Sermon for November 25, 2018

Note on today’s liturgy: November 25, 2018 is Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday. It concludes Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar, marking the end of the worship year (Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary). Next Sunday (December 2, 2018) we enter a new worship year (Year C) with Advent Season. Our focus today is the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, whom God exalted to rule over the whole universe. On this Sunday, we look back to Jesus’ transfiguration, resurrection and ascension and forward to his appearing in glory as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Scripture Readings: Dan. 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps. 93;
Rev. 1:4-8; John 18:33-37 

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from John 18, Daniel 7 and Revelation 1, drawing on 
Expositor’s Bible Commentary and Anchor Bible Dictionary)

All Hail King Jesus!

Introduction

People in many countries, the U.S. included, seem fascinated with Britain’s royals. They enjoy the pomp and ceremony surrounding the Queen and her family. In the U.S., everything the royal family does (marriages, births, even divorces) makes the news. That’s a bit ironic, given that Americans are quite adamant about not wanting to be ruled by a king or queen. Perhaps they should rethink that position though, given that Americans (and all the people of the earth) have a king—one whose kingdom is not of this world. We’re talking, of course, about King Jesus.

Christ the King (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Early in the morning of the day on which he died on the cross, Jesus affirmed his kingship:

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:33-36, NRSV)

Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, was curious as to why the Jewish religious authorities had brought Jesus before him. Jesus didn’t look or act like the other rebels he had seen. And, Jesus’ answers bewildered him.

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37, NRSV)

It became clear to Pilate that Jesus was not a dangerous revolutionary. When Jesus said he was born to be a king of some other-worldly kingdom, Pilate probably thought Jesus was a philosopher or eccentric visionary—certainly not a threat to the Roman government. But Jesus was speaking the truth! He truly was (and is) a king! He does have a kingdom!

Jesus’ kingship is well established in the prophecies of the Old Testament. The book of Daniel tells of the prophet Daniel’s strange visions. Though they are full of symbolism, their message for us is clear: Jesus was destined to be a king.

As I [Daniel] watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:13-14, NRSV)

Who is this that Daniel sees being enthroned as king? It’s a person “like a human being,” or “like a son of man” (NIV). This glorified being, who as king will rule over all the earth forever, is human, yet divine. This person, the only one both fully human and divine, is our Savior. Jesus often referred to himself as “the Son of Man.”

But there’s more: Israel’s King David recorded that God had made a covenant with him. David said it was “an everlasting covenant.”

The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” (2 Sam. 23:3-5, NRSV)

What was this everlasting covenant that God made with David? Note what it says in Psalm 132:

The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.” (Ps. 132:11-12, NRSV)

Jesus, who was born from David’s lineage, will be king.

“There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one. His enemies I will clothe with disgrace, but on him, his crown will gleam.” (Ps. 132:17-18, NRSV)

The prophecies were true: Jesus was born of David’s line in the town of Bethlehem. He was Lord and God in the Old Testament and his kingship was celebrated throughout the Psalms:

The LORD is king, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.” (Ps. 93:1-2, NRSV)

The psalmist declared that the Lord (the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus) is not only king over the world but also its creator, who “established the world.” J

Jesus is proclaimed king throughout the Old and New Testaments. We’ve seen a few of the Old Testament references; let’s now look at a prophecy of Jesus’ return as king in the book of Revelation. As we do, we must remember that the book of Revelation was written by John to  early Christians. Some of it sounds strange to our ears, but the original readers were accustomed to its literary style, called apocalyptic, which is highly symbolic. John likely used this style in order to hide the message of the book from the Roman authorities. That should not be surprising, given that a major purpose of the book is to show that God is sovereign over the governments of the world, the government of Rome in particular. Note this from Revelation chapter 1:

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (Rev. 1:4-8, NRSV)

Christ is Lord, capital L. Unlike the British royals, who are basically more symbol and tradition than rulers, King Jesus will rule. He is not only a king, he is the King of kings. He will be in charge over all. He will make dramatic changes in this world and how it is run.

Americans fought the Revolutionary War to end the rule of a British king over them. Americans wanted to rule themselves—to choose their own leader. Ever since, Americans have had mixed feelings about kings and queens. Some even feel that the U.S. President should not bow to the royalty of another country.

Be that as it may, the decision has already been made—for Americans, and for people in all countries. Everyone, everywhere already has a king and his name is Jesus. Not only will all people in all nations bow before him, the Bible says all will kneel before him as Lord. When he returns to earth bodily, King Jesus will be recognized as the universal Judge with absolute dominion over everything and everyone.

For us who are disciples of Jesus, that reality is not something we fear or resist. We understand that his rule will bring about welcome change:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert….

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:5-6; 9-10, NRSV)

What a beautiful picture of Jesus’ kingdom! Certainly the world has not experienced anything like it on this side of Eden.

Conclusion

It’s not likely that any of us will meet the Queen of England. But if we ever do, we’ll have to endure all sorts of protocol. You don’t just go up to the Queen and give her a friendly hug or pat on the back, or even shake her hand. If any handshaking is going to happen, she must first extend her hand to you.

In contrast to how the Queen of England is approached, our King—King Jesus—invites us into a personal relationship with him. He welcomes us with open arms. He treats us like family. Jesus isn’t like any ruler, royal or not, that we’re familiar with. Our King is a champion of the poor and helpless, the widow and the fatherless. He is our healer and protector. King Jesus is forgiving and merciful. When he ushers in the fulness of his kingdom there will be no more death or sorrow—only joy and gladness, forever. Who wouldn’t want that?

All hail King Jesus! Come soon!


Here is a video that could be used to introduce or conclude this sermon:

Sermon for November 18, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Sam. 1:4-20; Ps. 16;
Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Sermon by Ted Johnston
(From Mark 13:1-37, drawing on commentary from 
New Bible Commentary and Bible Knowledge Commentary)

The Little Apocalypse

Introduction

In our journey through the Gospel of Mark, we come to chapter 13, a passage often called “The Little Apocalypse.” Here Jesus gives a prophecy concerning a coming time of judgment. Unfortunately, some people misuse it, trying to force-fit it into their prophetic scheme. In doing so they miss the point of Jesus’ exhortation to his original disciples and the point that applies to all followers of Jesus down through the centuries, including all of us. Let’s see if we can hear what the Lord was actually saying.

Our Gospel reading today covered Mark 13:1-8. In this sermon we’ll also look at the rest of the chapter so we see the full message, in its context.

[Note to preacher: if vv. 1-8 were already read, pick up from there—either reading vv. 9-37 as you begin, or as they occur within the sermon.]

Background

A little background will help us understand the meaning Mark intended for his original readers. It’s likely that Mark wrote his Gospel sometime during the period of AD 66-69. He likely sent it to churches in Italy, including the house churches in Rome. Rome had burned in AD 64 and Christians were blamed by Roman Emperor Nero. Both Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome somewhere between 64 and 68. Mark chapter 13 would have meant a great deal to the Christians in Rome at this very perilous time in history.

In chapter 13, Mark quotes extensively the words Jesus had spoken about 40 years earlier, just before being crucified in Jerusalem. Jesus predicted a terrible time of judgment coming upon that city and upon all of Judea. He also warned and exhorted his disciples, noting that the coming judgment would impact them as well. Persecution was coming their way and he wanted to prepare them. When Mark wrote his Gospel, the fulfillment of what Jesus prophesied some 40 years earlier was at hand. Thus Jesus’ words were of great importance to those early Christians.

The Little Apocalypse of Mark 13 falls within a long section in Mark’s Gospel that addresses the judgment that comes when Israel, formed as a nation by God to represent all humankind, rejects Jesus, her Messiah. The Little Apocalypse sounds a severe warning that, though tinged with sadness, also offers the hope of redemption that follows judgment. As Mark explains through the course of his Gospel, the one who does the judging is none other than the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, who having united himself to our humanity, takes upon himself our judgment, dies on the cross in our place, and is resurrected to new, glorified human life, thus redeeming us.

Warning and exhortation

Mark first introduces Jesus’ warning concerning the judgment coming upon God’s people Israel in chapter 11 with the account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem where he curses a fig tree (a symbol of the nation of Israel) and drives the merchants from the Temple courts. Both are signs of God’s judgment against his people and its corrupt Temple-centered religious system. Then in Mark 13, Jesus gives a detailed warning to his inner circle of disciples concerning the coming judgment, making it clear that it will also test them.

The Conquest of Jerusalem (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In Mark 13:2, Jesus makes it clear that the coming judgment will mean the total destruction of the Temple. Jesus’ disciples no doubt believe that this event will mean the end of the current age and the beginning of the Messianic age. Thus they are anxious to know the signs that will announce the arrival of the judgment (Mark 13:3-4). In response, Jesus avoids the issue of timing (though he tells them in Mark 13:30 that these things will occur before the present generation is gone). Rather than focusing on the timing, he gives them a simple, yet vital exhortation: Be watchful! (Mark 13:5).

What are the disciples to watch for? First (Mark 13:5-6) Jesus says to pay careful heed to avoid false teachers—those who deceive. Second (Mark 13:7-8) Jesus tells them to watch for various alarming events. Both parts of this exhortation would have been highly relevant to Jesus’ first disciples and also to the original readers of Mark’s Gospel living in Rome (where several early heresies in the church were erupting, and a great deal of political intrigue and threat was ongoing).

Despite these ominous signs, these followers of Jesus are told not to be alarmed or overly-concerned (Mark 13:7a, 8b). Certainly, they are not to try to cobble together a speculative prophetic timeline! Instead, they are to see the coming time of trouble as an opportunity to witness to Jesus and his kingdom (Mark 13:9b) by proclaiming the gospel (Mark 13:10).

Preach the gospel!

Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples in about AD 30 and then through Mark to Jesus’ disciples in Rome just prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, and to his disciples down through the ages, is the same: preach the gospel!  Mark puts this exhortation in the form of a command that is essentially the same as the one given by Matthew in his Gospel (Matt. 28:19)—we call it the Great Commission. Mark, no doubt, before writing his Gospel, had seen obedience to this command in the ministries of Peter, Paul (who had been martyred for their testimony to Jesus) and other apostles, New Testament prophets, pastor/elders and other Christians.

The promise that comes with a warning

According to Jesus, the terrible, earth-shattering effects of the judgment coming on Jerusalem and Judea will include the breakdown under stress of the closest of natural human ties (Mark 13:12)—the opposite of how Jesus’ true ‘family’ (Mark 3:34-35) is to relate to one another, despite times of hardship. Indeed, many of Jesus’ followers will be hated by their own kin for loyalty to their Lord and Savior (Mark 13:13a). Yet, despite the threats they face, they are given a great promise: faithful endurance to the end, in the face of persecution, will mean salvation (Mark 13:13b), even if not safety in this world.

Don’t misunderstand: Jesus is not saying that the loyalty of his followers in the face of persecution earns salvation. Scripture is clear: salvation is a gift of grace apart from our works and personal merit. However, Jesus is saying that by persevering loyally through even through the most challenging of times, his followers will experience the reality of Jesus’ love and life (their salvation) both now, and then in its fullness in the life that is coming to the faithful in a new heaven and new earth.

But when will this occur?

Understandably, Jesus’ disciples ask their Lord, “When?” Using carefully veiled language, Mark records Jesus’ answer by hinting that these events will come upon Jerusalem and Judea when the idolatrous Roman army standards are planted triumphantly in the temple at Jerusalem (Mark 13:14).

Though Mark puts Jesus’ words in code language, the little addition he gives in Mark 13:14 shows that Mark expects his readers to understand what Jesus is referring to, for the code language used is taken from the familiar book of Daniel where we learn of the desecration of the Temple by the persecutor Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BC. The abomination in that case was an idol, set up in the temple itself, thus defiling it.

The verses that follow in Mark 13 seem to describe the terrible suffering in the first Jewish wars, when Roman armies invaded Galilee and Judea beginning in AD 66. These terrible events took place only a generation after Jesus’ death, and the Christian church in Palestine would have shared in the suffering at that time. Tradition says that Christians in Judea fled at that time to Pella, east of the Jordan River, taking Jesus’ warning to heart (Mark 13:14).

Don’t be hoodwinked

One of Jesus’ most urgent warnings to his disciples at that time (and it certainly applies today) is the need to avoid false Messiahs and prophets (Mark 13:22). One of the tactics these deceivers use is various signs and miracles. Being quite impressive, these can hoodwink the gullible. Perhaps that is why Jesus performed miracles only sparingly.

Everything Jesus predicts up through Mark 13:23 can be fitted into the time around AD 68-70, with Roman armies ravaging Palestine and Roman emperors fighting for the throne. Mark’s readers, receiving this message somewhere around AD 68, would have recognized the references, even if some are not clear to us now.

Some see in Mark 13:24-27 a shift in perspective, viewing these verses as referring to what will happen at the very end of the age when Jesus returns bodily to earth. However, others see these verses as continuing to address what occurred in and around AD 70. Either way, the Bible uses the imagery of sun, moon and stars (Mark 13:24-25) to refer to earthly powers—using coded language, he’s talking about the fall of governments (i.e., the Roman Empire), not heavenly bodies. When that is occurring, the Son of Man will come in glory to gather his chosen ones (Mark 13:26–27). The “ends of the earth” (Mark 13:27) again draws on the imagery of Daniel and contains a hint of the Gentile mission—it’s not a reference to gathering in only faithful Jews, as some claim.

In deciding on the timing of “all these things” (Mark 13:30a), note that this phrase seems to be included in Jesus’ statement concerning “this generation” (Mark 13:30b)— the generation of the disciples that Jesus is directly addressing. Attempts to relate Jesus’ predictions in Mark 13:24-27 to events in our day (or events that occurred when the Jewish state in Palestine was founded in 1948 or some other time in our generation) seem unjustifiable. That being said, it does seem likely that Jesus is looking forward, predicting continuing and escalating trouble in the world down through the ages. That trouble will often mean persecution for those who follow Jesus, though there is also a message of hope: deliverance follows the judgment. That deliverance, in its ultimate sense, will come with the in-breaking of the fullness of the kingdom and the coming of a new heaven and new earth. We can count on that!

Guidelines for understanding this passage

Here in Mark 13, Jesus unveils truth about himself and forthcoming events. In considering how to understand his message, three things should be kept in mind:

  1. When Mark was writing this to the churches in Rome, using open language was hazardous due to the political dangers. Thus he uses code language to conceal the meaning from outsiders, including Roman authorities. John did the same thing in using code language in writing the book of Revelation,  some 20 years later.
  2. This code language is intended to reveal, not mystify, and certainly not to send Jesus’ followers off on a wild, speculative goose-chase. Beware prediction addiction!
  3. The main point of what Jesus is saying is to urge his followers to be faithful. His purpose is not to enable them to predict the future and to set dates. This is shown by the fact that not even Jesus knows the date of these things (Mark 13:32). But this we know (because Jesus promises it): In the shaking of all else, the words of Jesus remain unshaken (Mark 13:31)—a saying used in the Old Testament for the words of God himself. And so, prophecies (like this one) are ultimately about revealing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and to reveal the true nature of his coming kingdom.

Conclusion

Thus ends The Little Apocalypse, a message concerning the judgment that comes when people respond to Jesus once they see him clearly. In the first century, when Jesus was revealed to both Jews and Romans, he was rejected and crucified—bringing calamity to Jerusalem and all Judea.

But as Jesus predicted, his death was not the end of the story. No, he rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and came back to earth through the Holy Spirit to begin a ministry of further revelation that is impacting (as Jesus predicted) the entire world.

One day (and we don’t know when that day will be), Jesus will return bodily, in glory, to usher in the fullness of his kingdom, which now is present on earth and growing. In the meantime, our calling as followers of Jesus is not to be fixated on prophetic speculations, not to be overly-worried about world events, and certainly not to pull back into a cave of fearfulness. No, our calling is to do what Jesus told his original followers to do: share with others what we know of this Jesus and his coming kingdom—proclaim the gospel, for it is truth that delivers and transforms!

We’ll have a marvelous opportunity to do just that in the season of Advent that begins soon, leading up to Christmas and our celebrations of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus. Let us, dear ones, with Jesus, and by his Spirit, be about our Father’s business!

Sermon for November 11, 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps. 146;
Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Sermon by Ted Johnston
(From Mark 12 and 1 Kings 17, drawing on insights from 
the New Bible Commentary and the Bible Knowledge Commentary)

Two Lessons About Generosity

Our Gospel and Old Testament readings today tell stories about generosity. Let’s begin with the one in Mark’s Gospel:

[Note to preacher: if today’s passages in Mark and 1 Kings were read in the Scripture reading portion of the service, they need not be read again.]

The widow at the temple

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44)

This passage falls within the section of Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is giving examples of those who reject kingdom values and those who embrace and exemplify them. Ironically, it’s teachers of the Law who reject them. Rather than exemplifying God’s generosity, they love power, position and wealth. Their lives are about an outward show of religion, not about kingdom values. They devour (gobble up) the property of helpless people, perhaps by continually demanding religious contributions.

The Widow’s Mite (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Then, in stark contrast to these religious leaders, Jesus tells of an impoverished widow who willingly and gladly gives God the money on which her life depends—she holds back nothing. This sort of radical, selfless generosity exemplifies the generous heart of God, which soon will be seen when Jesus offers himself on the cross as God’s gift to all humanity. In the incarnation and crucifixion, God gave everything in the person of Jesus. He held back nothing.

The impoverished widow thus mirrors the generosity of God. Though what she gave, monetarily speaking, was insignificant, her actions spoke volumes concerning her heart of generosity. As far as we can tell, she was not being forced to give. The implication is that her generosity was motivated by love for God. She gave in response to what God had done for her. Generous God, generous widow.

Generous God, generous people

True generosity in the lives of God’s people has always been about saying “thanks” to God—their grateful response to God’s great generosity. But what did this widow have to be thankful for? Socially, she was an outcast. Not only was she poor, she was without a husband, and thus was very limited in what she could do in that culture. Yet, she does not seem to consider herself poor. Her actions seem to signify that she saw herself as greatly blessed. She had the gift of life, and lived in the reality that she was a child of God. She responded with generosity.

Look around—look at your life. Has God richly blessed you? Even though times might be tough, and though you may have suffered loss and pain, are there things in your life for which you give God thanks?

Of course there are—you have life, and a relationship with a living, loving, gracious God. You are his child. You are part of this family of faith—a congregation of people who love you and care about you. You have food, clothing and shelter. You are richly blessed.

Giving to God of our treasure through offerings here at church is a tangible way in which we say “thanks!” for the blessings God has poured into our lives—for the new lives we have in Jesus, for the callings we have received to serve all humanity with Jesus, by the power of the Spirit.

The impoverished widow in this story gave all she had to the Lord. In doing so, she demonstrated her trust that God would provide for her for the next day. We might say that she “put her money where her mouth was.” That’s remarkable, considering the human tendency to worry about not having enough, and so to hold tight to what we have. Make no mistake about it, it was true then and still is true that being generous is an act of faith. Through the generous sharing of what God has given us, we are saying that we trust him to provide what we need, and through us to provide for others.

The widow of Zarephath

This sort of generosity was also exemplified by the widow of Zarephath, who we are told about in our Old Testament reading in 1 Kings.

Then the word of the Lord came to [Elijah]: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’ ”

She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16)

Due to a severe drought, the great prophet Elijah was suffering. So God sent him outside Israel’s territory to the Phoenician town of Zarephath and there introduced him to a gentile widow. How ironic that it would be a gentile, a pagan, and a widowed woman at that, who would, with generosity, come to the aid of God’s prophet.

This widow willingly fetched water for Elijah, but when he asked her for some bread, she was forced to admit her abject poverty and state of near-starvation. Elijah reassures her that God will honor her generous hospitality by multiplying the very little that she possesses—a meager supply of flour and oil. The promise is that God will see to it that she has enough to get them through until the drought ends.

Widow of Zarephath Feeding Elijah (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps recognizing him as a prophet, the woman trusts Elijah and obeys, and the truth of Elijah’s words to her were borne out. God kept his promise as a response to her generosity. Once again, we see the generosity of God himself being reflected in the generosity of a person. This impoverished widow’s generosity to Elijah was a response to the initiative of the generous God. True generosity, you see, is a reflection of God’s goodness to us. Once again, we find the maxim true: Generous God, generous people.

Beware a scarcity mentality

Sadly, we live in a me-centered culture that has a scarcity mentality. It preaches the message: “There’s not enough to go around, so I’d better get more and hold on to what I have.”

This mentality is nothing new, and is not unique to Western culture, for it springs from deep within the fallen human nature we all possess. Sometimes that nature (what Paul calls the flesh) raises its ugly head in extreme ways. The Mazatec Indians in Southwest Mexico are an example. By custom, they seldom wish other people well and hesitate to teach others the trades they have mastered. This inhospitable behavior stems from their concept of “limited good”—they believe there is only so much good, so much knowledge, so much love to go around, and so you must hold tight to what you have. For example, they believe that if you teach another person how to bake bread, you will be draining yourself of that knowledge. They even believe that if you love a second child, you will be loving the first one less. To them, if you wish someone well, you are giving away your own happiness and well-being.

A person and even a whole culture that lives according to this scarcity mentality robs themselves of one of the most important keys to happy, successful living: generosity. Happiness in life is about giving, not getting. It’s about open hands, not closed fists. The two widows in our readings today, though poor, were rich in life due to their generous spirits. From them we learn some important lessons:

  1. At its root, generosity is a response to God’s initiative in our life. Occasions for generosity are more than mere opportunities—they are ways God sets us up to share in his generosity. Let me ask: Where is God calling you to be generous?
  2. When it comes to generosity, what’s important is not the amount given, but the proportion. Both widows in our readings gave all, trusting that God would supply their need. What does that sort of trust look like for you?
  3. Generosity springs from this trust—the belief (call it faith) that God is indeed generous and will supply your need. Where is it that God is calling you to a deeper level of trust by calling you to be more generous in your giving?

Let us ponder these questions in the days ahead as we reflect on these two stories of generous widows.

Sermon for November 4, 2018

Note on today’s liturgy: November 1 in the Western Christian liturgical calendar is All Saints Day—a day to remember and thank God for the lives of God’s people down the centuries who have faithfully witnessed to Christ, often at great cost. Today’s sermon picks up that theme, correcting a common misunderstanding concerning what a saint is.

Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Ps. 119:1-8; 
Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Sermon by Martin Manuel (from Mark 12)

True Devotion: True Sainthood

Introduction

When you hear the word saint, what comes to mind? For many, a saint is an extraordinary person—one with special devotion to God. A holy person. When someone says, “I’m no saint,” they typically mean that they are imperfect. Thus the common understanding is that a saint is a person who is essentially free from sin—one who has devoted their life to doing good and being devoutly religious. However, that understanding is not what the Bible means when it speaks of saints.

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, referencing Ps. 85:8 (KJV), notes that the word saints “seems to be synonymous with the people of God.” It notes that the emphasis in the Bible’s use of the word “does not fall on character… but on divine choice and the bestowal of God’s favor.” In biblical terms, a saint is a person who God, by his initiative, has set apart (sanctified) for his purposes. Just as a person might choose a decorative vessel to hold a plant in their home, God has chosen human vessels for his household. The Bible calls these vessels saints. 

Devoted by God, for God

To call a person a saint does not mean they possess goodness of themselves. Saints are ordinary people (sinners all) who God has set apart (sanctified) by the Spirit, to be participants in the sanctified life of Jesus, our representative and substitute. Thus saints cannot boast of their holiness; neither should they be ashamed about being different from the non-believing world around them.

Those made saints of God can consider themselves early participants in the desire God has for all people. All Saints Day, which occurred last Thursday (November 1), and is celebrated by many churches this Sunday, celebrates these facts. One of the common themes of the day is devotion to God—the devotion that characterizes the people of God—those the Bible calls saints.

Our Scripture readings today emphasize this theme of devotion. In our reading in Ruth, we saw the extraordinary devotion that Ruth had for her mother-in-law Naomi. In this sermon, we’ll see what is said about devotion, and about being a saint, in our readings in Mark’s Gospel and also in the book of Hebrews.

Defining devotion

Generally speaking, devotion involves committing to the service of the object of our devotion the things we possess and control—our time, energy, interests, finances. As people who are devoted to God, we commit all that we are and all that we possess to him—we choose God above self in every aspect of life. But don’t misunderstand a vital truth of the gospel—before we chose God, he chose us. Before we devoted ourselves to God, he devoted himself to us. Biblically speaking, a saint is a person set apart (sanctified) by God through his initiative, not the initiative of the person being set apart. God then expects set-apart-ones to live the set-apart (devoted) life—the life we share with Jesus. What does that life look like? Glad you asked.

Jesus defines true devotion, true sainthood

Our Gospel reading today in Mark sheds light on this important, though often misunderstood topic. It tells of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for the last time before his arrest, and the attacks upon him by various Jewish religious leaders who sought to have him killed. Different groups of these leaders took turns trying to trap Jesus with their questions. Each took their turn in the debate: first the priests, then the Herodians, then the Pharisees, then the Sadducees. All failed to outwit Jesus. Then came a teacher of the law. We pick up the story in Mark’s account:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)

Unlike the previous challengers, this teacher’s query does not appear to be a trick question. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to understand what Jesus believed. In any case, Jesus gave him this answer:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

In his answer, Jesus first quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy 6. To this fundamental creed of the Jews, Jesus added an ethical requirement of the Levitical law that beautifully explains the right relationship between people. We’ll look more at this in a few minutes.

Unlike the others, this Jewish teacher seemed to recognize the wisdom and understanding in Jesus’ answer. He also seemed to understand Jesus’ association of the two commands:

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)

When Jesus heard this answer, he replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). What was it about this Jewish teacher’s response that triggered Jesus’ compliment? Two things:

  •  Jesus saw that the teacher was sincere. He had approached Jesus with a respectful attitude, unlike the others. He listened to, agreed with and summarized Jesus’ statement—quite a contrast with the approach of the others. Though they were, presumably, devoted to the teaching of the Law, including the Shema, there was nothing saintly about their approach! Thus, when it comes to true devotion, intent is important.
  • Jesus saw that the teacher understood that devotion is not synonymous with religious practice. His comparison of the Great Commandments with ceremonial worship showed that he distinguished between true and counterfeit devotion. The ancient practice of offering many religious sacrifices—hundreds and even thousands of animals by some—fell short of revering God and respecting all people. Strangely, people who do not consider themselves religious often understand this truth, a matter that too often evades super-religious types. Jesus said that one who understands this truth is closer to the kingdom of God than those who practice what is essentially empty and thus vain religious devotion.

The makings of a saint

Thus Jesus gets at the heart of what true devotion to God looks like. But who can live up to that? We all fall short. Are we thus without hope? Our reading today in Hebrews gives some needed encouragement and instruction:

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb. 9:14)

Here is the solution to our quandary. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, perfectly obeys God—he is perfectly devoted to God—on our behalf, as our representative and substitute. Jesus’ unblemished life—a life of perfect submission to the Father, out of love—fulfilled the Great Commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, cleanses us inwardly by erasing our sins and consecrating us as holy and devoted to God. The ESV, NASB and NRSV translations of this verse all have “dead works” instead of “acts that lead to death” as in the NIV. Dead works include not only violations of the Law but also fruitless religious activity.

It is this consecration of humanity by Jesus that is the basis of our being saints. The ultimate purpose of that consecration is to set us free, as saints (those set apart by God), to minister to God as his holy (sanctified) vessels. That is what the word serve in Hebrews 9:14 means in context.

Saints are vessels that have been devoted, by God, to his purposes and will.

This then takes us back to what Jesus said in Mark’s account concerning the two Great Commandments of the Law. As those set apart by God (saints), we share, through the Spirit, in what Jesus has done to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

“But,” you might be asking, “what does that sharing look like?” The answer is important, for misunderstanding it leads to many bad results—things like discouragement, weakened faith, self-righteousness, legalism, and even licentiousness.

The truth is that 1) Jesus accomplished obedience for us, and 2) now the Holy Spirit is working that obedience out within us over the course of our lives as we trust in and follow Jesus. Knowing and relying on these twin realities encourages us to confidently live in Christ, yielding to him in all things. Then when we fall short (and we will), we admit it, face it, prayerfully confess it, and go forward with our lives, knowing that we are saints, not sinners. Yes, we are saints who sin, but our sin has been forgiven, and we live accordingly as the saints we were chosen to be.

Instead of saying, “I’m no saint,” we can confidently declare that, in Christ, we are saints, set free to live accordingly, in Christ, by the Spirit. Think about what that means: We have been set apart by the Creator and Owner of all that is! That is a special status—a high calling. Being a saint is not a matter of personal pride—we did not earn this designation. Being a saint is not about being better than others—God selected us because he is good, not because we are good. He did so that we might participate with him in his plan for the restoration of all humanity, indeed all the cosmos!

Conclusion

I’m sure you know the lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s famous song:

Oh, when the saints, go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in

Here is the wonderful truth: If you are a follower of Jesus, you are in that number already. You have been set aside as a saint of God! You and I have been forever devoted to God in and through Jesus. Therefore rejoice! Our Father, who set us apart in his Son before creation and gave us the Holy Spirit, placed us in that number. So saints—march on! March on in your devotion; march on in your participation in the Father’s mission!


The hymn embedded below addresses the All Saints Day theme. It could be shown as an alternate conclusion to this sermon.

Sermon for October 28, 2018

Scripture Readings: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Ps. 34:1-8, 19-22;
Heb. 7:223-28; Mark 10:46-52

Sermon by Sheila Graham 
(from Hebrews 7, Job 42, Mark 10 and Psalm 34, 
drawing from The Expositor's Bible Commentary)

Marvelous and Wonderful!

Introduction

Remember the old hymn, My Savior’s Love? The refrain goes like this:

O how marvelous! O how wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
O how marvelous! O how wonderful!
Is my Savior’s love for me!

The words and music were written by Charles H. Gabriel in 1905. He wrote an estimated 8,000 gospel songs, many about God’s love for us. You might recognize some of the titles: “He Lifted Me,” “More Like the Master,” “Higher Ground,” “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” “Since Jesus Came into My Heart.” So inspiring, uplifting and comforting! We have a God who actually loves us, in spite of ourselves, and we can be in relationship with him. How marvelous! How wonderful!

High Priest—then and now

Our reading today in Hebrews reminds us that we have an eternal high priest in Jesus. It tells us that at any time, we can go to him without fear or shame, knowing he made the perfect sacrifice of himself so our sins could be forgiven, and we could have that relationship with him:

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:23-28, NRSV)

Some of this passage may sound strange to us today, but the author of Hebrews was writing to people who were well acquainted with the Old Testament and the history and traditions of the Jews. They understood Jewish worship, which was centered on the law and the priesthood. God was approached through the priesthood and the prophets.

Now, through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the old was gone, the new had come—an eternal priesthood was established with Jesus as the permanent high priest. Verse 25: “Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

Icon of Christ, the Great High Priest
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This message of grace through Christ was not only for those people, of course. It’s a message that has resonated through the centuries since Christ. No barriers exist between us and our Savior. We can freely approach him, and he will intercede for us. Our sins are forgiven.

But, does freely approaching God almost sound too good to be true sometimes? When we look at ourselves and our shortcomings and sins, we may feel unsure about coming before our perfect Savior. We know our God is holy and pure and righteous, and we are not. Does that create a stumbling block for us? If it does, it shouldn’t.

Let’s look at a couple of examples in the Scriptures when people—people like you and me—approached God fearlessly and even presumptuously.

God and Job

There’s the story of Job, a righteous man who Satan said would curse God if it weren’t for God blessing him all the time. A little background: Job wasn’t an Israelite; he lived in the land of Uz. But like Abraham he was an upright, honest, God-fearing man who God blessed and protected.

But Satan accused Job of hypocrisy. Sure, he’s righteous; who wouldn’t be with all you do for him? Satan said. God then allowed Satan to take away what Job had. First, he destroyed Job financially and then took away Job’s beloved children. Then Satan was allowed to inflict Job personally as well, with severe physical pain.

Job Speaks with His Friends
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

To make matters worse, his wife turned against him, and so did some of his friends, who accused Job of having some secret sins, assuming that God wouldn’t allow Job to suffer without a reason. Though Job didn’t curse God, as Satan said he would, he did get very depressed and began to complain about his situation and to question God. And who could blame him?

Have you ever questioned God? It’s easy to feel God’s love when all is going well for us, but what about when it’s not? What about when we have an unexpected financial setback or lose a loved one or suffer a severe health problem? We might feel we’re being treated unjustly. I hope we would hang in there like Job did, but we might also question God’s love and concern for us.

When we read Job’s story, we see God was quiet at first and just listened, but then God did answer him, and it changed Job’s life. Let’s read Job’s answer when God did respond to his questioning:

Then Job answered the LORD:

“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6, NRSV)

Though God didn’t explain why he allowed Job to suffer, he did remind Job of who he was. Job was humbled. He had presumptuously complained to God about how he felt mistreated. Now God told him who he, God, was.

Sometimes we humans need to remember that God is God and we aren’t.

Among other things, the book of Job shows how little we humans can know of God’s purposes at times, yet we should still have faith in him. It also shows how a human being can have a close personal relationship with God.

All this time, Job thought God was ignoring him in his misery, but God was there with him throughout his sufferings. Though he was not being punished for any particular sin, he came to see he really didn’t deserve an explanation or anything else from God. For the first time he saw himself as he really was, and Job repented.

His friends were shown to be wrong. Just because Job was suffering did not mean God was punishing him for his sins. We can learn much from the story of Job.

There are many examples in the Bible of people presumptuously questioning God: Moses, Abraham, Gideon and Jeremiah, for example. But, did you notice, God doesn’t seem to mind. We’re his children. He loves us. God allows us to come before him with all our wants and needs and, yes, with our complaints and questions, even when we’re a bit presumptuous in doing so. Let’s look at another example.

Jesus and the blind man

Jesus and his disciples, followed by a crowd of people, seemed to be in a hurry as they traveled out of the city of Jericho. Let’s read the account in Mark 10.

 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52, NRSV)

This blind man wouldn’t be ignored, even though those following Jesus, probably including Jesus’ own disciples, tried to quiet him: “Don’t bother Jesus; quit your hollering. We’ve got someplace to be. Jesus doesn’t have time for you.” But Jesus did have time, and because Bartimaeus believed and wouldn’t be discouraged from speaking up, he was healed.

Healing of the Blind Man
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

There are many other examples. Remember the Samaritan woman who wouldn’t leave Jesus alone until he promised to heal her daughter, or the woman who reached out and touched Jesus’ robe in the crowd, or the guys who dropped their sick friend down through a roof right in front of Jesus?
God always has time to listen to us, his children. He wants to hear from us, yes, in worship and praise and thanksgiving, but also when it comes to our questions and complaints. He wants a relationship with us.

Have you, like Job, ever been angry with God? You can go to him and express that anger. He wants you to. He knows how hard it is sometimes for us as human beings to understand. It comes down to a matter of faith and trust in him.

This world is temporary. God has better things in store for us. But, for now, we live in an unpredictable and dangerous world. We aren’t promised we won’t suffer while we’re here, just the opposite. However, we can take comfort knowing that God has promised that he will never abandon us in our pain, grief or loss.

Our relationship with God

Let’s read from the 34th Psalm:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all. (Ps. 34:19, NRSV)

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf, and through the ongoing ministry of the Spirit, we live in relationship with the almighty God of the universe. That’s difficult to get our minds around, isn’t it? As Christian author Paul David Tripp writes:

God is involved with every detail of our lives, he is near. He is so near that at any moment we can reach out and touch him. This means that every grace that you and I will ever need is near and available to us as well. So reach out today. The Author is near and he has grace in his hands. (“New Morning Mercies”)

Conclusion

Our God, who is a God of love, is approachable and loving. He wants a relationship with us. He is worthy of our adoration and worship. Though King David suffered some major setbacks in his life, he wrote many Psalms praising God for his goodness and mercy. Let’s conclude by reading from Psalm 34:

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,
and was saved from every trouble.
(Ps. 34:1-6, NRSV)

Our God is a God of love, deserving of our praise and worship. We can come to him with our hopes and dreams and with our problems and faults. Our Savior understands. We can trust him with our lives. He is marvelous and wonderful!

Sermon for October 21, 2018

Scripture Readings: Isa. 53:4-12; Ps. 91:9-16; 
Heb. 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Sermon by Martin Manuel from Isaiah 53

Jesus: The Suffering Servant

Introduction

Though most Christians know that the New Testament is all about Jesus, fewer are aware of the prominent place Jesus has in the Old Testament. We see that place in our reading today in Isaiah chapter 53.  Is says a great deal, via prophecy, about who Jesus is, what he has done and what he continues to do for our salvation. Let’s take a closer look.

The book of Isaiah

Isaiah, prophet to the ancient Jews, ministered from about 740 to 700 BC. In chapters 41-53, his message is given in four hymns about a person identified as “the suffering servant.” The fourth hymn, found in chapter 53, offers deep insights concerning this person: who he is, what he does, his divine and human natures, and his relationship with all humanity.

Russian Icon of Isaiah
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus’ divinity revealed

Sadly, many Jews in Isaiah’s day would not believe his message—Isaiah lamented, “Who has believed our message?” (Isa. 53:1a). The same was true in Jesus’ day—few believed that he was the promised Messiah.

Challenging the unbelief of his countrymen, Isaiah asked, “To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (Isa. 53:1b). This reminds of the time Jesus told Peter that it was God who revealed to him Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God (Matt. 16:17). Isaiah seems to be speaking here of Jesus, referring to him as “the arm of the Lord”—indeed, Isaiah has a person in mind, not a mere power. Note what Isaiah says in chapter 59:

The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. (Isa. 59:15b-16)

This person, this powerful “arm of the Lord” sent into the world is the one the prophet, in Isaiah 7:14, identifies as a baby called Immanuel (God with us), and then also Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6b). These are titles, which taken together, belong only to God, now being said of the “arm of the LORD”—the one we know as Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who through the Incarnation, became the God-man Jesus. He was fully God, yet also fully human.

Jesus’ humanity revealed

The remainder of Isaiah 53 unpacks the dual nature of this Suffering Servant of God, this Arm of the Lord. In Isa. 53:2a, the prophet focuses on his person’s humanity, saying that he “grew up… like a tender shoot.” He then reminds us in chapters 7 and 9 that this person had been both conceived and born. Back in in chapter 53, he describes his human fragility, noting that “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” (53:2b) and that he “was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (53:3). Though the arm of the LORD (thus possessing great power), his calling included being rejected by humanity, and then suffering to save us:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:4-6)

“The Descent from the Cross” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Jesus endured the terrible pain of severe blows to his body and the prolonged torture of the cross. He could only experience such suffering as a human. Isaiah goes on to liken the human race to lost sheep and Jesus to a lamb among those sheep (and thus also human) who silently and without resistance experienced slaughter on behalf of the whole flock:

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isa. 53:6-7)

Jesus lived and suffered as a human. Though not guilty of sin himself, he died on behalf of sinful humanity:

For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet, it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…  (Isa. 53:8b-10a)

Yes, Jesus, in his humanity, died for us. But that is not the end of the story. Though Jesus died, the grave could not contain him—he was resurrected back to human life, remaining fully human (now glorified). Isaiah says this:

He will see his offspring and prolong his days…. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied…. I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong…. (Isa. 53:10b-12)

“The Resurrection of Christ” by Coypel
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Two natures

Isaiah 53 is an amazing chapter, describing one person with two natures—divine and human. Consider these verses that speak of his deity: arm of the LORD (v. 1), by his wounds we are healed (v. 5), the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (v. 6), he had done no violence nor was deceit in his mouth (v. 9), by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many (v. 11), he will bear their iniquities (v. 11), he bore the sin of many (v. 12). Then consider these verses that speak of his humanity: he grew up (v. 1), had no beauty or majesty (v. 2), was a man (v. 3), was pierced (v. 5), was crushed (v. 5), had wounds (v. 5), was cut off from the land of the living (v. 8), died and was put in a grave (v. 9), poured out his life unto death (v. 12).

What Isaiah declared prophetically was made real in the life of Jesus, and clarified by the teachings of both Jesus and his apostles. Disputes about that teaching arose within the church in later centuries. To resolve the disputes, church leaders met in councils, with their consensus findings summarized in the great creeds of the early church, including the Chalcedonian Creed, which affirmed and clarified the teaching of Scripture that Jesus is fully human and fully divine—one person with two natures. Centuries later, theologian Karl Barth, in Dogmatics in Outline, summarized that understanding with these words: “True divinity and true humanity in sheer unity.”

[Note to preacher, for more information about these ancient creeds go to https://www.gci.org/articles/three-historic-christian-creeds/ ]

Relationship with humanity

The effect of the Suffering Servant of God on the whole of humanity is eloquently addressed in Isaiah 53:5, which says “by his wounds we are healed.” This metaphorical language speaks of Jesus’ work to heal all our ills: physical, psychological, social and, above all, spiritual. The eternal Son of God provided this healing by assuming our humanity via the Incarnation, and through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, reversing the outcome of the fall, exchanging his righteousness for all our fallenness.

As Isaiah notes, “the Lord…laid on him the iniquity of us all… for the transgression of my people he was punished… though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:6b, 8b, 9b).

By bearing the sins of all humanity in himself, Jesus, the Suffering Servant, brought about the justification of humanity (Isa. 53:11). This means that the status humankind had with God, which was lost in Eden, is restored in the humanity of Jesus. Isaiah also declares (in Isa. 53:12) that Jesus, in his humanity, now glorified, makes intercession for sinful humanity. As our high priest in heaven, Jesus ministers to God as our representative, interceding on our behalf.

Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, these profound changes to the state and status of humanity occurred in and through Jesus nearly 2,000 years ago. Let us believe that and rely on that. As the hymn says, “What a friend we have in Jesus!” As we, led by the Spirit, trust and obey Jesus as our Savior and High Priest, we are living into the reality that Jesus has created, in himself, for all humanity. With the mind of Christ at work within us, our wills become subject to our heavenly Father’s will, and the Holy Spirit leads us to take up our cross and follow Jesus in self-sacrificial service.

Sermon for October 14, 2018

Scripture Readings: Job 23:1-8, 16-17; Ps. 90:12-17;
Heb. 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Sermon by Ted Johnston
(From Mark 9-10, drawing on commentary from New Bible Commentary, 
Bible Knowledge Commentary, and Mark for Everyone by N.T. Wright)

The High Cost of the Kingdom

Introduction

Today’s reading in Mark 10:17-31 falls within a section that spans Mark 9:14-10:52. That section, which could be titled The High Cost of the Kingdom, occurs near the end of Jesus’ life on earth.

Though Peter and the other disciples are beginning to understand that Jesus is the promised Messiah, they do not yet see that Jesus is the Messiah who will suffer to serve and to save. They do not comprehend the high cost of the kingdom—the cost Jesus will pay to be its King, and the cost the disciples of Jesus will pay as its citizens.

This sermon is not about buying our way into God’s kingdom—it’s about participating with Jesus in his kingdom life, thus conforming our lives to his kingdom ways. There is a price to be paid for doing so, and Mark sets it out in this section by highlighting six characteristics of Jesus: prayerful dependence, self-denial, faithfulness, generosity, humility and persistent faith. Let’s look at all six with a focus on number four: generosity.

Jesus’ Discourses with His Disciples
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

1. Prayerful dependence

[Note to preacher: for the sake of time, don’t read the passages referred to, except in section number four. In the other sections, just refer to the passage to help your members understand the overall context.]

First, we see in Mark 9:14-32 that Jesus is grieved by two things: the opposition he is receiving from the teachers of the law and the unbelief that is coming from the crowds and from his own disciples. The lesson is that kingdom victory (in this case over illness) depends not on the extent of our faith, but on the extent of Jesus’ faith, which he then, by the Spirit, shares with us.

In that context of human weakness, Jesus explains that part of the high cost of the kingdom is to turn to him in dependent prayer. Why? Because he alone pays the full kingdom cost, which is his soon-coming sacrificial death. Sadly, the disciples fail to understand.

2. Self-denial

In Mark 9:33-50, the disciples are shown that part of the cost of the kingdom is to abandon one’s need for supremacy and power. Self-denial is the path to kingdom greatness, which Jesus illustrates by pointing to weak, helpless children.

Because Jesus’ disciples were unable to practice self-denial perfectly, this admonition points to Jesus, who alone is perfect. Our calling is to trust in him—to embrace his person and follow his kingdom ways. Those ways of Jesus are not about being the greatest or the most powerful, but of denying self to serve God by serving people.

3. Faithfulness

In Mark 10:1-16, Jesus shows that the high cost of the kingdom includes faithfulness in one’s closest relationships, including marriage. Jesus drives home his point by pointing to innocent little children as positive examples. Only those who receive the kingdom with the simple faith (trust) of a child truly experience what the kingdom is all about.

4. Generosity

Now we come to today’s Gospel reading in Mark:

[If this passage was not read during the scripture reading, read it now.]

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good– except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields– and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mark 10:17-31)

Here Jesus presses the point about the high cost of the kingdom. The rich man who approached Jesus possessed everything except what really counts: eternal life (which is kingdom life). Though he wants that life, he is unwilling to pay the high cost to possess it. Like the well-known story of the monkey that cannot get out of the trap because it’s unwilling to let go of what’s in its hand (see picture below), this rich man is unwilling to let go of his fixation with material wealth.

(source)

Though he is clearly lovable and eager; and, no doubt, morally upright, the rich man cannot face what it will mean for him (given his situation) to follow Jesus (which is what eternal life is all about). So, the rich man goes away sad from Jesus and we hear no more of him. He made his choice, at least for now.

Evaluating the situation, Jesus tells his followers that it is very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, without God’s help, it is utterly impossible! To make his point, Jesus uses a comical proverb—no camel can go through the eye of a needle!

(source)

Jesus also teaches that giving money to the poor and other sacrifices we make for the kingdom, results in reward (treasure) for us—but in heaven, not here on earth. The more we give, the more we will receive. However, this does NOT mean that if we give money to God’s work, we get more back, as some health-and-wealth (prosperity) groups falsely teach.

What Jesus is saying is that spiritual rewards in the kingdom (both now and in the future) will far outweigh any sacrifices we may make now to follow Jesus, even when following him means hardship, including persecution.

Speaking of that hardship, appended to this passage is another foretelling of Jesus’ suffering, this time in more detail:

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” (Mark 10:32-34)

Something in Jesus’ behavior, as well as in his words, causes the disciples to be astonished and the crowd that is following them to be afraid. Somehow, they feel that a crisis is very near, and they are right.

Jesus’ words here are a powerful reminder of who pays the ultimate, very high cost for the kingdom—and Jesus does so on our behalf. Never forget that. He is the ultimate generous one, and we are called to follow him, to share in his generosity. What are we holding onto that prevents us from being generous, like Jesus? Something to ponder and pray about.

5. Humility

As the passage on the high cost of the kingdom continues, we come to Mark 10:35-45, where James and John, sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus seeking a high position in his kingdom. It’s hard to believe that they would be so self-promoting; so self-centered. Yet, we know that such attitudes are deeply ingrained in our fallen human nature.

Had these two disciples realized the true cost of high position in the kingdom, they would not have dared make this request of Jesus. Jesus warns them that they will suffer, but that suffering will not necessarily mean high position in the kingdom, because everyone must endure it. High position is for God alone to give.

The other disciples, who are, no doubt, just as self-centered as James and John, are angry at their request. They likely want these places of power and prestige for themselves. So, Jesus patiently explains again the totally different kingdom value, where true greatness is humble service.

Jesus, himself, is the great example of this humility. He came to be the suffering servant of God prophesied in Isaiah 53, who would give his life as “a ransom for many.”

6. Persistent faith

The passage then concludes with Mark 10:46-52, where Jesus, along with his disciples, leaves Jericho, headed for Jerusalem, where Jesus will suffer and die. Along the way, they encounter a blind man named Bartimaeus who begs Jesus for mercy. Jesus responds by restoring the man’s sight, declaring “your faith has healed you.” Bartimaeus then follows Jesus.

At one level, this is a lesson about human faith, which, though imperfect, is effective when persistent. Ultimately, however, it’s about Jesus’ persistent, perfect faith.

Conclusion

There you have it—the high cost of the kingdom: prayerful dependence, self-denial, faithfulness, generosity, humility and persistent faith. We experience the kingdom of God as we embrace and practice these characteristics. Sound a bit daunting? Yes, until we realize that these are characteristics of Jesus himself—characteristics that he, by the Spirit, shares with those who trust him and in trusting, follow him.

Our sharing in Jesus’ kingdom living is never perfect, but as we follow Jesus, he “rubs off” on us. This is the way of Christian discipleship. It’s not about earning a place in God’s kingdom—we have been given that place in Jesus. It’s not about earning God’s favor—we have God’s favor because of Jesus. What it is about is sharing in Jesus’ love and life. He possesses all these characteristics perfectly and abundantly and is willing to share them with us, and that’s exactly what he does, through the ministry of the Spirit.

Dear friends, followers of Jesus, open your hearts, and your whole lives to Jesus. Follow him and receive from him! Enter fully his kingdom.

Sermon for October 7, 2018

Scripture Readings: Gen. 2:18-24; Ps. 8;
Heb. 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Sermon by Lance McKinnon
(from Hebrews 1:1-4)

No Comparison

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. (Heb. 1:1-4)

These first four verses of the book of Hebrews establish the theme of comparison—one the author returns to throughout the book. The goal is to present the all-surpassing sufficiency of Jesus as God’s revelation to us in comparison and contrast with the way God spoke prior to the Incarnation. In accordance with this theme, we find in Hebrews many old covenant/new covenant contrasts where the new covenant in Jesus comes out on top. Jesus is presented as superior to the prophets, to Moses, to the Sabbath, to the High Priest, to the sacrifices, and here in these first four verses as superior to the angels.

Looking at these contrasts, we might be tempted to view God’s way of speaking in the past as somehow “bad.” But that is not the author’s intent. Instead, the contrast the author makes is between good and best, beginning and end, promise and fulfillment. It’s important to keep this in mind lest we inadvertently see God’s work in the past in a way that would bring into question the goodness of God.

Jesus and His Disciples by Rembrandt
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The incarnation of the eternal Son of God in the person of Jesus reveals that God is always good. There is no “good cop/bad cop” relationship between God in the Old Testament and God in the New. Rather, in Jesus, who presents to us God as he has always been, we find the God who can be trusted. We find him always working to bring his people, and ultimately all humanity, into the good purpose for which he created us.

What then is the relationship between how God dealt with people under the old covenant and how he now deals with them under the new? A helpful analogy is how pregnancy relates to giving birth. Given that pregnancy is part of the process of having a baby, we don’t consider it a “bad” thing once the child is born. But at the same time, we don’t desire to turn from the newborn child and return to pregnancy. That would be missing the purpose of the pregnancy altogether.

Analogies ultimately break down, but this seems to be the author’s intent in offering various comparisons. The point of the contrasts is to show that the old covenant and all the ways God chose to speak in the past are in preparation for God’s ultimate revelation to us in and through his incarnate Son. Now that the Son is here, it would be a mistake to try to return to the time when the Son was hidden in the womb.

The first thing we are told in today’s passage in Hebrews 1 is that God is a God who speaks. He is not a deaf-and-dumb God, but the one who, from all eternity, is a tri-personal communion of love—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This God created us to share in that triune communion and is not silent or detached in his dealings with us.

Within that introduction, we encounter four ways in which this speaking God addresses us in Jesus as contrasted with how he addressed Israel prior to the Incarnation:

  1. All of God’s speaking before the Incarnation is now in the past, but after the Incarnation he speaks “in these last days” through his Son. The word that comes to us through and in Jesus is of cataclysmic significance. There will be no other way of God addressing us from this point forward.
  2. God speaks to his people—to Israel before the Incarnation, and now, in Jesus, to the church. In Jesus, God speaks personally and uniquely. This is not a second-hand or indirect encounter with God. In Jesus, God is present with us face-to-face, not buried with dead ancestry, and he continues to speak today.
  3. Before the Incarnation, God spoke by the prophets, but now he speaks by his Son who is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” We can be sure that this ultimate “prophet” knows what he’s speaking about.
  4. Before the Incarnation, God spoke in various times and ways but now speaks to us for all times in one way. Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, is the way the Father now communes with us. When we hear him speaking, whether through Scripture, song, prayer or sermon, we can know that it is the Lord personally addressing us.

The passage in Hebrews continues with a remarkable description of this Son in and through whom God speaks. He is shown to be unique and superior in that he is heir of all, creator of all and sustainer of all.

When the Son of God took on flesh, becoming the man Jesus, he headed up all creation. In doing so, he “provided purification for sins,” bringing us into the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit. It is in the name of Jesus that the speaking God eternally addresses us with his love. In this way Jesus is “superior to angels,” for he is the perfect revelation of the Father to us.

The author of Hebrews then compares angels, who are God’s messengers, to Jesus. We may find some application for us in this comparison. I doubt many today are tempted to return to the old covenant sacrifices, but we may at times be tempted to confuse messengers with the Savior.

Remember how God first spoke to you—how he called you to himself. Maybe he used a special experience or perhaps it was through the words of a specific speaker or author. Whatever the means God used to get our attention, we must be on guard not to confuse the messenger with God himself. Angels are messengers, not messiahs. If we forget that God is speaking to us through his Son, we may find ourselves pledging allegiance to a teacher or an experience rather than to the God who worked in our lives through those means.

As angelic as some messengers can be, or as heavenly as some experiences might seem, they pale in comparison to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is speaking to us today, ever turning us toward himself for face-to-face communion with the Father. So, let us look to Jesus, the full and final revelation of God to us all.

Sermon for September 30, 2018

Scripture Readings: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Ps. 124;
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Sermon by Ted Johnston 
from James 5:13-20
Drawing from commentary by Warren Wiersbe (Bible Exposition Commentary), Peter H. Davids (New Bible Commentary) 
and Luke Timothy Johnson (James, Anchor Bible).

Let Us Pray!

Introduction

In today’s reading in the Epistles, James, the half-brother of Jesus, is wrapping up his letter to Christians. In doing so, he returns to one of his main themes: the power of the tongue. Having already mentioned that the tongue can be used for evil, he now shows how to use it for good by praying for those who are suffering, for those who are sick, for the nation, and for believers who have wandered. There are, of course, other prayer needs, but these four are particularly important ways for us to participate, by the Spirit, in the prayer life of Jesus. Let’s look at each one.

Praying Hands by Rubens (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 1. Pray for those who are suffering

Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. (James 5:13a)

When we face trouble, how do we respond?  A typical human response is to complain and even lash out at God and other people. But James says we should instead pray—asking God for his wisdom to understand our situation and to use it to his glory (also see James 1:5).

Prayer may lead to the removal of our trouble, if that is God’s will. But prayer may also lead to the grace to endure our trouble and use it to accomplish God’s will in our lives. Indeed, in the midst of our trouble, God may “give us more grace” (James 4:6).

This was the case for Paul when he prayed that God would remove a terrible trial in his life, but instead, God gave him grace to endure it—turning his weakness into strength (2 Cor. 12:7–10). It was also the case for Jesus, who in Gethsemane prayed that his cup of suffering might be removed, yet it was not. Instead, the Father gave him grace needed to go to the cross for us.

Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. (James 5:13b)

Of course, not all Christians are currently going through trials. Some are experiencing blessings. God allows in our lives both suffering and joy and mature Christians respond in faith to either. They even sing while suffering, as Paul and Silas did in their Philippian jail cell.

 2. Pray for those who are sick

Sickness is a common form of trouble experienced by all human beings, believers included.  James encourages sick believers to not only pray for themselves, but to ask others to pray for them. What James says here reflects certain cultural practices of his day and should probably not be taken as a formula to be followed verbatim in the church in all times and cultures. Let’s note the specifics and draw some principles that apply to us.

  • The role of elders

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him… (James 5:14a)

Why call the elders? Frequently James rails against the wealthy and powerful who abuse the weak. This must not be so in the church. James makes it clear that church leaders (elders) are to be servants of all. The weak and sick in the church should expect church leaders to reach out to them with compassion in time of need.  However, this does not mean that the sick must call on the elders or that only elders are authorized to pray for the sick. We should all pray for those in need, and non-elders may certainly exercise ministries of prayer for the sick.

  • The role of anointing with oil

…to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord… (James 5:14b)

The Greek word here translated “anoint” is a medicinal term. James may be suggesting the use of medical means for healing along with asking God for supernatural healing. God can heal with or without such means; but in any case, it is God who does the healing. In that culture, oil was a universal medicine—applied both internally and externally. It thus became a symbol of God’s healing touch—an appropriate symbol to be utilized to accompany prayers for deliverance from all sorts of ailments. But anointing the sick in prayer should not be seen as a commanded practice. Some churches use it and some do not, and people have experienced divine healing both with anointing and with prayer without anointing, In GCI, our practice is for our elders to anoint sick people with oil when they pray for their healing.

  • The role of forgiveness in healing

…the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14c)

Here James is apparently referring to a sinning church member who is sick because they are being disciplined by God. This may be the specific reason that the elders (who had responsibility for administering church discipline) were being called in: the person cannot go to church to confess their sin, so the elders need to go to them. In any case, this should not be taken as an indication that all illness is the direct result of the sick person’s sin. It may be (and if it is, the sin should be confessed), but it may not be. In some cases the sickness may be because of someone else’s sin.

  •  When healing is needed for the whole community 

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

The word “therefore” is important: “Confess your sins therefore to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (alternative translation). In this situation, sickness was the result of habitual sin, so the healing would come through the confession of that sin. Note as well that the sickness brought about by this sin was not only that of the individual but of the whole community. Here the word “you” (“you may be healed”) is plural. The community will experience healing through the exercise of prayer accompanied by the confession of sin.

It is not confession of sin that ‘earns’ healing, but healing here included reconciliation that comes through appropriate confession of sin that is impacting the whole community and through prayer of “righteous” people—people who are rightly related to God and to one another. In this way, healing is a community event.

  • Healing and “prayer offered in faith”

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15)

Prayer for healing is effective when offered in faith (confident trust in God).  This is so because it is not anointing or prayer that heals, but God. The apostle John notes the importance of confidently trusting God:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1 John 5:14-15)

A “prayer offered in faith” is one offered in assurance of God’s will in the matter. Here James calls elders to seek together God’s will for the sick and sinning person and to pray for that individual accordingly. Note that James’ example is not of one individual praying for the sick person, but of the whole body of elders praying together on behalf of the whole church.

As we seek God in prayer on behalf of those who are sick, we may not be able to know the specifics of God’s will for them. But it is always appropriate to pray, “Lord, if it is your will, heal your child.” Those who claim that God heals every time, and that it is never his will that his children suffer illness, deny both Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian experience.

3. Pray for the nation

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. (James 5:17-18)

Here Elijah is given as an example of a “righteous man” whose prayers released power. The background is 1 Kings 17–18 where wicked King Ahab and Jezebel, his queen, had led Israel away from the Lord and into the worship of Baal. God punished the nation by holding back the rain for 3 1/2 years. Then Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. All day long the priests cried out to their god, but no answer came. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah repaired the altar and prepared the sacrifice. He prayed only once, and fire came from heaven to consume the sacrifice. He had proven that Jehovah was the true God.

But the nation still needed rain. Elijah went to the top of Carmel and fell down before the Lord in prayer. He prayed and sent his servant seven times to see if there was evidence of rain; and the seventh time his servant saw a little cloud. Before long, there was a great rain, and the nation was saved.

Does the nation we live in today need God’s blessing? Of course. “But” we might argue, “Elijah was a special prophet of God.” To that James replies, “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17)—he was not perfect; in fact, right after his victory on Mt. Carmel, Elijah became afraid and discouraged and ran away. “But,” we reply, “he was a ‘righteous man.'” But so are we, for our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s, and our prayers are given through him, and the faith is his. Prayer for whole nations is the privilege of all of God’s children, not just some imagined “spiritual elite.”

Elijah prayed in faith, for God told him he would send the rain (1 Kings 18:1). You cannot separate the word of God and prayer, for in his word God tells us his will—he defines his promises, which we then claim confidently in prayer.

Elijah, in praying, not only believed; he was also persistent. “He prayed” and “again he prayed” (James 5:17–18). We sometimes give up in prayer too quickly. It’s true that we are not heard “for our much praying” (Matt. 6:7); but there is a difference between vain repetition and believing persistence in prayer. Jesus prayed three times in the Garden, and Paul prayed three times that his thorn in the flesh might be taken from him. We should not hesitate to ask and keep asking that God’s will be done.

Elijah “prayed earnestly” (James 5:17). The literal sense of the Greek text is “he prayed in prayer.” Sometimes we don’t really pray in our prayers. Maybe we haphazardly recite religious-sounding words, but our hearts are not in it. But “tremendous power is made available through a good man’s earnest prayer” (James 5:16, Phillips translation). Elijah, a good, but not a perfect man (just like us), prayed for his nation, and God answered. Let us pray for our communities and whole nation too—pray that God will bring conviction and revival, and that “showers of blessing” will come. Paul says that one of the first responsibilities of a church is to pray for government leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–3).

4. Pray for believers who have wandered

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

Though James did not specifically name prayer here, it is implied. If we pray for the suffering, the sick, and the nation, surely we must pray for a brother or sister who has wandered from God’s truth. And we also must take other action to help restore them.

The verb “wander” suggests a gradual movie away from God’s will. Sometimes a brother or sister is “caught [overtaken] in a sin” (Gal. 6:1); but usually sin is the result of slow, gradual spiritual decline. Such a condition is dangerous for the offender. They may face discipline from God (Heb. 12) and may be in danger of committing “a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16–17). Such wandering is also dangerous to the whole church. Offenders can lead others astray: “One sinner destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:18, NASB). This is why members of the church must step in and help the person who has wandered away from the truth.

The “truth” in view here is the truth of God’s word. “Your [God’s] word is truth” said Jesus (John 17:17). Unless the believer stays close to this truth, they will start to drift. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1, NASB). The outcome of this wandering is “sin” and possibly “death” (James 5:20).

What are we to do when we see a fellow believer wandering from the truth of God’s word? We should pray for them, to be sure; but also seek to help them directly. They need to be turned back (converted) to the right path. Jesus said to Peter, “When you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).  Let us do so as well.

Remember that we should always approach a wandering brother or sister in an attitude of love, “because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). Both James and Peter learned this principle from Prov. 10:12—“Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.” Love not only helps the offender face their sin and deal with it, but love also assures them that those sins, once dealt with, do not need to be remembered any more.

Conclusion

May we hear and heed the admonition of the apostle James, who has given us these ways to use our tongues for good by being people of prayer.
Let us pray!


Here is a GCI video that addresses material covered in this sermon:

Sermon for September 23, 2018

Scripture Readings: Prov. 31:10-11; Ps. 54; 
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Sermon by Martin Manuel 
from Mark 9: 30-37: Prov. 31:10; Prov. 9:10; James 3:13-16

Restoring Humility to our Humanity

Introduction

Though we all possess the corrupt, fallen human nature that resulted from Adam and Eve’s rejection of God, there is good news: The eternal Son of God, in the person of Jesus, entered into the human condition, assumed our corrupt nature, and through his life of perfect submission to the Father overcame its fallenness, opening to all humans the possibility to be who they truly are in him—their true selves, beloved children of God.

Now, through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, God works to conform believers to the true humanity that is found in Jesus. One of the beautiful characteristics of that humanity is true humility—a quality in short supply in our self-centered, prideful world.

Our Scripture readings today speak to the restoration of that humility, and in this sermon we’ll see three ways in which we cooperate with what the Holy Spirit is doing to form that humility in us: 1) embrace our identity in Jesus, 2) live in the fear the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.

Embrace our identity in Jesus

In Mark 9 we read of the time following Jesus’ transfiguration. Rejoining the disciples who were not with him on the mountain, Jesus took them on a retreat where he could share some important truths:

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30-31)

Though what Jesus was saying was important, his disciples did not understand, and were afraid to ask (Mark 9:32). To admit we don’t understand can be humiliating, and if we’re competing with others, we may not want to disclose our lack of understanding. Perhaps that was what was going on here with the disciples. Jesus sensed this and waited until the end of the trip to take up the conversation again.

As they came to Capernaum, Jesus asked, “‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:33-34). Like children caught misbehaving, the disciples sheepishly withheld their reply. But Jesus knew what they were arguing about, and patiently taught them a vital lesson about leadership in the kingdom of God: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

In human organizations, those who are ambitious often expend tremendous energy climbing to top positions of leadership, where they exercise authority over those below them. Those being ruled serve the ruler, who dictates everything the people do. This autocratic style of leadership is designed to benefit the leader, not the people. Those serving are considered less important than the leader, although often they do the important tasks necessary for the organization while the leader does little besides dictating.

To illustrate the backwardness of this worldly style of leadership, Jesus took a nearby little child into his arms and said, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

“For Ever and Ever” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

A child small enough to be cuddled in the arms of an adult is weak compared to an adult who tends to find it easy to consider the child of little importance. But Jesus illustrated a different attitude—one in which the adult sees the child as important because of the one who gives the child its identity. Jesus is that one.

This lesson brings to light a radical concept: seeing ourselves and other humans, even the smallest and weakest, through the lens of their identity given them by Jesus Christ, their Creator and Redeemer. This perspective is radical because human worth is usually associated with things like stature, appearance, intelligence, wealth, authority, and social standing. From Jesus’ vantage point, the only real standard of measurement of human value and importance is who that person is in relation to him—their Creator, Redeemer and Lord.

When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we express confidence in him, not in ourselves. When our identity is in Jesus Christ, we don’t have to bother with comparisons with other people. We are freed to see ourselves as we actually are—small and weak, dependent on our Lord for everything. From this vantage point, our lives are not about pursuing personal ambitions, not about status and glory. Instead, our lives are in him, with him and for him.

Jesus used a little child not only to teach his disciples about servant-leadership, but also about humility. Note how he associates humility with our true identity in him. Ultimately, it is getting a true understanding of our identity in Christ that restores in us the childlike humility that is so essential, so endearing.

Live in the fear of the Lord

Another important shaper of humility is highlighted in today’s Old Testament reading in Proverbs 31:10-11. The topic is the woman of “noble character” (Prov. 31:10) called “a virtuous woman” in the KJV (Prov. 31:10, KJV). Why virtuous? Several reasons, but first and foremost, she “fears the Lord” (Prov. 31:30). What does that mean?  The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology answers:

“The fear of the Lord” does not mean being afraid of God. Rather, it is a reverential trust in God that makes us want to please and obey him. And yet there is a wholesome feeling of being sure that we do not disobey or displease him… Fear as a preventative has value. But fright or terror has no place in the Christian life, at least in his relationship with God.

The lifestyles of those whose choices reflect a humble regard for God’s lordship over them are the opposite of those who, in their haughtiness, refuse to consider God to be the Lord of their lives. Humble submission marks one; proud self-determination the other. That is why dozens of passages in the Psalms and Proverbs encourage the fear of the Lord, including Proverbs 9:10, which says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” It is through this “reverential trust”—this realization of our dependence on God—that we receive and respond to his grace toward us.

Practice the wisdom from above

The wisdom we speak of here is not about mere human intelligence or experience. As we read in James, there is a difference between wisdom from above and wisdom that is earthly:

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. (James 3:13-15)

James’ contrast of these two types of wisdom reinforces the admonitions in Psalms and Proverbs about the lifestyle differences between those who fear the Lord and those who do not. One comes across as gentle, the other bitter like poison. Think again about the beauty of a seemingly innocent little child, and what it is that draws such a warm response from those who interact with the child. Is it not the quality of humility?

Those who disregard God often think they are too savvy to fall for what they consider religious superstition. Theirs is the arrogance of the child who thinks it knows more than his or her parents! Such counterfeit wisdom is rooted in demonic minds. It infects otherwise rational, intelligent-minded people, deceiving everyone not experiencing the gracious restoration given by the Father, Son and Spirit. The result is a world grasping for power, wealth, status and glory. That world despises the adult who exhibits wisdom from above:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (James 3:16)

Pure? Peaceable? Gentle? Willing to yield? Anyone who exhibits these qualities in this world is likely to be told, “Grow up!” Such qualities might be appreciated in a young child, but they typically are not respected in adults. That’s why James calls it “wisdom from above”—it’s not of this earth. It does not come from corrupt human nature.

James asserts in the first part of chapter 4 that it is due to worldly attitudes that there is human conflict at all levels. Whether in the home, among neighbors, within churches, or on battlefields between nations, the root causes are related to human pride and lust. Thus, James concludes with this strong advice: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

The Jamieson Fausset Brown Commentary says this concerning the word proud: “The Greek means in derivation one who shows himself above his fellows, and so lifts himself against God.” This is the same sinful attitude, which came from the devil and infected the demons. No wonder it is so dangerous to us!

God resists the proud because sinful pride has no place in his peaceable kingdom. This does not mean that God withholds all grace from unrepentant, prideful humans. Jesus said his Father makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45, KJV). The Father sent Jesus to save, not condemn, the world. The context of James 4 explains that the grace given to the humble is a special grace. In the first part of Matthew 5, the Beatitudes address this grace—special blessings that take place in the realm of the kingdom of God, not in this world. Jesus spoke these beautiful words of blessing and those who hear them can be sure that Jesus modeled the attitudes and behaviors he was advocating. His presence on earth said all that needs to be said about humility.

Conclusion

Are we willing to yield to God as he works to transform us into the likeness of Christ where we reflect his characteristic humility—a humility expressive of the wisdom from above? Sadly, that wisdom is typically ridiculed by the world. Jesus’ apostles would likely not rise to prominence were they living in today’s prideful, egocentric world. Why? Because, through the indwelling Spirit, they shared in Jesus’s perfected humanity, which includes his humility.

As we too yield to the transforming work of the Spirit, Jesus’ humility will shine through us more and more. May the transforming grace of the Father, Son, and Spirit work in us as we 1) embrace our identity in Christ, 2) live in the fear of the Lord, and 3) practice the wisdom from above.