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(Prepared for a sermon on Matthew 11:28-30)
One of the themes found throughout the Scriptures is that of rest. It’s the concept that after we’ve finished a task, we get to relax. One of the interesting things about rest is that the quality of rest depends to a large extent on how well we did the job. The better our work, the more we put of ourselves into it, the more we enjoy the relaxation afterward. There is great satisfaction in being able to look back on a job well done. On the other hand, if we goofed off or didn’t really put much effort into the work, our rest isn’t very sweet. I suppose our conscience keeps nagging us and tells us that we don’t deserve to rest.
The first example we have in the Bible of someone resting is God, Himself. God spent six days creating the universe and all that is in it. Then in Genesis chapter 1, starting in verse 31 we read, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 1:31-2:3 NIV)
The Scriptures use God’s rest on the seventh day as an ideal for us. His rest is the goal we should be striving toward. For example, it’s the idea behind keeping the Sabbath Day, which is one of the “Ten Commandments” in the Law of Moses. No work was supposed to be done on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a metaphor for God’s rest. God gave the Israelites the land of Canaan as another metaphor of entering His rest. It was a rest from the slavery they experienced in Egypt.
If you will allow me to read something into all this which the Scriptures do not say, is it possible that the reason God’s rest is so perfect, is that the work He did in creating the universe was “very good”?!
In any case, God invites us to enter His rest. But the hitch is that, as we all know, our work – unlike God’s is not “very good.” In fact, it’s not good at all. Scripture compares our good or righteousness to filthy rags. That being the case, we don’t deserve to enter God’s rest. Why should we get to relax and enjoy ourselves when we’ve goofed off and botched the job God wanted us to do?
Fortunately, God gives us an out. He sent Jesus to complete the job we couldn’t or wouldn’t do. People’s testimony about Jesus was, “He has done everything well.” (Mark 7:37 NIV) Not only was Jesus’ work “done well,” from the cross He could proclaim, “It is finished.” (John 19:30 NIV) God allows us to appropriate or share in Jesus’ completed work. The writer of Hebrews talks about the failure of the Israelites to accept God’s invitation to participate in His rest. Then, in chapter 4, starting in verse 1 he writes, “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” (Hebrew 4:1-11 NIV)
Notice from this passage that there are two things which will prevent us from entering God’s rest. The first is unbelief or a lack of faith. The second is disobedience. To put it the other way around, we must believe what God has promised us and we must obey what He’s told us to do.
Unfortunately, we’re not very good at either of those things. We need to be reminded. And that is one of the reasons Christ has asked us to go through a little ritual to jog our memories. He asked us to eat some bread which reminds us of His sacrifice on our behalf. In other words, the bread is a reminder that Jesus completed our work.
He also asked us to drink some juice to remind us of His blood – the blood which allows us to enter into a covenant relationship with God. Included in that covenant is the promise of entering God’s rest.
Today as we eat and drink, let’s renew our faith in God’s promises to us and let’s renew our commitment to obey what He’s asked us to do.
The Turning Of The Seasons
(Prepared for a sermon on Matthew 9:35-38)
My wife and I enjoy the turning of the seasons. Just a few weeks ago we were wondering why we weren’t seeing more leaves changing. It seemed to us that fall was late in arriving. Then, almost over night, it seemed, the colors came out. Everywhere we looked, we feasted our eyes on lovely red, brown and orange leaves.
Amazing as the colors are in the fall and the brilliance of new growth in the spring, there’s something even more miraculous about the change of the seasons. You can count on them coming each year. Yes, there may be a few days variation this way or that in when they come, but we know that they will come. These days we hear all kinds of fear-mongering about climate change and global warming. I just shake my head when I hear the predictions of catastrophe and how we’re all going to bake to death. You see, I’m old enough to remember the same panicky predictions back in the 1960s and 70s. Only then, we were all supposed to perish in the coming ice age. But more than that, I don’t worry because we have God’s promise that the seasons will never fail. After the flood, God told Noah, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:22 NIV)
The regular turning of the seasons point to another very important corollary: There is a right or an appropriate time to do things. King Solomon wrote, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 NIV)
Solomon is right. We won’t be successful if we try to do things at the wrong time. For example, if you don’t plant your garden at the appropriate time, the seeds won’t sprout. Similarly, there is a natural sequence to many things. If we try to do things out of order, it won’t work very well. For example, you have to plant before you can harvest. But if you try to harvest before the grain or the fruit matures, you’ll only destroy the plants without getting a crop.
The principle holds true in spiritual things. There is a right time and there is a proper sequence. Often it seems to us that God is not answering our prayers, or that He’s taking far too long to keep His promises. But we need to remember that there is a right time and sequence for everything. Though right after Adam and Eve sinned God promised a Redeemer, thousands of years had to pass before the time was right for the Savior to come. In light of that, we should not lose hope when we are going through difficulties. God will keep His promises when the time is right. The Apostle Paul writes this in Romans chapter 5, starting in verse 1, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:1-6 NIV)
At just the right time! Each week we keep a memorial of what God did for us at the right time. We look back and remember that Jesus died for us. He gave His blood to redeem us from our sins.
But the memorial of the bread and juice does not only look back. They are a reminder of our present hope. Because God kept His promise of a Savior, we can be sure that He will also keep His promises to transform us and to give us an eternal home. The bread and juice remind us that no one can separate us from God’s love.
We live in crazy times. We’ve been hit by several crises – the pandemic, the law and order situation, the drama over the elections, the homeless situation. As a result, we’re surrounded by fear and uncertainty. People are worried about the economy; they’re worried about what is going to happen with the schools; they’re worried about who might get sick next; they’re worried about not being able to visit their loved ones.
But the bread and juice remind us that we don’t need to worry. God’s promises are even more sure than the turning of the seasons. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:2-3 NIV)
You Have Been Healed
(For a sermon on Matthew 8:28-9:8)
I suspect that historians and sociologists will look back at the year 2020 and shake their heads in bewilderment. For 9 months we allowed a virus to dominate us. The economic and social costs of the regulations issued in response to the virus were horrific. Businesses and schools were shut down. Family members couldn’t visit their loved ones in care facilities. Healthy people as well as the sick were isolated and quarantined. People suffering from cancer and other life-threatening diseases were denied the care and treatments they needed. Vast resources were spent to fast-track vaccines for it. The virus even became a major issue in the election campaign that year.
One of the things which was puzzling about all this, is that the virus didn’t seem to be nearly as contagious or as deadly as many other diseases. Yet, our society didn’t take any of these steps against them. I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the virus. People died of it. Yet, the vast majority of people who become infected recovered quickly and didn’t seem to suffer any lasting effects. Many people, if it weren’t for testing positive, wouldn’t have even known that they had it.
I can’t help but contrast all the fear and anxiety over this virus with the total complacency and indifference most people show toward another virus which is far more serious. There is no vaccine for it; everyone is susceptible. Everyone who is exposed to it, contracts it. Further, there is no man-made cure for it – the mortality rate is 100%. Everyone who contracts it, dies. Not only that, there is no place or locality that is safe from this virus. It is found wherever there are human beings yet, people seem oblivious to it.
What is this virus I’m talking about? It’s the virus of sin. No one escapes it. The Apostle Paul describes it this way, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV) He goes on to declare, “…the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23 NIV)
If all have sinned and the wages of sin is death, is there no hope for us? Not if we rely on our own resources. The cure for sin is beyond us. For example, Paul writes, “…by observing the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16 NIV) All of our other efforts are just as futile as trying to be justified by observing the Law – we just aren’t capable of it.
If we can’t cure ourselves, then what is the cure? It’s interesting that when Matthew describes how Jesus cured people of their physical illnesses, he says that this was a fulfillment of a prophecy in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Matthew 8:17, Isaiah 53:4) Yet when you read Isaiah 53, he’s speaking about the Messiah healing spiritual diseases not physical illnesses. What Matthew seems to be saying is that the miracles of healing Jesus performed actually pointed to a much more significant reality. It is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who can heal us from the sickness of sin. Though we are spiritually dead because of our sin, He gives us new spiritual life.
How does Jesus do it? As Isaiah explained, Jesus took the penalty of our sin upon Himself. He took our place and the punishment which was due us. The Apostle Peter puts it this way, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 NIV)
Each week we gather to remember what Jesus did for us. The bread reminds us of His broken body. The juice reminds us of His blood which He gave for our healing. For those of us who come to Him in obedient faith, Jesus’ sacrifice is the antidote for sin. In a sense, we can consider the bread and juice we eat each week a booster-shot which renews our immunity to the virus of sin.
(Prepared for a sermon based on Matthew 6:19-24)
How much is something worth? We usually determine the value of something by how much we are willing to pay for it. How much of ourselves we’re willing to invest in something is a pretty good indication of how important it is to us. It’s pretty easy to determine someone’s priorities by looking at how he spends his time, his money and what enthuses him. For example, if a man says that his family is important to him, but when he has the opportunity he doesn’t spend any time with his wife and kids, he doesn’t show any interest in their hopes and desires, he overlooks their needs to help out friends and acquaintances, then it’s legitimate to question his statement.
On the other hand, if someone denies himself of things that he would like to have or do; for years he scrapes and saves in order to achieve a goal, the thing he is trying to achieve is very important to him.
The same principle holds true in spiritual things. We can tell how important God is to us by how much time we spend with Him. How much time do we spend meditating on the Scriptures and seeking God’s will? The Psalmist wrote, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1-2 NIV) Do we long for God like that? Is He that important to us?
Similarly, we can tell how important God’s Kingdom is to us by how much we’re willing to invest of ourselves in it. How much inconvenience are we willing to accept to help others draw closer to Christ? In one of His parables Jesus said, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46 NIV) Does the Kingdom of Heaven mean enough to us that we are we willing to give up everything else to attain it?
Now let’s take a few moments to take a look at this concept of worth from the other direction. We’ve considered how much things are worth to us, but how much are we worth? What price do we command? When we look at it that way, the Scriptures tell us that to God, we are of infinite worth. The world tries to tear us down. Every day we hear messages that tell us we’re no good. If we don’t have as much money or as many toys as someone else that we don’t measure up. The whole basis of racism is the idea that other people aren’t as worth as much as us. All too often people use the pretense of caring to exploit others and to further their own agendas.
In contrast to the world, how does God show that we are important to Him? In Psalm 103, David writes, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits- who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:2-5 NIV) From that Psalm it sounds to me like we are worth a lot to God. Otherwise He wouldn’t lavish His care on us the way He does.
But the ultimate expression of our worth to God is what He was willing to give up for us. The Apostle Paul writes this in Romans chapter 5, starting in verse 5, “…God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:5-11 NIV)
If the death of Jesus doesn’t demonstrate just how much we are worth to God, I don’t know what would. But, in the hassle and worries of everyday life, and the negative messages the world throws at us, we tend to forget just how much God values us. That’s why we take a little time each Sunday to remember Christ’s sacrifice. The bread we eat and the juice we drink remind us that in God’s estimation, we are of infinite worth. Since He thinks so much of us, shouldn’t we also be willing to give of ourselves to Him?
How we see or perceive things can vary tremendously depending on circumstances. For example, my wife and I just returned from a camping trip. The outhouse was just a few hundred feet from where we pitched our tent. During the day it was easy to see how to walk from our camp to the outhouse. But at night, everything was different. The outhouse itself blended so well into the background that it was difficult to see it from just a few feet away. It was easy to miss the path back to our tent. What had changed? Nothing, really. The outhouse was still in the same location. Our tent hadn’t moved. The paths were still n the same place. But the lack of light, even when the moon shone full, made everything look different. Shadows hid or changed the appearance of the bushes and trees. Familiar shapes were difficult to recognize.
In the same way, the lens through which we look at things can affect our perception of reality. For example, I am very short-sighted. Without my glasses it is extremely difficult for me to see very far. I can hardly see people on the other side of the room, let alone recognize them.
Just as with physical sight, our view of God can be very flawed or distorted by circumstances or our own biases. For example, some people have the idea that God is perpetually angry and vengeful. He is merely waiting for us to mess up so He can punish us or bring misery upon us. Other people are angry at God. They look at the pain and misery in the world and ask why God doesn’t stop it. They argue that because evil exists, God either cannot be all-powerful, or He isn’t loving.
But just as the glasses I wear enable me to see much clearer, we have a lens which helps us see God as He really is. In speaking of Christ, the prophet Isaiah writes, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:3-6 NIV)
Yes, God does become angry at sin. Yes, God does say that vengeance belongs to Him. But Isaiah helps us to see things from a different perspective. God not only hates sin, He made a way for us to escape retribution and vengeance. If we will only choose to accept it, Jesus took our penalty on Himself.
In the same way, the existence of evil does not prove that God doesn’t care or is unable to do anything about it. On the contrary, from Isaiah we see that God loves us so much that He provided a way for us to overcome evil. According to the Apostle Peter, the reason God continues to put up with the evil we see all around us is that He’s giving everyone the opportunity to repent and accept the way of salvation from sin.
However, when we watch the news or when someone mistreats us, it is very difficult to keep things in perspective. It’s easy to forget that God loves us and is doing everything in His power, short of violating our free will, to give us a way out.
That’s one reason He’s given us a weekly reminder of reality. Jesus asked us to eat bread in memory of His sacrifice on our behalf. He asked us to drink grape-juice in memory of His blood which bought us freedom from sin. The Lord’s Supper is the lens which corrects our vision and helps us to see God as He really is.
The Light of the Gospel
(Written to go with a sermon based on Matthew 4:12-17)
Have you ever experienced total darkness? During one of our vacations, our family toured a cave. While we were in one of the galleries, the tour guide turned off the lights. No matter how you strained your eyes, you could see nothing. It seemed like the entire universe contracted to just yourself. The sense of isolation was eerie. Not to mention the real danger of injuring yourself by running into something or stepping into a hole because you couldn’t see.
Having experienced total darkness a few times, I really admire the blind who refuse to allow their inability to see to hold them back. I honestly don’t know whether I could cope with not being able to see. Glaucoma runs in my family. My mother had it. All but one of my siblings have it. I have it. In time, there is a real possibility that we will lose some or all of our sight. The thought of going blind, and having to spend my days in darkness is, quite frankly, frightening.
As bad as the thought of physical blindness is, there is another kind of blindness which is even worse. It’s being in spiritual darkness. It’s being without purpose or direction. It’s not knowing what is right or wrong. Or, even worse, knowing that you’re wrong but not knowing how to change. It’s not being able to resist the evil that is within.
It’s not that light isn’t available to us. But just like a person whose eyes no longer work, we can be blind to spiritual truth.
Where can we find light? How can we see? Jesus said, “…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 NIV)
To put it another way, the source of light is Jesus. If we want to see, we must believe in Him and surrender ourselves to Him. The Apostle Paul writes this in 2nd Corinthians chapter 4, verses 4 through 6, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:4-6 NIV)
We’re privileged to live at a time in history where illumination is commonly available. We can see at all hours of the night because we have lights we turn on with a simple flick of a switch. However, the lights we find so convenient are not cost free. If we want to continue to enjoy the blessings of light, we have to pay the electric bill.
The spiritual light which Christ supplies isn’t free either. We must be willing to pay the cost of following Him if we want to continue to receive it. More than that, it cost Jesus a tremendous price to make it possible for Him to provide us light. It cost Him His life to illuminate our lives.
Jesus asked us to remember the price He paid. As He instructed, we eat a piece of unleavened bread in His memory each Sunday. We drink some juice to remind us of His blood.
However, this occasion is not just a reminder, it’s also a time for us to renew our commitment to Him. Just like we pay the electric bill to keep the lights on, with these emblems we renew our relationship to Christ.
A Sure Thing
(Prepared for a sermon on 2nd Peter 1:5-11, especially verse 10.)
When was the last time you worried about your bank going under? My guess is that you’ve never worried about it at all. Yet, if you’re familiar with our country’s history, you know that many banks have and do fail. I’ll just mention a few examples to prove the point. There was the panic of 1907 in which several banks failed. The stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression during which over 9,000 banks failed. No doubt some of you remember the Savings and Loan Crisis which started during the 1980s. In it over 1,000 savings and loan institutions closed their doors. Even closer to home was the financial crisis of 2008. Before the recovery, over 200 banks failed.
In addition to these examples, there are many, many more instances of banks and other financial institutions going under. Yet, in spite of the rather dismal record, we don’t hesitate to deposit our paychecks or Social Security payments at the bank. In fact, many people never even see their checks. They have the money due them deposited electronically into their account by the payer.
Why is it that we blithely go on depositing our money into banks when there is such a record of bank failure? Why is it that the jokes which used to be quite common in our culture about people keeping their money under the mattress fall flat? My guess is that to younger generations, those jokes just seem weird if they are even comprehensible.
The reason we don’t worry about losing our money when we put it in the bank is that if the bank is a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, our government guarantees our deposits. If the bank should fail, the government will step in and return to us the amount of our deposit, up to $250,000. Since our account has the “full faith and credit” or our government behind it, we don’t have any reason to worry about our money disappearing. Whatever we happen to think about our government, we know that it generally pays its obligations. In due time we’ll see our money again, even if our bank doesn’t survive.
Unfortunately, people’s confidence in the safety of their money isn’t always matched by confidence in the safety of their souls. A lot of people are unsure of what the future holds. Even Christians are not always confident of their eternal destiny. A question you sometimes hear is, “How can I be sure that I am saved? How can I really know?”
When we stop and think about it, it’s ironic that we have more confidence in the safety of our bank balance than we do about our salvation. The guarantee we have securing our salvation is far stronger than the guarantee securing our bank account. Our bank accounts are guaranteed by the government, but our future is guaranteed by an oath from God. Personally, I have a whole lot more confidence in God’s word than I do in the word of our government.
In speaking of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews says, “…he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever.’” Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:21- 27 NIV)
Did you notice what this passage says? Jesus is our guarantee of the covenant under whose terms we are saved. By means of this covenant, Jesus not only saves, He saves completely or, as your translation may say, forever. He lives forever and therefore, is always able to intercede on our behalf.
Also notice that Jesus’ position as the priest of the new covenant is backed by God’s oath. There can be no better or stronger guarantee. If we have put our faith in Jesus and entered the covenant, our future is secure. God will never default on His promises.
Every once in a while our banks send us a statement reminding us of their terms of service. We can think of that as an analogy for what we do each Sunday when we observe the Lord’s Supper. The bread and juice remind us of our covenant with God. They remind us that the covenant is still in force. When we eat and drink we’re agreeing again to the terms of the covenant.
But the bread and juice also remind us of the guarantee we have. Our future is secured by Jesus, backed by God’s oath. If you want to think of it this way, the bread and cup are equivalent to the sticker we see at the teller’s window: ‘Member FDIC.’ Except in this case, it’s: ‘Member New Covenant.’ And the guarantee is infinitely greater and stronger than any guarantee our government can give.
Today as we eat and drink, let’s thank God not only for our salvation, but also for His unbreakable guarantee.
(Written to compliment a sermon on 1 Peter 1:17-21)
I’d like to talk to you a little bit about fear. Fear is a defense mechanism that is intended to keep us out of harmful or destructive situations. When there is danger, it is our sense of fear which prompts us to take precautions or to avoid the situation altogether. In that sense, fear is a very healthy and good thing. In fact, we call somebody who doesn’t have any fear, ‘foolhardy.’ We even have a saying about it, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” On the other hand, courage is taking action in the face of fear.
Even though fear is, I believe, something God gave us to help us avoid danger, sometimes our fears can be irrational. For example, I have a bit of the fear of heights. One time I had to go up in a lift bucket to work on high ceiling. That was one of the hardest things I ever did. Intellectually, I knew that there was no danger. I knew there was no way the lift could possibly tip over. I knew there was no way I could possibly fall out of the bucket unless I deliberately climbed over the side. Yet, in spite of knowing all that, I was terribly afraid. I had the shakes so bad that I could hardly do the work that required me to go up in the bucket.
And that is the downside of fear. Even though fear is intended to warn us and help us avoid dangerous situations, if we let it, it can also paralyze us. We call it the “Deer in the headlights” syndrome. The deer knows that the oncoming vehicle is dangerous. Yet, it’s so mesmerized by the headlights that it’s paralyzed. It stands there, immobile, until the vehicle hits it. In the same way, if we let fear control us, it can prevent us from taking the action we need to prevent being harmed.
Fear is an individual thing. Some things that scare me silly might not bother you at all. But there are other fears which are pretty universal. One of them is the fear of public speaking. I’ve read that speaking to an audience is the number one fear most people in the United States have. I believe it. Even though I’ve spoken and taught hundreds of times, I still get nervous when it’s my time to stand up front.
Perhaps the most universal fear of all is fear of the unknown. We like the illusion that we are in control of our lives. By definition we can’t control the things we know nothing about. So, we fear anything which takes us out of the familiar. For example, culture shock is a very real phenomenon. When you are first dumped off in a different culture, you have no frame of reference; everything is strange. And because you can’t recognize or relate to what you are experiencing, you don’t know how to act or respond. This induces a state of anxiety. In some cases it can become so severe that it immobilizes.
One of the greatest unknowns we face is death. Death is universal; unless the Lord returns first, all of us are going to die. But even though death is something which has been with us for thousands of years, and even though each one of us will encounter it, if we haven’t already, it’s something we know very little about. What happens to us when we die? What’s on the other side? We really don’t know. And because we don’t know, people fear death. They fear it so much that they will do almost anything to avoid it. To extend their lives a few months they will subject themselves to all kinds of horrible medical procedures and put their families into a financial bind to pay for them.
Yes, most people fear death. But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the reasons Jesus came to earth was to break the power of death and, in the process, free us from the fear of death. In Hebrews chapter 2, verses 10 through 15 we read, “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (NIV)
I think it is significant that after Jesus rose from the dead, one of the first things He said to His disciples was, “Don’t be afraid.” Since Jesus conquered death, if we have allowed Him to become our Lord, we don’t need to fear death either. He’s been through it. He knows what’s on the other side. We can have confidence because He’s promised to be with us all the way.
Each week we gather to remember what Jesus did for us. The bread and juice which commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice remind us that Jesus loves us. In fact, Paul writes in Romans chapter 8, verses 38 and 39, “…that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NIV)
As we partake this morning, let’s remember that since nothing can separate us from Christ’s love, we don’t have to fear the unknown. Since Jesus rose from the dead, death has no power over us.
(Prepared to go with a sermon on James 5:19-20)
A couple of weeks ago our family had a reunion in honor my father’s 93rd birthday. I think that all of were a little astonished to realize that out of the five of us children, three of us are planning to travel out of the country this October.
Though it may be a little unusual for so many of us to be on the road simultaneously, our family is no stranger to travel. In fact, there have been times when I’ve compared our family to tumbleweeds – blown all over the place by the winds of circumstances. My siblings and I seem to have inherited a touch of wanderlust.
Our family is not unique in this. We live in a very mobile society. It seems like members of this congregation are always traveling somewhere. And, I would be surprised if there is a family represented here that has lived in this area for more than three or four generations.
Travel to distant places and wandering is part of our cultural heritage. Immigration and the Western Migration have left a lasting imprint on us. Wandering is the theme of scores of our songs. For example, the song ‘Shenandoah’ contains the lyrics:
Away, I’m bound away, ‘cross the wide Missouri.
I’m sure you’ve heard the folk song, ‘500 Miles.’ It starts with the words,
If you miss the train I’m on you will know that I am gone.
Then there’s the song ‘City of New Orleans.’ One of the verses has these words:
And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpet made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep, rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
One of my personal favorites is ‘Wayfarin’ Stranger.’
I’m just a poor, wayfarin’ stranger
Traveling through this world of woe.
But there’s no sickness, no toil nor danger
In that bright land to which I go.
That last song evokes the image from the book of Hebrews, that as people of faith we are strangers and aliens on earth, wandering until we find our home in an enduring city.
We like to romanticize the idea of wandering; we like to see what’s around the next bend or over the next hill. But the book of Hebrews tells about another type of wandering that is not so benign. All too often we wander from the truth we’ve been taught. We stray from the path of righteousness. We drift away from God. Just like choosing the wrong road can land us in trouble while we’re traveling, wandering from God traps us in spiritual trouble. We find ourselves in a situation that we can’t get out of by our own efforts. Hebrews chapter 2, verses 1 through 3 says, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (NIV)
Even though God is forced to let us reap the consequences of our wandering from Him, He is not content to let it remain that way. The problem is how to bring back someone who has wandered off? There isn’t a human solution to the problem. So God determined to provide the way out Himself. He said through the Prophet Ezekiel: “…this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.”” (Ezekiel 34:11-12 NIV)
And that is exactly what God did. He sent Christ to rescue us from the predicament we got ourselves into and to put us back on the right road. Isaiah writes, “…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6 NIV)
Peter echoes the thought when he writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls,” (1 Peter 2:24-25 NIV)
Each week we gather to remember what Jesus did for us. The bread and juice that we eat remind us of the cost of our wandering. As we partake today, let’s remember the words of another old song,
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter,
Bind my wand’ring heart to Thee:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.
(Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, Robert Robinson)
Breaking the Cycle of Hate
In many ways, we are very blessed to live at the time we do. We have a higher standard of living and more opportunities than people at any other time of history. Among the many blessings we enjoy is the privilege of being heard. The Internet allows us ordinary people to voice our opinions to a world-wide audience. I’ve personally benefited from the new technologies because they’ve made it possible for me to write and publish books even though I don’t have the credentials a traditional publisher would require.
However, the new technologies are a double-edged sword. Though they empower people like me, they also allow everyone to vent his spleen. Because the Internet affords a certain amount of anonymity, people aren’t always held accountable for what they say. They can say outrageous and extreme things with no or little consequence. People will say things online that they would never dare say to someone face-to-face. Then, when someone takes offense at what was said, they will fire back with something which is even more incendiary. Invective takes the place of discourse and dialog.
The new technologies also amplify – whether for good or ill. One person’s opinion appears as though many others shared it. And, it is true that like-minded people can find and interface with each other as they never could before. Unfortunately, the feedback can encourage people to up their rhetoric. They become even more entrenched in their position. It becomes harder to have a discussion about differences of opinion. Disagreement is met with accusations of hate. It seems to me that this is one reason our society is becoming more and more polarized.
It becomes a vicious cycle. A person says something somebody else doesn’t like. He responds with an accusation, and the flame wars begin. Soon, the various sides can’t think of each other without saying something nasty.
We shake our heads at some of the things we hear people throw at each other. Yet, are we any better? I’m sure that most of us here have been tempted at one time or another to say some inappropriate things on social media or in blog comments. Some of us may have even done it. The truth is that if we gave reign to our natural inclinations, our behavior wouldn’t be any better than what we decry in others. It is only because we belong to Christ and are letting Him transform us that we have a higher standard.
Paul writes to Titus, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7 NIV)
It is Jesus who broke the cycle of hate. We were nothing special. We hadn’t done anything good that made us better than other people. We were just as bad as anybody else. But Christ looked beyond what we were and saw what we could be. It is His love that provided us a way out of the downward spiral of hate we were trapped in. His love gives us hope. In His love, He made us heirs of eternal life.
We are so blessed that it’s easy to forget what we were before Christ rescued us. It’s easy to fall back into the old ways of thinking and doing things. It can be tempting to respond to others with the same hate they display toward us. That’s one reason why we take the time each week to remember Christ’s love. He showed us, in a very practical way, that love triumphs over hate. The bread represents His body which He sacrificed for us. The juice represents His blood which transforms us.
These emblems not only remind us of what Jesus did for us, they also remind us that we too, have an obligation. Because Christ loved us we, too, need to love others – even when they are obnoxious – even when they are hateful. Just as Christ’s love freed us, our love might help someone else break the cycle of hate.
John writes, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:7-12 NIV)
Today as we participate in Communion, let’s not only thank Christ for His love, let’s also renew our commitment to love one another and those around us.