life, His Love

We often talk of sharing the life and love of Jesus, but we are also called to share that he is the light of the world. The three seasons (cycles) of the GCI Worship Calendar help us focus on his light, his life and his love.

History was not my favorite subject in high school. Some of the stories were interesting, but I couldn’t see the value in knowing what I considered the trivia that always showed up on tests—specific quotes, exact dates, minute details. As I got older and learned more, I realized there was significance to some of this “trivia.” A quote or specific date might have been what inspired someone to start a movement. The “minute details” often led to events that changed the course of history. I have come to enjoy history—even more so as I started studying the Bible and realized it is God’s story—his story. The Bible is the story of God’s love for humanity and his desire to bring us into eternal relationship with him. The story became even more fascinating when I came to understand that we were created to live inside the big story of God as centered in Jesus Christ.

This is the very thing Jesus was teaching the disciples on their journey to Emmaus. “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27 NRSV). We are blessed to not only have the Old Testament, which shares God’s story of his relationship with a person and then a nation, we also have the New Testament, which shares how God incarnates himself in Jesus with the plan of saving all people. The story continued through the life of the apostles as they spent time with Jesus and then taught about him the rest of their lives. That story continues today as we share Jesus’ light, life and love with others. God’s story is the story of Jesus and us. This is why our worship calendar is centered around Jesus. He is, as we often acknowledge, the center of the center.

The worship calendar helps us follow the story of Jesus by focusing on seven seasons or major events in his life with special worship days that correspond with each of those events. Bobby Gross, a guest speaker at our GCI Celebration next July, and author of Living the Christian Year, summarizes these seasons into three worship cycles: the cycle of light, the cycle of life and the cycle of love.[1] I believe his summarization is worth exploring as we focus on Jesus through the GCI Worship Calendar. Let’s look at each cycle.

The Cycle of Light

The symbol of light ties the first three seasons together beautifully. First with all who live in a world or darkness, we anticipate “a great light” (Is 9:2); then, we celebrate the “true light… coming into the world” (Jn 1:9); finally we proclaim Jesus as the “light of the world” (Jn 8:12). (Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year, 22-23)

The cycle of light includes Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Advent is known as a time of preparation as we look back and we look forward. We begin Advent by looking forward to Jesus’ return at the end of the age. We then focus on what it means that he lives in us as our prince of peace and giver of joy. Then we look forward to his arrival as the babe born of the virgin Mary.

Following Advent, we celebrate Christmas and the incarnation—when light entered darkness, when the true light came into the world. Christmas is followed by Epiphany when the light is made clear to others. We commemorate the Magi who followed the star (a light), which revealed the true light. The final Sunday of Epiphany—transfiguration Sunday—is when we learn from the experience of a select group of disciples who saw Jesus in his glory.

The Cycle of Life

First, we follow Jesus as he serves and eventually “give[s] his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45; then we relive the stunning drama of his resurrection; finally, we bask in the promise of sharing in his new life, now and forever. These are the seasons of redemption: God rescues us from death through Jesus. (ibid., 23-24)

This cycle of following Jesus’ life includes the time of Easter preparation, Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday), Easter and the Ascension. It starts with Jesus entering the wilderness to prepare for ministry. Here the enemy comes to tempt Jesus and Jesus resists all temptation by staying true to who he is—the Son of the Father.

The 40 days of Easter preparation parallels the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, which parallels the 40 years Israel wandered through the desert. During that time Israel was given many opportunities to grow in their relationship with God. Jesus went to the wilderness with the words of the Father ringing in his ears, “This is my beloved Son, in him I am well pleased.” After 40 days he emerges ready to take on a ministry that would lead to the cross.

This leads to the culmination of Jesus’ life—Holy Week. We see his passion for Israel on Palm Sunday as he weeps over the city; we hear the new commandment that he gives to his disciples to love others as he loves us. We are moved by his prayer in John 17. We see his anguish at the garden of Gethsemane, and we get angry over the way he was treated and finally murdered on the cross. (It isn’t until the Holy Spirit enters that we understand the true meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice.) It was for us because he loves us. We strive to live as he lived—loving others, entering their space, walking in their shoes, putting others before the self.

We celebrate the resurrection and we are in awe of the ascension—not completely understanding what it means that Jesus took us up into the heavenly places to be in the presence of Father, Son and Spirit.

The Cycle of Love

Also called Ordinary Time, the season starts with Pentecost, includes Trinity Sunday and All Saints Day, and ends with Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday before Advent.

We live our Christian lives in rhythms; shared love for God (worship) and sacrificial love for his world (mission), appropriate love of self and self-giving love of neighbor, love of fruitful work and love of renewing rest. This is the extended season to walk in Christ’s light, to grow in Christ’s life and to embody Christ’s love. (ibid., 24-25)

The heart of this season is joining Jesus in sharing his life and love with others—participating in the mission of God. It is seeing the Great Commission as an invitation to join Jesus in what he is doing. It is understanding that the Great Commission starts with the reminder that all power and authority has been given to Jesus and ends with the promise that he will be with us always. Jesus poured himself out in love and he invites us to not only share that truth, but to pour ourselves out in love as well.

God’s plan centers on Jesus. Our worship calendar centers on Jesus. May God help us center our lives on Jesus as we continue to participate in his story.

Living through the cycles,

Rick Shallenberger

[1] Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 22-25.

 

Grace and Hope

As we end Ordinary Time and prepare ourselves for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, it’s good to reflect on the source of our hope­—Jesus.

By Robert Regazzoli, GCI pastor in Australia

In the story of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean, upon release from prison, is invited into the residence of a bishop, and given a meal and a room for the night. During the night, Valjean steals some of the silverware and runs away, only to be caught by the gendarmes, who bring him back to the bishop with the stolen items. Rather than bring charges against Jean, the bishop gives him two silver candlesticks, and gives the impression that he had given the other items to him.

Jean Valjean, who had been hardened and cynical as a result of his years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children, became a changed man because of this act of grace from the bishop. Instead of being sent back to prison, he was able to get on with living an honest life. Instead of a life of doom, he was now given hope. Isn’t this the message we are called to bring to a darkened world?

Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)

Who is the source of our hope? It is our Triune God, who gives us eternal encouragement and good hope. The apostle Peter says Jesus is our living hope (1 Peter 1:3-5). Father, Son and Spirit is the source of all love and grace. As we understand this, we are greatly encouraged, and we are given hope now and for the future. This hope, by encouraging and strengthening us, leads us to respond by showing good deeds and words.

As believers in the image of God, we want to leave a positive impression on others in our interpersonal relationships. We want others to feel encouraged, strengthened, and hopeful. Unfortunately, if we don’t focus on the hope that is in Jesus, our interactions can leave others feeling discouraged, unloved, devalued, and without hope. It’s something to really think about in all our human interactions.

Life is very complex at times, and we face some real challenges in relationships, as well as within ourselves. As a parent, giving guidance and training to a child, how do we handle the problems as they arise? Do we prepare in advance by focusing on our relationship with Christ? As an employer, a supervisor, a pastor, an administrator, how do we deal with difficulties with an employee, a volunteer worker, or a member with difficulties? Do we prepare in advance by focusing on their relationship with Christ—or better said—with the truth that they are God’s beloved and therefore valued by him?

It is painful to be on the receiving end of negative statements, put-downs, unfair treatment and hurts. And if we are not focused on the wonderful truth that nothing can separate us from the love and grace of God, we can easily allow the negatives to consume us, and leave us discouraged and unmotivated. Thank God we have hope and can remind others of the hope that is in us and can be in them.

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

So what is the reason for the hope that we have? The love and grace of God given to us in Jesus. We live by it. We have been the recipients of his gracious love. By the Father, Jesus Christ loves us and gives us eternal comfort and good hope. (See 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 ESV) It is in the Spirit that we come to understand and believe in the hope that we have in Jesus. It is Peter who reminds us to continually “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

In the musical, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean ends up singing the song, “Who Am I?” The song includes the lyrics: “He gave me hope when hope was gone, He gave me strength to journey on…” One can’t help but wonder if these lyrics were from Paul’s letter to believers in Rome.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

As we end Ordinary Time and prepare ourselves for Advent, the Incarnation and Epiphany, it’s good to reflect on Jesus’ supreme act of love—“Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage: rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being found in human likeness.”

This is Jesus, who humbled himself to become human and lavishly granted grace to each of us so that we might be filled with his hope.

Jesus Christ is our living hope!

Churches Make a Difference

While we all acknowledge there is much to do as we “grow in grace and knowledge”, it is good to note that Christianity has made significant contributions to matters of race and equality

By Marty Davey, GCI Pastor, Jacksonville, FL and Woodbine, GA.

We can probably all come up with examples of Christians or Christian churches doing or saying something that was—whether intentionally or not—racially biased or discriminatory. There are embarrassing examples in history of churches and preachers justifying slavery, even misusing Bible verses. In modern times we know there are hate groups who misquote or take scriptures out of context and burn crosses. While they may use his name, these are not true representatives of Jesus Christ.

As weak and distracted human believers, we can be unknowledgeable, insensitive and at times apathetic about things that don’t immediately affect our personal lives. As a result, we often fail to follow the biblical injunctions to “bear one another’s burdens” and to “weep with those who weep” (Galatians 6:2 ESV; Romans 12:15 ESV).

While many popular pastors are stating the Church has failed by refusing to participate in matters of social injustice, I believe this is a broad and harsh overstatement. I believe many of us are experiencing heightened emotions about social injustice during this time of distress in our country because we are caring and conscientious followers of Jesus.

The Church of Jesus Christ, the Body of believers—each one of us—embody God’s gift to mankind for the appointed task of ministering his gospel. The Church’s work, although performed imperfectly through imperfect men and women, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is essential that, in our humility and openness to criticism, we do not overlook, diminish, or denigrate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ! In other words, before we lay an unhealthy and unbearable burden of shame and guilt upon ourselves and our fellow Christians, it is helpful to be reminded of the many significant contributions that Christianity, the Church and its members have made and are making to the cause of racial reconciliation and equality. This is not a denial of the church’s mistakes or shortcomings, but we need to restore balance by valuing and appreciating the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Consider the following significant contributions the Christian Church makes to the cause of racial reconciliation and equality:

  1. The long-standing sin of slavery was largely defeated and ended due to the influence of the moral teachings of Christianity upon Western civilization. Any reader of the Bible knows that slavery existed throughout history in many different nations, including the enslavement of the children of Israel. Slavery had been historically treated as normal and accepted throughout the world—until Western civilization, under the influence of Christian values, put an end to it. No other major culture or society ever did so.

As Dr. Thomas Sowell puts it, “Moral questions about slavery have been, almost exclusively, Western moral questions. Non-Western societies had neither moral concerns about slavery nor, in most cases, the power to decide on the continuance or extinction of the institution for themselves during the era of European imperialism, when slavery was suppressed over most of the world by the West.”[1]

  1. Christians were significant and influential leaders in the abolitionist movement. Two well-known examples are William Wilberforce, and William Lloyd Garrison. Wilberforce was a British politician and philanthropist who became an evangelical Christian in 1785. He then became a leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Garrison was a man of strong Christian faith who lived in Baltimore and Boston. He attended black churches and became convinced slavery was a national evil. Using his newspaper, The Liberator, to try to convince his readers of the evil of slavery, he worked in the antislavery movement for 30 years.
  2. Christianity, Christians, and Christian churches, especially in the African-American community, have been very influential and effective in advancing the civil rights movement. The above linked article says: “It remains impossible to conceive of the civil rights movement without placing black Christianity at its center, for that is what empowered the rank and file who made the movement 
  3. Christianity aggressively teaches values, beliefs, and behaviors that reduce and correct racial inequality and discrimination, and work to improve the lives of minorities. Some examples include:
  • Churches and Christianity teach who God is as our loving Father and Creator, and that we are all God’s children, made in his image. All races become brothers and sisters in Christ. Some who historically taught otherwise were misrepresenting the scriptures and the beliefs of most Christians.
  • Churches and Christianity teach about coming to Jesus in personal repentance and being transformed by the Holy Spirit to live a life of love towards all. This transformation includes reconciliation with and acceptance of each other. When these truths are fully embraced and practiced, they will eliminate the sins of racism and injustice.
  • Churches and Christianity teach forgiveness and the complete removal of our guilt and shame through the cross of Christ. Both the majority and minority populations in the US struggle with guilt and shame, and it distorts both their actions and opinions about themselves and others.
  • Churches and Christianity teach the importance of the nuclear family, as instituted by God, as well as the values of marital and sexual faithfulness, along with parental love and responsibility. Ignorance of and rejection of these values has contributed significantly to tremendous consequences upon all, particularly those in poor communities. Churches are working hard in these communities.

In his book, Woke Church, pastor Eric Mason, in describing what churches can do to address racial inequalities, has this to say about the necessary role of the church as what he calls a “Family Training Center.” He said. “The church needs to be a family training center and …the church is uniquely equipped to do this. The family is the foundation of our communities. When they are destroyed, our communities fail. They cease to be nurturing places.”[2]

  1. Churches and Christianity are hugely involved in relief efforts to those who are suffering from difficulties of all kinds, including inequalities, racism, injustices, and lack of basic needs. Many, if not most churches, have active charitable ministries and programs and are constantly helping the disadvantaged. They also provide counseling, encouragement, and assistance.
  2. Churches and Christianity have long been known for sending missionaries all around the world, to share the gospel and to help with basic needs. This ministry of love to people of all ethnicities is done at tremendous personal sacrifice and sometimes risk. And it has been going on for centuries.

Churches are often criticized for not speaking up or doing more to combat racism and injustice. There is always more we can do, and we need to listen and evaluate honestly. But let’s also realize that Christians sometimes refrain from saying or doing things that others feel they should do for valid and just reasons—such as resisting political manipulation, or refusing to participate in unproven accusations, or activities that harm others’ lives or properties. Churches and Christians know that it is not right in God’s sight to “do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8), and so we proceed cautiously and do what we can with a clear conscience.

We also know the wisdom and strategies of this world are not the same as the wisdom of God (James 3:13-18), which produces the fruit of peace.  And “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20 NIV).

As we acknowledge Jesus as our center, and love as he loves, we will see the church grow. In the meantime, it is important to appreciate the Church’s many helpful teachings and actions and never underestimate its importance and impact, nor dismiss and de-value the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

[1] Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals(Encounter Books, 2005), 162.

[2] Eric S. Mason, Woke Church (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 153.

Worship Presentation Platforms

Helping you plan a good worship experience.

By Tim Sitterley, US Regional Director, West

Those of us who have been a part of a church remember the infamous “worship wars.” We began to introduce songs that were not in a hymnal. New music, often written by young worship artists, spoke words relevant to the current generation. The challenge was how do we integrate the rich hymnody of the church with a worship song currently playing on Christian radio.

For most congregations the early solution was the overhead projector. A blinding light shining through thin acetate illuminating a bare wall or screen. And it worked…sort of. It was hated by those who were familiar with holding a book and loved by those who wanted to be free to do “other things” with their hands during Spirit-inspired worship. We also quickly learned there were several wrong ways to place the transparency on the projector, and if you slide the sheet up too fast you could watch the heads of the congregants jerk in response.

As soon as video projectors became affordable, the overhead projectors found their way to a closet. PowerPoint was now the norm, and worship services began to look like presentations in a high school classroom. There were still many wrong ways to create a worship presentation that interrupted the seamless flow we were seeking.

Then, because many of our congregations are lacking in musicians, we started including lyric videos. In one congregation I attended we were forced to stare at the screen while the computer operator closed out one video file, searched for the next video, clicked open, and then maximized the screen 30 seconds into the song. It was painful. After services I took the time to show her how to embed videos into PowerPoint so they opened automatically. She wept.

But at least she was trying to produce the best worship experience she could with her limited knowledge of the software. Others don’t even make it to that level. I’m amazed when I watch someone simply extend their desktop to the projector and open and scroll a Word document. An overhead projector would actually be a better option.

PowerPoint is the norm in most of our congregations. If used properly, it gets the job done. But as we focus on the Hope Avenue, and the importance of presenting our best in worship, it can be much better. We could focus an entire article on getting the most out of PowerPoint. But there are over 50 different options for worship presentation software that if used properly can take worship presentations farther than PowerPoint. Some are excellent. A few are expensive. Some are free. Many are out-of-date or don’t work well on all computer platforms.

A good worship presentation platform will automatically access CCLI’s vast database of songs through SongSelect. Many will include multiple versions of scripture that can easily be added to the presentation, often during the worship service. They all can embed videos and motion backgrounds. Most offer multiple user licenses (at additional cost) so more than one member of your Hope Avenue team can produce a Sunday presentation. And most have the ability to open an existing PowerPoint presentation, which is helpful when a visiting speaker shows up with a sermon on a flash drive.

Let’s start with a few of the free versions. Just remember you get what you pay for.

OpenLP – Uses the VLC media software and allows you to place lyrics, images, Bible verses and videos on slides. Also allows you to embed music.

OpenSong – This program offers most of what you will need to produce a seamless worship presentation. It allows you to import CCLI songs (even chord charts), and of all the free programs it’s the easiest to learn and use.

FreeWorship – FreeWorshp is another strong contender, with the primary limitation of only working with Windows OS. It too uses VLC, and can not only import CCLI, it can also integrate with OpenSong, OpenLP, Zefania and OpenSong Bibles.

EasySlides – If multiple languages are useful in your worship service, EasySlides’ language database will make life easier. You can even simultaneously project lyrics in two different languages. You will not, however be able to import from CCLI or any other platform, and you are limited in Bible versions available. Again, you are limited to Windows only.

WorshipExtreme – A free (basic) program I love. It has many of the bells and whistles we look for, but its strength is its cloud storage and access from any computer. If you upgrade ($25/month), you have access to a library of motion graphics and slide templates. The downside is that it requires two video outputs.

If you are looking for programs that do everything you could want, and a whole lot more, you will also be looking at a hefty price tag. Three that I’m familiar with are MediaShout, ProPresenter and EasyWorship. Each are excellent, and each have limitations. The main limitations will be cost and a steep learning curve.

MediaShout 7 is probably the most popular, simply because it uses a PowerPoint editing style. It will interface with almost all other platforms, including existing PowerPoint files, and offers up to 70 Bible translations with the license. It is easy to use once a presentation is created, but can be a bit of a challenge to learn on the front end. The current cost is $399 for a single computer, and $499 for a site license. Version 7 only works in Windows, but version 6 is still available and works with Mac.

ProPresenter is more versatile than MediaShout, but that versatility comes with a much steeper learning curve. It’s also the most expensive, with a site license starting at $799. Each Bible translation is an additional $15 – $30.

EasyWorship is just that. It can be a challenge to first-time users. And if you want tech support you need to pay for a “Campus License” ($499).

These are just a few of the more popular worship presentation platforms available. But to be honest, what is ON the screen is far more important than HOW you got it on the screen. In a future article we will talk about the visual elements that make up an inspiring worship presentation, and we’ll touch on a few of the “don’ts” as well.

Sermon Pericopes for RCL Year B

The revised common lectionary provides four scripture passages for each week of the year. The Psalm is primarily used as a call to worship. We choose one passage (pericope) to build each sermon upon and our Gospel Reverb podcast focuses on the four or five pericopes for each month. In addition, we often use a different passage for the Speaking of Life script.

Click on the image below to download the list of the pericopes for year B of the RCL.

Crafting A Worship Service w/ Michelle Fleming

Video Transcript

“Well, when we are coming together in worship. We are coming to share the good news of Jesus. The gospel is good news! Even if we are personally having a hard time, we are coming together because of the hope we have in him. And so, coming together is transformative! … singing the same truth next to brothers and sisters, even if I’m not believing it. Hearing other people say those words, with conviction, helps me borrow hope and have conviction too.” Michelle Fleming, GCI Media Director
  Main Points:
  • What does it mean to craft a worship celebration and why is it important? (2:55)
  • When should a Hope Venue Champion begin to craft the weekly worship gathering and what are the important steps during the week? (4:16)
  • What are the key elements in a worship celebration every GCI Pastor and Hope Venue Champion should consider including in their Sunday format? (8:55)
  • Why are we intentionally using the term worship “celebration” instead of worship service? (10:49)
Resources:
  • Order of Service– for a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped worship experience.
  • Parking Lot to Pew– tips on ways to improve your integration ministry.
  • Call to Worship– an opportunity to intentionally attune the hearts and minds of the congregation to our glorious God.

In this episode, host Anthony Mullins interviews Michelle Fleming who serves as the GCI Media Director. Together they discuss the importance of crafting an inspirational Sunday Worship service.

“Well, when we are coming together in worship. We are coming to share the good news of Jesus. The gospel is good news! Even if we are personally having a hard time, we are coming together because of the hope we have in him. And so, coming together is transformative! … singing the same truth next to brothers and sisters, even if I’m not believing it. Hearing other people say those words, with conviction, helps me borrow hope and have conviction too.”
Michelle Fleming, GCI Media Director

Main Points:

  • What does it mean to craft a worship celebration and why is it important? (2:55)
  • When should a Hope Venue Champion begin to craft the weekly worship gathering and what are the important steps during the week? (4:16)
  • What are the key elements in a worship celebration every GCI Pastor and Hope Venue Champion should consider including in their Sunday format? (8:55)
  • Why are we intentionally using the term worship “celebration” instead of worship service? (10:49)

Resources:

  • Order of Service– for a Christ-centered, gospel-shaped worship experience.
  • Parking Lot to Pew– tips on ways to improve your integration ministry.
  • Call to Worship– an opportunity to intentionally attune the hearts and minds of the congregation to our glorious God.

Gospel Reverb – Labor of Love w/ Dishon Mills

Video Transcript

Labor of Love with Dishon Mills Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Dishon Mills, unpack these lectionary passages:

November 1              1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 “Labor of Love” November 8             1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “Don’t Plead Ignorance” November 15            1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 “Is the Lord a Thief?” November 22            Matthew 25:31-46 “Least of These”
If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Labor of Love with Dishon Mills

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Dishon Mills, unpack these lectionary passages:

November 1              1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 “Labor of Love”

November 8             1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 “Don’t Plead Ignorance”

November 15            1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 “Is the Lord a Thief?”

November 22            Matthew 25:31-46 “Least of These”

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot.
And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Gospel Reverb – Bonus: the first Sunday of Advent – Mighty to Save with Ted Johnston

Video Transcript

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Ted Johnston, unpack the lectionary passages for the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020:

Isaiah 64:1-9                         “The Master Potter” Psalm 80:1-7; 17-19            “Mighty to Save” 1 Corinthians 1:3-9              “Blameless” Mark 13:24-37                      “Stay Awake!”
If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot. And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Listen in as host, Anthony Mullins and guest, Ted Johnston, unpack the lectionary passages for the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020:

Isaiah 64:1-9                         “The Master Potter”

Psalm 80:1-7; 17-19            “Mighty to Save”

1 Corinthians 1:3-9              “Blameless”

Mark 13:24-37                      “Stay Awake!”

If you get a chance to rate and review the show, that helps a lot.
And invite your fellow preachers and Bible lovers to join us!

Sermon for November 1, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2049 | Religious Sinners Greg Williams Matthew 23 records one of Jesus’ characteristic critiques of the Pharisees. It is as fiery as ever, taking aim at their religious pride in being seen in sacred clothing and given prominent places in society. He Begins his critique: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew 23:2-4 (NRSV) He continues to rebuke for eight more verses. It’s tame compared to some other diatribes where Jesus calls them a brood of vipers or white-washed tombs—clean on the outside, deadness, and waste within. Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ strongest words were for those who claimed to be religious leaders. He hangs out with prostitutes, touches lepers, and heals the servants of the occupying Roman soldiers—all while providing words of encouragement. But then, we see his other side, where he is direct and blunt with religious leaders. Why is this? Perhaps a case of familiarity breeds contempt? These religious leaders were so familiar with theology and sacred practice that they ignored Jesus’ message. You can almost hear them: “We’re the masters of theology; we’re the arbiters of truth, who is this kid?” Jesus, in some sense, turns up the volume to get their attention. Let’s keep in mind that the Pharisees, by any measure we could come up with, were devout people. Really disciplined people. They were morally pure, ethically flawless, they tithed meticulously and helped the poor. They knew their scripture (the Old Testament) better than any of us ever will. Jesus’ message for them—and for all of us—is that we all need the re-creating Spirit in us. The Law can’t do it, even when followed to the letter, the heart needs to be replaced and reborn. Even these “good guys” had their sins – hypocrisy, pride, judgementalism. They needed healing just as bad as the non-religious that they looked down on. When we look at Jesus, we find him comforting and weeping with the obvious sinners such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and drunks. It was the refined, educated, religious sinners that made him scream. Have you ever asked, what it is that might make him scream today? I would suggest it is when we put religion over relationship. When we start to think that what we know is more important than who we know—and who knows us. When we believe we have it right and others have it wrong. When we stop thinking we need healing. When we stop being transformed. Jesus transforms lives—the stories of Nicodemus and Paul fill us with the hope that as he healed and transformed them so HE heals and transforms us! I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 • Joshua 3:7-17 • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 • Matthew 23:1-12

The theme for this week is God lifts up the humble. The Revised Common Lectionary readings always begin with a psalm as a call to worship; this week it is Psalm 107, which beautifully describes the streams and harvest that God gives to those who depend on him. Joshua 3 tells the story of Joshua beginning his leadership for the desert-weary children of Israel and how God goes before them. Matthew 23 is a word of judgment against the Pharisees who are enjoying their “box seats” in society but who should be servants. Our sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 2, which gives us a picture of Paul doing his humble work as a tentmaker to support his ministry.

Paul at the Workbench

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 ESV

Read, or have someone read the text prior to the sermon.

Most of us remember dad’s workbench or mom’s special drawer of tools—a corner of the garage, basement, or kitchen where a cobbled together table sat under an array of hanging tools or maybe a cluttered drawer in one of the kitchen cabinets. As little kids, we were fascinated by it. As we grew up, we probably learned to ignore it. But chances are that somewhere in there you learned—by way of hammered thumbs and slivers—how to fix some things.

This is a great place for an anecdote or a conversation about dad’s workbench or equivalent. Be sensitive here that not everyone’s memories of their fathers are good.

Hammering a nail, holding a saw, mending a garment, fixing stuff around the house—chances are you learned this stuff by watching. You watched calloused hands at work, not just telling you, but showing you how the work was done.

Much of the apostle Paul’s writing was to people he knew well. These weren’t just people who had heard of him or respected him as a church administrator. They knew him. He had founded those churches in person and discipled these people firsthand.

He didn’t just tell them about the gospel, he lived it in front of them. He didn’t just describe the fruits of the Spirit, he displayed them. He gave them an example to follow—sometimes with words, always with action.

One of the ways he did this was by working with his hands. Through much of his missionary career, Paul worked as a tentmaker, a fact that is known  so well that people in bi-vocational ministry today are often called “tentmakers.”

Paul grew up in Tarsus of Cicilia, a place that exported the goats-hair fabric used in tents. He grew up around the trade and probably learned when he was very young. This was the solid, sweaty work of his hometown.

Tentmakers, like everyone else in those days, worked constant hours—sunup to sundown. He preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath, but he probably did a lot of discipleship and teaching at the workbench. “Hold this rope, let me tell you about Jesus … pull this tight and I’ll tell you about the Messiah while I stitch this seam.”

Let’s sit with Paul at the workbench for a while. Let’s imagine him at work and see what we can learn from his actions as a tentmaker. Let’s look at how that profession—which he was called to do by God as part of his ministry—gave him certain freedoms. God can use anything for ministry, and anything to shape us into the image of Christ. (See Romans 8:28 about that one!) Let’s observe three ways Jesus was able to use Paul’s calloused hands and swollen knuckles as another way to bring his message to the world. Then let’s ask how these same freedoms, which God has given you, enable you to use your work and home environment to share the good news with others.

Let’s look at three freedoms Paul experienced:

  • freedom from self
  • freedom from status
  • freedom to live in the moment

Freedom from self

For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:9-10 ESV)

These verses are nestled among metaphors of Paul’s care for them and relationship to them. In one chapter, he says he was like a father, then a mother, then a child with them—all expressing intimate relationships to share not only his message but also himself with them.

There was another aspect here too of the three-dimensional witness of Paul. Unlike Paul, an itinerant speaker and communicator with a purpose-filled message, most orators did not do manual labor like this! In that society, speakers and teachers would have been supported by their disciples, by a wealthy patron, or by the believing community. It was considered beneath someone like Paul to work with his hands.

People didn’t go to workers in the marketplace for wisdom and theology. Yet there he was, right between the fish-sellers and con-artists, stitching fabric and telling people about Jesus. His work gave him freedom from self. God used this simple trade to help shape Paul into the image of Christ. The speaking and preaching, which he was trained for, and which seemed to come naturally to him, was not his calling for making a living.

That’s an interesting irony there. Peter, who was a rough-cut professional fisher, was thrust into the role of speaker and teacher and was supported by the communities he ministered to. Paul, who was a professionally trained communicator, was called to make ends meet by doing work that was considered demeaning.

Imagine sitting in a lecture hall—walls inlaid with mahogany, chairs finished with the finest leather—just as the class is about to begin, after a rousing intro by a string quartet, the janitor walks up to the podium, clears his throat and proceeds to give the most brilliant lecture anyone’s ever heard. It’s a bit like that.

Paul’s work, which brought him down in the eyes of society, gave him a freedom from self that let him preach the gospel with joyful abandon.

What does God use in your life to give you freedom from self? Freedom from your own ego and self-focus? For some of you, it might be your actual work. It’s a difficult post when you find yourself out-skilled and out-worked by others, sometimes younger others. Can Jesus use that discomfort to give you freedom from the trappings of your ego, from the unquenchable appetite of status-seeking?

One great example of this is Henri Nouwen. He was a famous priest and professor who had spoken all around the world and written best-selling books. Yet the only place he finally found true rest and lived out the remainder of his life was in a community for special-needs people. In the humbling environment of working with those who had Down syndrome, autism, and mental illness, at the workbench with these folks who had no idea he was famous, Nouwen found the freedom that he was looking for.

Second lesson from Paul at the workbench:

Freedom from status

Let’s look again at that first verse:

For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV)

This is something Paul mentions in several places.

In a different letter, he tells the Corinthians:

If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:11-12)

You hear this in Paul’s dialogue with different communities. He didn’t burden them financially and was specific about avoiding that.

In Jewish society at the time, the Rabbi was supported by his community as a matter of course. There was no question about where his check was coming from, as it was part of tithing to your local synagogue. Paul wouldn’t participate in this. He didn’t want it to become an obstacle between him and his people.

We also have to remember the other half of Paul’s audience: the Greco-Roman society. That culture had some similar practices, but the motivation was very different. Teachers, with bands of disciples following them, weren’t uncommon in that society; teachers in Athens or Rome were well-known and we still follow some of their ideas today (remember the Pythagorean theorem from geometry class?).

They were so well-known that it became a status symbol to have a thinker on the payroll. Paying your very own playwright or actor or philosopher was a bit of ornamentation to keep up with the elite. If you were wealthy, you had your own property and a large house and slaves and horses and whatever, but if you were really wealthy you had your own sage on the payroll.

Paul walked away from all of that and sat there at the workbench. He stepped out of the discussion entirely. Nobody could accuse him of preaching a new message so he could make money; no one could call him the rich man’s pet. This was his freedom from status. He wasn’t interested in that; he was driven entirely by the mission God had given him.

Has your faith ever brought you to this kind of freedom? Has it brought you to where you can stand away from the constant vying for status and center-of-attention? Social media makes this worse. Now you can make a whole tiny TV show out of your self-focus! On social media we can update, in lighting-fast real-time, all aspects of our lives and then wait anxiously for a meager harvest of approval and attention.

But Jesus tells us that we are loved, cherished, and destined no matter what. He reminds us that our worth isn’t a matter of our works or smarts or looks, but of his grace. Paul wasn’t tempted or distracted by these positions of status—the stately Rabbi or the famous pagan philosopher; he just sat down at the workbench and was free.

Final lesson from Paul at the workbench:

Freedom to be in the moment

 For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 ESV)

The Thessalonian church was a flashpoint in Paul’s ministryI, as discussed in Acts 17. His preaching almost resulted in a riot. Believers were alienated from their cultures, whether Jewish or pagan, and the tension was bad enough to cause violence. Paul and Silas were hidden by the community and then released at night to the next town. Then people from Thessalonica found out they were there and chased them down (Acts 17:13).

In this kind of environment, disowned from their families and cultures, it is no surprise that the church there got fixated on the end times. They became focused and obsessed with the second coming to the point that some of them were even quitting their jobs and disengaging from life. They were simply watching the sky and letting their lives fall apart.

Paul at the workbench stood in stark contrast to this. Instead of a kind of apocalyptic obsession, he participated in one of the most consistent rhythms of human life: work. Listen to his explicit instruction to the community there:

Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12)

What a shocking thing to say to a doomsday community! Here they were hiding in bunkers, waiting for their deliverance to come and Paul says, “Come to the workbench. Live a quiet life, work with your hands. Let that be your witness.” He doesn’t offer them fireworks and drama; he offers them a life well lived in the moment.

Because you know how it’s all going to end, you can live more fully in this moment. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles didn’t offer them (or us) a wait-for-it end-times scenario, but gave them the key to living a different life, every day, even in the details of the workbench.

The gospel life calls us to the daily work of maintaining harmonious relationships. It calls us to the difficult journey of helping the poor. It calls us to the seemingly endless grace-work of Christ being formed in us (Galatians 4:19). The gospel is not an escapist doctrine that relieves us of responsibilities and tensions of life—it gives us strength to press further into life! Karl Marx derisively called religion the “opiate of the masses,” when the truth of the gospel is meant to wake us up!

Paul at the workbench gives us the great example of someone who is holding two realities in tension. On the one hand, he isn’t blinded by the world, trying to make heaven on earth through business dealings and influence and status-seeking. On the other hand, he isn’t watching the skies and obsessing over “signs” of Christ’s return. He is in the real world, living every day in light of eternity, and therefore able to fully live every day.

May you know the freedom of being a fully loved child of the God who will one day put everything to rights. May you follow Paul’s example, not necessarily to make tents, but to be free from status-obsession, end-times-fixation, and the ultimate slavery of living for yourself. For the Son has set you free, and you are free indeed!


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life:
  • Jesus had his strongest words for the white-collar sinners—respectable members of society who hid their sins even from themselves. Why is it hard to rout out this kind of sin (hypocrisy, gossip, envy, etc.)?
  • Jesus’ behavior toward them was brash, even rude sometimes. How does that interact with the picture of him as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? What does that tell us about him?
Questions for sermon:
  • Do you have any memories of dad’s (or grandpa’s/uncle’s etc.) workbench? Maybe memories of mom’s work center in the house—workbench or laundry room or phone station. What was that place like in your mind? Mysterious? Off-limits? Sacred? What did you learn there?
  • We talked about the different freedoms Paul experienced as tentmaker—freedom from self, status, and freedom to live in the moment. Which of these appeals to you the most? Why?
  • Have you ever thought of your work or job as an act of worship? Part of who you are in Christ? Would that change things?
Quote to ponder: “Work becomes worship when you dedicate it to God and perform it with an awareness of His presence.” – Rick Warren, pastor and author

Sermon for November 8, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2050 | Pinky Promise Cara Garrity When I was a kid, my friends and I would often make promises to each other. If we really wanted to emphasize our commitment, we’d say things like “Cross my heart and hope to die” or we might extend our little finger and hook our friend’s little finger in a “pinky promise.” While we might change our minds about keeping regular promises, a pinky promise was not to be broken. This gesture showed we meant to keep our word. The Bible is filled with promises, though sometimes in the Old Testament, they’re called covenants. There are several examples of God’s faithfulness in keeping the covenants made with ancient Israel. There are also several examples of people who broke their covenant with God. What is fascinating is to note that the unfaithfulness of the Israelites did not affect God’s faithfulness to them. The Old Testament prophets express God’s grief over the broken promises made, but they always reassure God’s people that God will never break his promises to them. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises. His resurrection, for example, gives us the promise that we will also be resurrected. Many wondered about this promise. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica when they were wondering if God meant to keep his promise of resurrection: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (NRSV) The Thessalonians were grieving and asking big questions: What happens to our loved ones after death? What happens to us? These big questions were a way of asking God, “Are you going to keep your promise of resurrection?” And as we see in this passage, Paul affirms God’s willingness to raise us by giving us evidence: the very resurrection of Jesus. Jesus spoke about his certainty in God’s promise of resurrection before he died in John chapter 11: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” John 11:25 Jesus believed in God’s ability to raise him from the dead, and Paul reminds us that the God who kept his promise of resurrection to Jesus will also keep that same promise to us. Pinky promise. May you live today in the security of God’s pinky promises, knowing that he is faithful, and Jesus is proof. I’m Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 78:1-7 • Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 • Matthew 25:1-13

The theme for this week is hope and promises, which encourages us to consider God’s promises and allow them to fuel our hope. The “call to worship” Psalm reminds us to tell the generations of the “praiseworthy deeds of the Lord.” Joshua reminds the Israelites of the many times God delivered them and he encouraged them to base their commitment on this evidence of God’s faithfulness. This week’s sermon outline is based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where Paul addresses the big question about God’s promise of resurrection to us. Lastly, Matthew tells the parable of the foolish bridesmaids who weren’t ready, thus encouraging us to wait with hope, knowing God keeps his promises and is always perfect in his timing.

Hope and Promises

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

When Amanda Messer was a little girl, her parents split up. She was “a daddy’s girl,” and on the days he was scheduled to come for visitation, she dressed up in her prettiest dress and waited by the front picture window to see him pull into her driveway. At first, he was always on time, and she so looked forward to spending time with him. Later, she waited…and she waited…and she waited, until her mother said, “He’s not coming. Go change your clothes.” Amanda didn’t understand it at the time, but her father struggled with addiction to alcohol and drugs. What she did understand is that her daddy did not keep his promises to her.

As an adult, Amanda was deeply moved by a coworker’s Facebook post where he talked about his father who had just passed away. Her coworker said that his dad was just an average guy, but his word was golden. He always kept his promises, and this prompted the son to encourage others to keep their promises by mailing out “promise cards.” These were cards people could fill out and give to others or use as a reminder of what they had promised to do. Amanda became a co-founder of this project in 2012, and over the past eight years, it has become an international nonprofit social movement called “Because I Said I Would.” As of 2019, Because I Said I Would has sent out 10.3 million Promise Cards to more than 153 countries, provided free online resources you can download, and offered character development programs to more than 150,000 students.

Amanda Messer’s story highlights the importance of keeping promises. We live in a world where promises are constantly being broken. Parents break promises, marriages fail over broken promises, businesses suffer due to broken promises. And let’s not get into how many promises are broken by elected officials. This has made it difficult for many to learn to trust. And that lack of trust is often carried over to people’s relationship with God. Many wonder, some ask, does God keep his promises?

Throughout the history of Israel, God’s people had been taught about the resurrection. Even Mary and Martha believed they would see Lazarus again—at some future time at the resurrection. They didn’t realize Jesus was the resurrection, the way, the truth.

Believers in Thessalonica were asking about God’s promises—in particular about the resurrection.  Believing Jesus was going to return in their lifetime, there was concern about those who died in the faith. Would only those alive be changed? What exactly is God’s promise? And how do we know he will keep it? Paul answers both questions by reminding us how God keeps his promises through Jesus.

Let’s read the passage:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 NRSV)

What do we see in this passage?

The first thing Paul points out is that we need hope when faced with grief, loss, and suffering, all of which are part of our human experience. While normal, Paul reminds us we can move through and process them better if we have hope.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13 NRSV)

Then Paul connects our resurrection and the resurrection of those loved ones who have already passed with Jesus’s resurrection. That’s a key component of our faith: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We are united with Jesus in his death and in his resurrection.

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. (1 Thessalonians 3:14-15 NRSV)

Paul follows this up by sharing details of this resurrection that clearly indicate it won’t be done in secret. It will be a big event with lots of reunions and rejoicing. Further, he emphasizes the promise that we will be with Christ for all eternity.

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 3:16-17 NRSV)

Finally, Paul reminds us to share this promise with others—to give the encouragement of the hope they have in the resurrection.

Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 3:18 NRSV)

Application:

  • Jesus’s resurrection is proof that God keeps his promises. Through the resurrection we have been given new life, we are citizens of a different kingdom. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, and because we are included in Jesus, we can trust that God will raise us, too. This fuels our hope for the future and boosts our trust in God.
  • People need to be reminded of the hope of the resurrection. There is a lot of pain in the world. Sometimes we forget what our brothers and sisters around the world are going through. There is a need for hope; there is a need to know this life is temporary. We grieve with others, but we don’t grieve as those without hope. We know our hope is Jesus and we are called to remind others of that hope.
  • Jesus is the promise and shows us the importance of keeping a promise. Not only do we continually look to Jesus and help others turn to Jesus, we also know the importance of our word. Because we understand how hope and promises are deeply intertwined, we will remember how important it is for us to keep promises made to others, to give them hope and pass along the grace that God has shown us.

Amanda Messer’s story shows how one man’s broken promises affected his little girl, and we also saw how another man’s life of promises kept, though unremarkable in other ways, left a legacy of hope. God has given us hope by providing proof of our resurrection through our elder Brother Jesus.

For Reference:

The Importance of a Promise (Amanda Messer): runs 11 minutes


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • The Speaking of Life video talks about how as kids we used to emphasize our commitment to keeping our promises by simple gestures and phrases like “pinky promise.” Why do you think we felt the need to do that as children? What do you think a promise kept means to a child?
  • Amanda Messer’s story contrasts one person’s experience of being let down by a father with another person’s experience of having a father who always kept promises. Think back over your own life and share an experience when someone kept a promise to you even at great difficulty or cost to them.
  • Have you ever considered Jesus’s resurrection as proof of your own? What extra meaning does this provide the verse “In him we live and move and our being” (Acts 17:28)?
  • This passage links hope and promises together. What other promises of God have given you hope and comfort when you needed it?

Sermon for November 15, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2051 | Skin Your Knees Greg Williams One of Jesus’ most famous parables is about the wise and foolish servants, told in Matthew 25. A wealthy man goes on a journey and leaves a certain amount of money with each servant. Upon his return, the first two servants gave good reports. The first servant, given ten talents (which would be more than 10 million dollars today), made ten more. The second servant, given five talents, made five more. Then the rich landowner congratulates them both on their shrewd investing and hard work. The last servant, given one talent, hides it away and does nothing. His master curses him when he returns. Typical of Jesus’ parables, this story can be applied in many ways through our lives. It can tell us about the use of our gifts, the multiplication of the kingdom, our personal spiritual growth. Throughout all these interpretations of the metaphor, the theme is trust. The wise servants had to step out in trust—trust that God (the main character of the story) had given them these gifts for a reason. Trust that God would take care of them and that he’d be pleased with their engagement, even more so than results. Notice that the ten talent and five talent servants both received the same amount of praise. God calls us up like that—to engage in life, use the talents he gave us, get out on the field, skin your knees, love others no matter the results. When we do this, we step out in the confidence that he is taking care of us and that the world he made is worth engaging in. To keep our gifts and our hearts to ourselves is to have them spoil. To engage in life is to give ourselves a chance to live in trust, to need him and not just ourselves. The loser of this parable is not someone who lost or didn’t come out with only okay results. The loser is the one who hid his investment away, who disengaged, who refused for fear of skinning his knees. Let us be servants who confidently, invest the gifts we have been given. Trusting that our master not only has equipped us but is going out with us. Longing to hear these tremendous words of affirmation. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:23 (ESV)  God invites us into relationship and participation. Go out and skin your knees! I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life  

Psalm 123:1-4 • Judges 4:1-7 • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 • Matthew 25:14-30

The theme this week is God is in charge. Psalm 123 calls us to worship, and it sings of God’s mercy that we depend on. Judges 4 gives us an account of God sending Israel victory when they depend on him. 1 Thessalonians 5 talks about the end of days when God re-establishes his rule on earth in Christ. Our sermon, “Royalty in Exile,” is based on this reading. Matthew 25 tells us how God is in charge and we should make the most of the life he gave us because our time is finite.

Royalty in Exile

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV 

Begin by reading 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 ESV.

Falling in love. Getting bit by the love bug. Taking love potion number 9. Puppy love. Shot by cupid’s arrow. The experience of meeting someone and having romantic feelings for them has a host of metaphors around it. Everything from household pets (puppy love) to violence (smitten) has been used to describe this experience. The reason for this avalanche of metaphors is because the experience is hard to put into words.

How do you put this flood of feelings, the sweaty palms and quickened heartbeat into words that encapsulate what it means? The best you can do is hint at it, hence the metaphors.

This could lead to a fun discussion of metaphors for love or a personal example. In my own life, my father always described finding the right mate as: “she feels like home.” She turned out to be exactly right.

This seems to be Paul’s experience at the end of 1 Thessalonians 4 and the beginning of chapter 5. He uses several metaphors to describe the joyous event of Jesus’ return, what Jesus appearance will be like, and how we should live as we anticipate it. He uses so many metaphors that this passage has been infamously misread through a lot of recent church history.

Let’s look at chapter 5 and how this passage informs our lives as God’s people. We will look at the context in the writing itself and in the culture that Paul spoke to at the time. As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington warned us, “A text without a context is just a pretext for what you want it to say.” Especially when it comes to an ecstatic traffic jam of metaphors like this, it’s important to look at what was going at the time, how they would have understood it, and then building a bridge from our own space and time to see what the word is saying to us.

Let’s break it down into three C’s:

–          Citizenship

–          Conduct

–          Courage

First, let’s look at Citizenship.

To apply these words to our own lives, it helps to put ourselves in the mindset of the first people who heard this. We’re talking about a small, beleaguered community in the ancient Greco-Roman world. They were persecuted, scared, and disoriented, but maybe not as disoriented as we would be in our own world.

The ancient world was harsh and war-torn—life could be brutal and short. One theme was very strong through almost all aspects of life, especially when compared to our world—the ancient world was religious. It was extremely religious—mystical ceremonies and beliefs marked almost all of life. There were temples on every corner, and every community occasion was religiously tied. There was no 4th of July or Thanksgiving— every big celebration was more like Easter and Christmas.

This was a major distinction between the modern context and the ancient. There was a temple and an idol or something similar on every corner. On one hand, there was no problem for people to take up belief in Jesus—the idea that a spiritual entity interacted with us every day was part of life. They could easily have added Jesus to the pantheon of gods they already had in their home and in their minds.

That was one break with the outside world that the Christian community first made. The apostles asked for allegiance to Jesus alone, which meant abandoning all those other gods. To make matters worse, they didn’t just say those other gods and idols were inferior, they said they didn’t exist. God the Father, Holy Spirit and Son was the only God in the universe, the one true God.

One of the early accusations against the fledgling church was that they were atheists! The issue was that they didn’t believe in enough gods. So, when their Greco-Roman neighbors got nervous about them or wanted to blame them for something, the accusation that they were unpatriotic atheists was a strong charge against them.

The other undertone of this discussion got them in even more trouble. One of the universal cults in the Roman empire, where all of them lived, was the worship of the emperor. Citizens burned incense to him and had rites and celebrations involved, even called him by the title: “Julius Caesar—King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Rome didn’t care much who you worshipped. That was a matter of ancient peace keeping. Rome had conquered so much of the world that different faiths abounded. But one thing you were required to do was worship Caesar. This was no problem for average Greco-Roman citizens, because they just added Caesar to the multitude of gods they believed in. But it was a huge problem for Christians. They weren’t about to worship or bow the knee to Caesar or any other deity. Caesar was a government official, meant to be respected, but just a man, never meant to be worshipped. Worship was for God alone.

That’s what began the persecution of the early Christians in earnest. That’s what got them in real trouble. That’s what took them from rag-tag worshipping communities to become food for the lions in the Colosseum.

Jesus as a sage was fine with everyone. Jesus as a healer was fine with everyone. Even Jesus as a minor deity was fine. But Jesus as King? That was the problem.

Back to the passage at hand. In the previous chapter, Paul describes the appearance of Christ at the second coming:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV)

This imagery, one of Paul’s many metaphors here, is taken directly from the Roman government culture. When Caesar arrived at a city with his entourage, a trumpet was sounded to announce who it was. Then a delegation of people would leave the city, meet the emperor, and escort him into the city.

This is the image given to us of Christ. At the end of all things, when God’s realm and our own (“earth” and “heaven”) are one again, Christ will appear as the true emperor of the universe. What Paul seems to hint at here is that a certain contingent of people will meet him and herald his coming as he establishes his kingdom on earth. This is a delegation going out to meet the true King, who is home at last.

This is Paul’s comfort to the Thessalonians and to us. The true king will one day appear and restore things as they are supposed to be. The alienation that this young church feels is part of the deal, and is not something that should make them despair, but look forward to the restoration of the true Lord. This is our true citizenship as God’s people. One day the full dimension of that royalty will be revealed when Christ returns.

Moving to our text in chapter 5, Paul takes a risk in describing this even more sharply:

While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:3 ESV)

The phrasing here would have been immediately apparent to the first readers. “Peace and security” was the slogan of Roman power—a phrase they often repeated to show the people they’d conquered the benefits of being under Rome. Much of the “peace and security” Rome offered was brought by crushing and devastating the people and cultures they had conquered. This “peace and security” was nothing anyone had a choice about!

Paul is saying that the true King, the true kingdom, and our true citizenship, is outside of the country we live in. By co-opting both political and religious power, Rome was trying to make itself into its own universe, trying to dictate all of reality. Paul’s revolutionary words were that our citizenship is above and beyond any government power, and that our first allegiance is to Christ.

Think of the Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stood up against the corrupt powers of the day, even joining a plot to assassinate Hitler. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood up against segregation and prejudice, which was the law in his time. In our own everyday lives, think of every time you don’t give in to a trend or find your value by how many clicks and likes you get in social media or put your career ahead of your family—all of these are acts of revolution declaring our allegiance to the true Lord.

As Malcom Muggeridge, renowned Christian journalist, said, “Never forget, it is only the dead fish that swim with the stream.” Your citizenship, your true identity, is not found in the lazy current of trends and power-plays and culture, but in the royal courts of King Jesus.

Second: let’s look at conduct.

So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. (1 Thessalonians 4:6-8 ESV)

Again, we have metaphors abounding here. Paul is neither talking about teetotaling nor about staying literally awake all the time. He’s talking about being spiritually awake instead of deadening ourselves to reality.

The pagan culture Paul spoke to had several rites and festivals that involved drunkenness and sexual license. Paul’s message was that these activities deadened and emptied the soul, in contrast to knowing Christ, which wakes you up.

Our conduct should reflect our citizenship. The connection Paul made here, which was rare in those days, was between your religion and your conduct. The Greek and Roman gods might give you favorable weather or good crops if you presented sacrifices and kept their rituals, but they didn’t care very much about how you treated others or helped the poor. The Judeo-Christian message was countercultural—God not only loved you and wanted a relationship with you, but he cared about how you lived and treated other people.

Paul speaks to them about keeping watch, staying awake, being aware of the life God has given you. Verse 2 presents this contrast powerfully:

For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV)

You have a “full awareness” of something that happens “at night.” Instead of being lulled into the sleep of trusting worldly powers and living by worldly morals, we in Christ have a full awareness—an awareness that this life is only temporary, and that any powers that exist are limited and well under the control of King Jesus. Spiritually, we are awake and sober in the night while the rest of the world is drunk and asleep.

Finally, courage.

Paul is writing to encourage a community that is troubled and tired. We know from context that they were experiencing persecution for their allegiance to Jesus, and that some of them had already died, perhaps because of that persecution.

Paul writes to encourage them, even mentioning those who have died specifically: “And the dead in Christ will rise first” (4:16). King Jesus, upon his return, will have conquered even death. He was writing to comfort and inspire them, not to present the exact details of what Christ’s return would look like. His underlying message is simple: Christ is going to return, be awake and ready, and he will be the true emperor of the universe.

He encourages them with images like 4:11-12:

Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 ESV)

This is not a picture of a doomsday cult watching the sky and withdrawing from the world in fear, but of people living free and knowing that their Lord is in charge and will take care of them. We live in faith and our hope for salvation. This is true courage, a freedom from the trappings of ego and cultural winds in which one can be still and know that he is God.

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:8-11 ESV)

Paul calls us to keep things in tension. On the one hand, he calls us to realize that our true citizenship is in Christ and that the kingdoms of this world will come and go. On the other hand, he calls us to fully live in this earthly exile— alive and awake in our conduct and working in harmony with each other and those outside the community. Because we know our true identity—beloved children of Father, Son and Spirit, we know our citizenship is in heaven. This changes our conduct, motivating and inspiring us to live as children of God. We do this with courage, knowing God died for us so that we might live in him.

Paul tells us to encourage one another and build one another up with these words.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life:
  • One of Jesus’ most famous parables is the story of the wise and foolish servants in Matthew 25. Have you ever found this parable applicable to your life? In what sense?
  • The loser, the bad guy, in this parable is the one who doesn’t engage, not the one with only okay results. God doesn’t want our results; he wants our faithfulness and obedience. What does that perspective mean to our regular lives?
Questions for sermon:
  • What does it mean to be a member of the royal court of King Jesus—royalty in exile, a child of God away from home? How does this change the way we live? The way we view ourselves?
  • The ancient world was highly religious, with temples and altars to many gods on every corner. Our world is just the opposite, with religion finding less voice in the public conversation and more people identifying as “none” in terms of faith or affiliation. How do we as Christians engage the “none” world? How do we do so with grace and boldness at the same time?
  • Paul calls us to hear, and in several places, to “wake up” to the day that has dawned with the coming of Christ. Are we living “awake” to the life that God has given us and with his eternal perspective? How would that change who we are?
Quote to ponder: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” ~St. Augustine

Sermon for November 22, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 2052 | No Room for Bullies Jeff Broadnax Let me set up a dilemma for you and then I’m going to ask you to solve it. Ready? You are a farmer who raises cattle and you get up one morning to check on your herd in the pasture. As you approach, you realize something is terribly wrong. Cows are running everywhere out of control. Each cow seems to be gripped in fear and running in a crazed panic. The pasture is getting destroyed, and the cows are injuring themselves by running into one another. That’s when you see it. In the middle of the chaos is one large bull with horns. For some reason, this bull is charging every cow in the pasture. Now, what do you do? You are probably throwing your hands up right now thinking, “really Jeff, you need help figuring this one out?” It’s obvious, right? You get rid of the bull. Problem solved! But wait, not so fast. Before you get to the gate you hear one of your neighbors shout: “Hey, before you remove that bull. Can you really judge a bull for being a bully?” Now, what do you do? Well, that’s an easy one too. You give the bull into the “loving” care of your neighbor. Get it?? Thanks for playing along. With all pastoral puns aside, you probably have heard Jesus referred to as our Good Shepherd. Ezekiel was a prophet in a time when the nation of Israel was longing for a good shepherd to lead them. The political leaders of the time were doing what some of our leaders still do today; taking good care of the rich and ignoring how the poor and marginal were being treated. They refused to judge and intervene when the powerful “bullied” and took advantage of those with less power. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet points to a Savior, a Shepherd who would come from the line of David who would do the opposite of what the world does. He would make extra room for the weak, tenderly care for the disenfranchised. He’d ensure that his flock is not scattered, bringing unity. Here’s a verse that proclaims the good news of Jesus as our Shepard: Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. Ezekiel 34:20-22 Thankfully, we have a Sovereign Lord who judges righteously. And notice that his judgment is for the good of the whole flock leaving no sheep behind. God’s judgment is in and the same as the Good Shepherd, aiming for the safety and provision for all the flock in his care.   May the good news that God has judged you worthy of his grace, mercy, and love enable you to feel safe in his care. Let us not be like the neighbor allowing bulls to create chaos and injure those with less power. Empowered by the Spirit, let us join Jesus in bringing peace. I’m Jeff Broadnax, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 100:1-5 • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 • Ephesians 1:15-23 • Matthew 25:31-46

This week’s theme is Christ the King. This week’s “call to worship” Psalm invites the sheep of the pasture to sing praises to the Lord who is worthy of universal glory. The text of Matthew governs the other lectionary texts as it focuses on Christ’s coming enthronement to glory. Matthew’s text calls along as a companion the text in Ezekiel where the Lord likens himself to a Shepherd taking care of his sheep. The New Testament passage will provide the majestic opening text of Ephesians that culminates with the exaltation of Christ reigning in full dominion.

The Shepherd King

Matthew 25:31-46

Are you the type of person who doesn’t mind knowing how a book ends before reading it? Or maybe it doesn’t bother you to know how a movie will end even while you are in the middle of watching it. I suspect most of you do not fall into that category. So, let us be warned that today we will be dealing with some things that are coming to an “end.” First, this is the last day of the Christian calendar before we start over with Advent. For a while now we have been in the season known as “Ordinary Time” or simply “The Season after Pentecost.” This last day of that season has a special name—Reign of Christ or Christ the King. Our passage for the day will take up that theme. So that is the first “end” we should keep in mind today. Our journey from Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and everything in between is coming to an end today.

Also, our passage in Matthew will bring us into the end of Matthew’s Gospel. This passage marks the end of Christ’s life and ministry before his death and resurrection. It’s a passage that also marks the end of a section known as the Eschatological Discourse, which will include a parable to end Jesus’ use of parables in Matthew. If you are wondering what an Eschatological Discourse is about, it is a discussion about end-things. That’s a lot of endings for the beginning of a sermon.

Considering we will be dealing with the “end” of these various elements, we will need to keep in mind all that has gone before. We do not want to separate this day from the rest of the calendar as if now we are talking about something different. We are still talking about Jesus. This day will lay special emphasis on Jesus as King, a fitting end to the whole biblical narrative. Also, we do not want to look at this passage as if it stands alone, detached from the full scope of the biblical witness in Matthew, the New Testament and then the whole Bible. Ultimately, we must read this passage keeping in mind who Jesus has revealed himself to be throughout all of Scripture.

Why are we laying all this groundwork? Because if you have ever read the last chapter of a book or seen the last scene of a movie without hearing the whole story, you run the risk of bringing some distorted assumptions and drawing some faulty conclusions. This particular passage unfortunately has at times suffered in this way. We will try to avoid that so we can “end” well!

Read Matthew 25:31-46

The passage begins in parable form. We are given a simile involving a shepherd separating sheep and goats. This parable is quickly dropped, leaving the rest of the passage to portray a judgment scene. We should proceed holding lightly to any “literal” interpretation. What we can hold firm to is “Who” this passage is about. Jesus.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. (Matthew 25:31 ESV)

Jesus is introduced from the start as “the Son of Man” and after being seated on a throne of glory he is from there on referred to as the “King” and “Lord.” However we slice this passage, in the end, Jesus is King. This is the same Jesus who entered our brokenness and darkness to bring us into his glorious kingdom. He does not stand aloof from those he judges, nor is his judgment different than that of his Father. We can rest assured that Jesus aims to bring us into his own relationship with the Father, the same relationship Jesus maintained throughout his entire life and ministry including its culminating death and resurrection.

Notice the scope of Jesus’ reign as king. “All the angels” and “all the nations” are gathered before him. We have an image of all heaven and earth coming together with Jesus. This is the “end” the Father had in mind from before the beginning of creation. We have some language of “separation” that follows, but the Father’s aim is not to separate heaven from earth but rather to bring them together under the rule of his Son Jesus Christ.

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matthew 25:32-33 ESV)

What do we make of this image of the shepherd separating “people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”? This was a common practice of shepherds, so it would have been familiar to the original hearers of this parable. Shepherds would often keep both sheep and goats in their flocks. At certain times, like milking the goats and shearing the sheep, they would separate the animals from one another. The act of separating wasn’t arbitrary or for bad behavior— it was to serve a fruitful purpose. But we know Jesus is not strictly talking about sheep and goats. He is talking about “people.” We don’t like the idea of people being separated from one another because that hinders relationship. But there are times that separation is the most fruitful thing we can do for the relationship. Have you ever had to separate two people because one of them was acting in ways contrary to the relationship? Or maybe you can think of times in your own relationships where constructive conflict broke down into chaotic discord. The best action may have been to separate until coming together could be fruitful again. This is the angle we will take for the parable Jesus uses to lead into his words of judgment.

The “goats” are cast as the offending party. After being separated from the sheep, they are placed on the “left” hand, which is often the biblical designation for the “wicked.” The sheep are placed at Jesus’ “right” hand, the biblical designation for the “righteous.” Judgement has begun. We are often told in our culture not to “judge,” as if that’s the only commandment that should be obeyed. But there is a difference in “judging” and “condemning.” Jesus does tell us that we shouldn’t “condemn,” but when Jesus judges, his judgment is righteous and good. We see with this parable being combined with a judgment scene that righteous judgment involves “separating,” sifting through, and sorting out. But on what basis does Jesus the Shepherd King judge?

We are given an indication by what the King says to both the sheep and the goats after they have been separated.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36 ESV)

He addresses the sheep first by telling them they are blessed by the Father and they have an inheritance to receive which was prepared for them “from the foundation of the world.” Notice that Jesus tells them that they are already blessed. He is not saying that now he is going to bless them on account of how they lived their lives. Rather, he is indicating that the way they have been living their lives is already living the blessed life of the Father. Then he does something curious. He starts recounting how they have been relating to Jesus. Jesus credits them with feeding him when he was hungry and giving him drink when he was thirsty. They were hospitable to Jesus when he was a stranger and they clothed him when he was naked. They took care of him when he was sick and in prison. Do you see the orientation of their lives? It is turned towards fruitful relationship with the Lord.

But here is where we may scratch our heads. The sheep have no clue of when they ever did such a thing. They seem completely baffled by Jesus’ judgment on them. So, they asked the king when they did any of these things for him.

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40 ESV)

And the King tells them that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus has equated their actions towards others as actions towards himself. Jesus in no way separates himself from others, be sheep or goats. He is so intimately connected to them that he can judge actions to others as actions to himself.

Now Jesus is going to address the goats. He starts in similar fashion as he did with the sheep, but only in the negative. Instead of telling them they are blessed he declares that they are the opposite:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46 ESV)

Again, he is not cursing them because of bad merits, but rather he is stating what is already there. The goats have an orientation to life that is equated to living a cursed life. And what does this accursed life look like? Jesus goes through the same list he had for the sheep, only this time it’s everything that the goats didn’t do for Jesus. They too are judged by how they relate to Jesus, which comes to light in how they relate to others. They acknowledge him as Lord, but they don’t relate to him in the same way the sheep did.

Let’s take an opportunity to add a current play on the word “goat” to press home the orientation or way of life being exemplified by the goats in Jesus’ judgment. We have a modern acronym of G.O.A.T., which stands for “Greatest Of All Time.” In the sports world, for example, to be the G.O.A.T. of a specific sport is to be the best ever. Everyone else is “less” than the G.O.A.T. Jesus’ use of goats to stand in for people who have no regard for others they deemed less than themselves is perhaps a fortuitous image. If someone sees themselves as the Greatest Of All Time where there is no room for others, especially for someone considered “the least of these,” then that person is living a life that runs contrary to the life found in the relationship shared by the Father, Son and Spirit.

The Triune God for all eternity has never existed in relationship characterized by such disregard of the other. This is not how Jesus lived among us and it’s not the blessed life he shares with us. So, it is not the inheritance prepared for us “from the foundation of the world.” To be a G.O.A.T. in this way is to live as if our relationships with others has nothing to do with our relationship with Christ. It is to live as if we are already separated from others by our own greatness. It is to place oneself on a self-made throne where glory is hoarded for self-worship and the King of all creation is rejected on account of poor “judgment.” Doesn’t Jesus know I’m the G.O.A.T.? Why on earth would he expect me to lower myself to serve the likes of such pitiful creatures who can’t feed or clothe themselves?

Now we come to judgment. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Notice the goats “go away.” Jesus does not cast them away or run them off arbitrarily. They go on their own accord. Their whole life is oriented in disregard of the King and his reign as anything they want to be part of. So, the natural end is to continue down this path living like a G.O.A.T. with no room for anyone but themselves. In this way it wasn’t Jesus’ judgment on them that sends them into eternal punishment, but rather it is their judgment on Jesus that makes them good company for the likes of the “devil and his angels.”

Now we come to the end of a sermon full of “ends.” But before we close, it seems important to strike the same chord here at the end as Jesus struck at the beginning of his discourse. Otherwise we may walk away thinking this was a “dead-end.”

Let’s remember some important context. Jesus is delivering this parable and discourse as he is standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking his beloved city Jerusalem, which is occupied by the ruthless and dominate power of the world—the Roman Empire. The religious leaders of this city are conspiring with their own oppressors to have him crucified. The inhabitants of this city will also follow suit by rejecting Jesus as their true king. He has with him an entourage of broken men who will forsake him, one will betray him, and all will be scattered. Jesus is facing complete abandonment, utter rejection and a brutal death. This King’s reign seems destined for defeat before it begins. This King seems to be facing his own end. Yet here he stands and speaks of glory. He sees beyond all the “ends” and speaks in triumphant discourse of the new beginning he will bring as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. When Jesus shares these words, he is speaking as the King of Hope.

So, let’s not interpret his words outside his kingly rule of Hope. Rather, these are words of warning, of urgency to turn to Jesus in the sure hope that in him is blessing life forevermore. He now stands before you, calling you to himself as the only King who loves you more than he loves himself. He calls you into a life of blessing, a life that can be received right now among brothers and sisters who share the same pasture and gather together to worship.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life
  • How did the illustration of removing the bull from the cows inform how you thought about judgment?
  • Have you heard in our culture the idea that people shouldn’t judge one another? What do you think of this claim? Agree? Disagree?
From the sermon
  • The sermon began with the caution not to read this passage disconnected from the full biblical witness. Discuss the importance of this approach when reading Scripture. What problems might we encounter if we read a passage as if it stands alone? What difference does it make knowing the passage is primarily about Jesus?
  • The sermon talked about the purpose of separating the sheep from the goats was for a “fruitful purpose.” Can you think of examples where separating people was “fruitful” for the relationship? Can you think of examples where separating was not “fruitful”? Share how seeing Jesus the King as the one who does the “separating” makes a difference for you.
The sermon concluded on a note of hope. How can reading passages of judgment along the lines of hope make a difference?

Sermon for November 29, 2020 Advent 1

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3001 | To Photograph the Unseeable Greg Williams In April of 2019, a strange picture hit the newsfeed and went viral. After ten straight years of work by a team of 200 scientists, they were able to photograph the unseeable. Most of us remember this picture of Sagittarius A, the first black hole to ever be photographed. This blurry image shows the silhouette of the black hole against the radioactive gas around its event horizon. The black hole can’t be seen because it swallows and destroys light itself. Sagittarius A is 26,000 light-years away, 156 quadrillion miles. Looking at it is like trying to read a newspaper in LA while sitting in New York. The picture of it is the work of lasers, telescopes, satellites, and acres of equations we can’t even imagine. This image is an approximation of a reflection of an idea of what it might be like. Prophecy in its biblical form is similar, a reflection of a refraction of a reality. It’s usually rendered in the language of the apocalyptic like Mark 13: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Mark 13:24-26 (ESV) This genre of writing is wild, highly symbolic, and more interested in conveying feelings than events. Jesus is talking about the apocalyptic events of the destruction of the temple, which would happen in the next generation. This is also a brief glimmer of the great apocalypse at his second coming. Again, the writing is meant to explain feelings, not catalog events, or map out timelines. As we enter the advent season, we reflect on the miraculous events of God entering our world in human form and the hope of a Messiah! Whether we become mesmerized by the puzzle pieces of scripture coming together, a child from the line of David, born in Bethlehem. Or cosmic events, a new star appearing in the east and angels in the sky. The real event is Immanuel himself. God with Mary and Joseph in the animal stall. God with us today in our place and space. And God with us in his pending return. In spite of all of the trappings, attractions, and details of the season that can vie for our attention it is the presence and person of Jesus who is the star! I’m Greg Williams, speaking of life.

Psalm 80-1-7, 17-19 • Isaiah 64:1-9 • 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9 • Mark 13:24-37

The theme this week is all passes away, mercy endures. In the call to worship in Psalm 80, the poet pleads with God to bring mercy on them and reclaim them as his people. In Isaiah 64, the prophet begs for mercy for God’s people who are clay in the hands of the Potter. In 1 Corinthians, Paul talks to this troubled community about how God will keep them and hold them until the last day. Our sermon is based on Mark 13, which gives the terrifying apocalyptic image of the temple’s destruction in AD 70, an early signal that God’s glory no longer rests there, but with the new community in Christ.

A Seat at the End of the World

Mark 13:24-37 ESV

One of the most memorable artistic events of this generation surrounds a very simple painting called Balloon Girl. This piece was painted by Banksy—an anonymous painter and activist who quickly paints graffiti art that often has an underlying, alarming message for the modern world. He uses images to stimulate discussion and draw attention to various causes. And nobody knows who he is!

Balloon Girl is a stencil image he’s used many times and which has become part of his brand. A framed original of it was recently sold for a million pounds at auction in London. When the gavel dropped, an alarm went off inside the painting and a shredder turned on in the frame, shredding the valuable work into pieces!

Banksy triumphed again, renaming the painting “Love is in the Bin” as a protest against capitalism and the commodification of art, which is meant to belong to everyone. Whether or not we agree with this firebrand artist’s methods or message, one thing is for sure, he presents a message in a startling way.

The language Jesus uses in Mark 13 is similar. Let’s read it.

Read Mark 13:24-37 ESV.

Here Jesus is using a highly symbolic, bombastic, terrifying way of communicating called the “apocalyptic.” Like Banksy’s message-laden theatrics, apocalyptic was a way to draw attention to catastrophe or life-changing, world-changing realities. Apocalyptic language was used in the Old Testament in Ezekiel, Isaiah and primarily in Daniel to talk about cataclysmic events of the time and sometimes to shine a light toward future events.

Daniel’s recurring image of the Son of Man was an esoteric way of prophesying Jesus’ first coming to earth. Jesus took on this title as a signal that these events Daniel foretold were happening.

In the New Testament, apocalyptic is also used in this passage here, and then most famously in John’s Revelation. These bizarre images—beasts, dragons, blood moons—were used to talk about events at the time of the Roman Empire and to shine a dim light into the future.

Apocalyptic language was often used to emphasize how something feels rather than what literally was happening or going to happen. it’s similar, in some ways, to Banksy’s work. He doesn’t believe the world is shredding up little girls and balloons, but sometimes it feels like it!

Jesus’ words here described the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 and the slaughter of thousands. It wasn’t the literal end of the world, but it certainly felt like it! The sun wasn’t literally extinguished and the stars didn’t fall from the sky, but it felt like it!

The ancient historian Josephus described the siege of the temple:

Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, butchered wherever they were caught. Round the Altar the heaps of corpses grew higher and higher, while down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood and the bodies of those killed at the top slithered to the bottom.

This graphic account is what Jesus predicted in this chapter using symbolic apocalyptic language. Be ready. Be alarmed. This is how this day will feel.

This kind of language is an important part of our interaction with Scripture and therefore our relationship with God and life itself. This passage is, as we’ve said, primarily about the fall of the temple, but it also sends some echoes to the end of the world itself, as John described later. That’s something we can approach today and learn from. Let’s look at three ideas when it comes to reading some of the most difficult scriptures and talking about one of the most difficult topics—the “end of the world.” (This is not the end of earth, however – it is the end of the world as we know it, the world under the sway of sin.)

Let’s break this down into three cautions:

  • Fixation
  • Forgetting
  • Keep watch!

Fixation

There’s a great old bit of church commonsense wisdom that we should never be too heaven-bound to be any earthly good. If we are constantly watching the sky for Jesus to return or trying to make these texts into a horoscope of the future, we are missing the point. We can become too “heaven-bound” to engage in the world, which Jesus called us to and modeled for us.

When we get fixated on the end of all things, it can be easy to forget what and—more importantly—who is right in front of us. Jesus had a lot more to say about how we should love and treat others than when the end of the world is exactly going to happen. Obsession over signs and symbols can lead to distraction and fear, or worse.

James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior in the 1980s, was very public about his faith but not very careful about what he said. He became known as an extremist who said that environmental concerns were unimportant because Jesus was going to come back before it was a problem. He justified several irresponsible ecological moves by saying that Christ was going to come back anyway, so why bother?! He became an embarrassment to the country, and to the faith, furthering a stereotype that we are unconcerned about the reality in front of us.

This kind of perspective entirely misses Jesus’ words about his glorious coming. He never told us to give up our responsibilities for stewarding resources and relationships. He sent us, again and again, back to working out our relationship with him by working out our relationship with the world around us.

Paul dealt with this escapist mindset in writing to the Thessalonian church. This was a small, beleaguered community that was being hounded by their neighbors for their newfound faith. They had been excluded from society, losing jobs and livelihood because of Christ, even to the point that some were martyred for their faith.

They became fixated with the apocalypse, dropping the responsibilities of daily life so they could watch the skies. They’d fallen into irresponsibility for their society, and even in their moral standards. Paul doesn’t offer them justification for this laziness. Instead, he paints a picture that is very industrious:

To aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 ESV)

He doesn’t tell them to build bunkers or hoard food to prepare for the end, but to live gently with the great hope that God will take care of them. The cure for fixation is HOPE, and that is our Advent theme today. We have the greatest HOPE that God will put things to rights, and this world isn’t all there is.

Forgetting

I’ll refer to the opening line from C.S. Lewis’s classic Screwtape Letters, a work about a demon trying to tempt a soul:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

The same is true of the apocalypse. Neither extreme is helpful—fixating on it or forgetting about it. Fixating on it tunes us out of our blessings and responsibilities in this life; forgetting about it tunes us almost too far in. We become so obsessed with building our house in this world that we forget it’s on sand.

The modern world is imminently distracting. We are bombarded with information right at our fingertips. We can bring up more literature in front of us in ten seconds than was even published two hundred years ago in all the world! Throughout most of human history, you saw your family, a few interactions in a village and maybe up to fifty people on a Sunday at church. Now you can interact with hundreds, thousands of people online before you eat breakfast!

It’s easy to forget that the world is here in a delicate balance, only at the mercy of God. It’s easy to forget that one day it will all come to an end and the new age will begin with Christ enthroned again on earth. Jobs, titles, status, commissions and corner offices won’t matter at that point.

Look at our passage here, which is a prophecy about something right at hand and a fore-echo of the future. Think of this rural, agrarian society without weather balloons and maps—they would have to be experts on the movements of the world around them as just a matter of survival. Jesus’ apocalyptic picture says even this rudimentary navigation will be done away with:

And the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. (Mark 13:25 ESV)

All of your coordinates, everything you know, will be shaken up when Christ returns. All of the ways we try to orient ourselves in the world, by this star, that direction, or this mindset, will “fall from the sky.” Everything that we once held as a sure thing will be shaken.

This happens over and over, not just in the ultimate cataclysmic end. Jesus is describing the “apocalypse” of the Jewish way of life with the destruction of the temple. For people of that day, the Temple was a given. It was their North Star, and their whole emotional universe orbited around it. No wonder Jesus used such strong language to describe its destruction.

But we see these institutions and “sure things” fall in our world, don’t we? It’s easy to forget that Washington, DC, is just a collection of buildings with very normal human beings working inside. It’s easy to forget that the economy depends on a gymnasium-sized room in New York teeming with normal folks.

This year, the coronavirus gained momentum globally. The headlines seemed to change every hour, announcing new outbreaks, school and business closings and travel shutdowns. Grocery stores were gutted of basic supplies. In a matter of a week, the world changed and was waiting anxiously to hear where it will all go. In some ways, it felt like the stars are falling from the sky.

And just the week before we were worried about which famous person had a breakup or which basketball player got a new pair of shoes!

Again, this is the time to anchor our HOPE beyond what we see in front of us. Don’t forget about the world, but don’t let it blind you either. Your hope is bigger and stronger and eternal, not temporary.

Stay Alert

One powerful moment in this discussion turns a popular apocalyptic activity on its head. Jesus alludes to the timeline because he knows someone will be trying to map out the moment:

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:32-33)

Jesus is talking specifically about the fall of the temple, but he’s also providing us lessons and insight into the second coming. He says, “No one knows when this will happen, not even me.” What stronger warning could we get that trying to predict the apocalypse is pointless! Jesus himself doesn’t know when it’s going to be!

He doesn’t offer us any ciphers or riddles about how to predict the exact date this will all happen. His directive for us is simple: stay alert. This is the best approach when looking at some of the stranger scriptures around the Second Coming: Jesus is returning, so be ready.

Look at the context. Jesus spends about 45 seconds talking about apocalyptic matters. Turn the page, and he spends hours and days talking with the apostles at the Last Supper—instituting the day-to-day reality of what it means to be God’s people. Stay alert, be ready, live your life in hope.

Jesus gives us an image of his ascension to the throne:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Mark 13:26 ESV)

This verse offers us a strange image, which is a reference back to Daniel about the powerful, esoteric character of the Son of Man. This is often misread as a picture of Jesus coming down to earth in a thundercloud at the second coming. That’s going to happen in some form, but this is a picture of Jesus returning to the Father and taking his rightful seat at the Father’s right hand.

In other words, this is Jesus’ coronation as King, which happened in the first century. He is the King now, and he will be the King then. Reality will never be the same; the relationship with God and humanity is changed fundamentally. We await the day when this is fully expressed with Christ’s Second Coming, yet we also live in kingdom reality now, every day.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life
  • Have you ever seen something so beautiful and glorious that you can’t put it into words? A mountain peak? The birth of your children? How do you explain it to others?
  • Is your spiritual life like this? How do you put it into words?
  • Is it hard to stop over-describing something and just worship? Why?
Questions for sermon
  • The sermon used Banksy’s art as a way to describe the apocalyptic form of writing—chaotic, bombastic, messy and unforgettable. Have you ever seen art like that? (paintings, movies, plays, etc.) What made it unforgettable?
  • Do you personally tend to err on the side of fixating or forgetting when it comes to thinking about Christ’s return? How do you stay balanced—holding the mystery without obsessing over it or disregarding it?
  • This kind of apocalyptic destruction seems to happen in cycles in our world, with everything from our governmental institutions to the religious ones. Does the fact that all these institutions are temporary change our attitude toward them?